One of the gifts of going gluten-free, continuously, is discovering foods I never knew existed.
This strange paradox strikes me, nearly every day: when I thought I could eat everything, my diet was fairly limited. I ate the same twelve or fourteen meals, in some semblance of order, over and over. Restaurant experiences provided me tastes that puzzled my mouth until I figured out what they were. But that’s where adventurous eating stayed: restaurants and visits to other countries, occasionally. At home, I ate tentatively, safely.
(I never felt well enough to dance in the kitchen.)
Now, knowing that I cannot eat any gluten, I reach out my hands for foods I may never have seen before. If I know a food does not have gluten, I’m trying it. And how my world has broadened.
Sometimes people write to me and say, “Your recipes sound lovely. But sometimes they just seem so…exotic. And extravagant. Why do I need all those extra ingredients?” Well, you don’t need ume plum vinegar or teff flour or pomegranate molasses to live well. But once you’ve had a taste, you might never return to that narrow place you were sitting.
And the funny thing is — once you taste the foods that seem “exotic,” you realize that some of them are so simple in their preparation that can’t imagine how you haven’t been making them all your life.
I heard about arepas first through Matthew, who remembered a visit to Caracas with his grandfather. Corn cakes? No gluten? I want some. But I couldn’t quite picture them, having never eaten one. I stored the idea in the bulging file closet in the back of my mind, and moved on.
And then, a few weeks ago, our friend Karen placed a basket full of oven-hot arepas before us when we went over for dinner. The warm corn smell, the steam rising to my nose, and the thick little hockey-puck shape made me lean toward that basket, willing dinner to be ready, now, so I could eat some.
A single bite with butter and cheese made me hunger for one of these, every day.
Yesterday, Karen kindly invited me into her kitchen again, and allowed me to take photographs as she prepared some arepas. She and I both agreed: everyone should be eating these, and not just those of us who are gluten-free.
(Except, of course, for the folks who cannot eat corn. Sorry about that one.)
Karen’s mother is from Venezuela, where people eat arepas with every meal. These little cakes made of white cornmeal show up on every table, all day long. Karen spoke eloquently of little roadside stands with a perpetually fresh batch of arepas, where people who need a little hit between meals can stand outside and sigh in that smell.
When Karen’s mother moved to New York from Venezuela, when she was about 10, she hungered for her daily arepas. But her family couldn’t find the pre-cooked cornmeal needed to make these, the way their hands remembered. Karen’s mother only ate her arepas when her family came from Venezuela for a visit. And as she grew older, and she returned to her home, she always come back to New York with a suitcase stuffed full of foods she needed for meals to feel familiar.
Luckily, now, the pre-cooked white cornmeal is fairly easily available in the US now. Karen told me to advise you: look for P.A.N. in Latin markets in your town, and online. If you like what you see here, I suggest you find some. (Here in Seattle, the little Mexican market in the middle of Pike Place generally carries this brand.)
So, how do we make them?
“Start with 2 1/2 cups of lukewarm water,” Karen told me. “Not so hot to burn your hand, but not at all cold.”
Add a pinch of salt, a burble of vegetable oil. And then start pouring in the cornmeal.
“Why are you mixing it with your hand, instead of a spoon?” I asked her.
She looked at me over her shoulder, with a devilish grin. “You know already. You’re the same kind of cook as me. You need to feel it.”
With your hand, you can feel the lumps dissipating into the water. Just get in there and do the work.
“Ladies, take off your rings. This is messy work.”
Be sure to keep one hand out of the water while you’re mixing, so it’s not sticky with dough as well.
“I’m just guessing this,” said Karen, “because I don’t know the scientific reasoning. But I just know from my hands that you don’t want to overwork the dough.”
You don’t want the dough too dry and starchy, because even when it seems to be entirely mixed, it stiffens as it sits.
The final mound that you pat into place should feel like wet clay, but a bit grainy.
And if your dough is too wet, it will stick to your hand, like this.
If you want, you can allow the dough to sit for awhile before making the arepas. (I don’t really know why you wouldn’t eat them right away, however.) Be sure to lay a wet cloth over the top of the bowl, so it doesn’t all dry out and crackle.
This dough will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days. But no longer. After awhile, you can smell it fermenting, and that’s rarely appetizing.
Once you start making them, says Karen, you will eat them every day. So it’s good to have a mound of ready dough within easy reach.
When you are ready to make the arepas, form a small ball in your hands, about the same size you see above.
And then flatten the ball into a little puck, like the one you see above.
If the dough is too dry, the edges of this cake will start to crack. Start again, add some more water, and form a coherent and easy-to-work-with ball this time. If the dough is too wet, add a small amount of flour, just a touch, and mix it in. “If you add too much, you’ll have to add more water, and then more flour, and then more water. You could go that way all day long.”
“It takes practice,” said Karen. “It really does. You might not get this the first time. Don’t worry. Try again.”
“It took me until I was in my 20s until I started learning how to make these well. I was always intimidated by the process. And I knew I could always get my mom to do it, if I was hungry.”
Karen told me this as she deftly smoothed the edges of the arepa with the side of her hand. I just loved watching the care she took, how slowly she paid attention to every inch of the edge.
Making food by hand like this? It’s an entirely different process than eating convenience food.
This one is ready.
The finished arepa cake should be nice and round. “Not too thick, or it will take you a million years to cook the damn thing,” Karen laughed.
Put them on a griddle pan, if you have one. “My mom uses cast-iron, with just enough oil to wipe the bottom of the pan.” But if you don’t have one of those, a good non-stick pan will work fine.
Make sure you use something that can go into the oven. Oh, and turn that on, at this point.
The heat of the burner should be mild, no more than medium. Too hot and the arepas will scorch. You don’t want that. The outsides should form a little brown crust, a firm surface, but the insides need to cook as well.
“Be patient,” Karen said. “It’s worth it.”
When the bottoms have become firm and lightly golden brown (on Karen’s stove that was about seven minutes), flip them over, carefully.
The second side will take awhile, too. Perhaps another ten minutes. If the arepas are starting to smell strongly of corn, turn the heat down. You need those insides to cook as well.
And then the arepas have to cook in the oven for awhile. (Oops. I forgot to tell this. Set the oven on 350°.) Sigh. There’s that patience thing again.
While they are baking, sit down at the table with your friend. Karen sliced up tomatoes and covered the juicy redness with fresh garlic and basil. The sun appeared outside, from behind clouds. Life was fine.
Especially when she put butter and cheese on the table.
Finally (okay, they were probably fifteen minutes in the oven), the arepas were done. Karen sliced one open with a small, sharp knife. (I think it’s possible she only uses it to cut open arepas.)
See how the insides are slightly doughy? Enough that just a bit sticks to the knife? That’s what you want. Baked any more and the rest would taste dry.
And you can tell when the arepas are done by tapping on them. If they sound hollow, it’s time to eat.
“I always, always put butter on them,” said Karen. “Not matter what else I put on top, it’s butter first.”
Really, you could stuff your arepas with anything you want. The morning after we ate dinner with Karen and Shawn, the Chef and I filled our leftovers with the corned beef we had intended to eat for St. Patrick’s Day. Oh god. We also dipped these into cumin-spiced black beans that had been simmered for hours. Karen said her mom makes a sweetened version of arepas with anise seeds and brown sugar. “It will rock your world.” So, apparently, will the traditional tangy chicken salad with avocado called reina pepiada.
But really, the possibilities are limitless.
“Arepas taste like crispy fluffy pockets of joy to me,” said Karen, laughing at her inability to express it in any other terms. “When I eat one, I think of all my visits to Venezuala with my mother. They taste like those visits, a reminiscence. Every visit comes out in each bite.”
Watching her face settle into calm as she talked made me want to visit Venezuela, with her, as soon as possible.
“I’m so satisfied by the fact that I can do this for myself and other people,” Karen told me. “I’ve very recently become proud of my ability to make them.”
We both hope that, soon, you will be proud of your ability to make them too.
Addendum: Since I wrote this post in 2008, PAN changed its packaging. It now says that PAN could contain wheat. Please do not buy PAN if you have celiac. I’m looking for a suitable substitute. Any suggestions? I want to make arepas again!
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups pre-cooked white cornmeal (Karen recommends P.A.N.)
As far as the technique goes, oh, I’m not going to write it all out again here. Check out the photos above and follow along. This is a physical experience, not one of words. Try these, and then try them again.
You won’t be disappointed.