So, yeah. Arepas.
I make no bones about the fact that when I taste something good at a restaurant, it inspires me to make it myself. Two years ago, World Street Kitchen's banh mi got me totally into Vietnamese sandwiches. Still am, in fact. Just started another jar of pickled radishes and carrots for future sandwich toppings.
Anyway, this year, I finally got to try the arepas from the Hola Arepas food truck, and that was something else. You want to stuff South American flavors into the middle of a burger-sized griddled corn flour cake? I will let you. And then I'll want to do it myself.
The research told me one thing in particular. You do not make arepas without arepa flour, a partially cooked cornmeal sometimes called masarepa. And the arepa flour of choice and ready availability is Harina PAN. And you buy Harina PAN online.
But wait, I said. I live in a major metropolitan area that, at least by Midwestern standards, is pretty fucking diverse. Surely there must be a local retailer. Google was useless, but I have a Venezuelan workplace acquaintance. And I got hooked up. Not just hooked up, but west metro hooked up. Hopkins main drag. Which means I am ten minutes away from Harina PAN at any given moment.
So, a pair of four poundish bags later, and I was ready for my first attempt. Every recipe had roughly the same ratios. Two cups masarepa. Two and a half cups water. Pinch of salt. Mix, rest, form, fry, bake if they're the thick ones. The devil was in the details.
I do not know how I fucked up the first batch. All I know is, I added two and a half cups of warm water to two cups of masarepa and got GRUEL. Not a nice dough, a fucking porridge. You cannot form a porridge into patties. This is established scientific fact.
So I added flour and more flour and more flour and stirred and eventually got a dough, but I could tell the ratios were all fucked up. The resulting cakes were super-dense, took forever to bake through, and were tough. They tasted good, and they were edible, but there was no splitting them open and making sandwiches out of them. Instead I went open-face with black beans, onions, tomatoes, arugula, cotija, and a mango sauce we'll be discussing soon.
Here's the deal. I am a stubborn nerd. Having fucked up, I wanted to figure out how, and why, and how to fix it. I lasted as long as I could, but by Sunday lunchtime, I was back at it. Here's what worked for me.
Boiling water. Some recipes call for warm water, some call for boiling. First time, I used warm, it went badly, second time, I used boiling, and it went well. I think the hotter water blows up the starch quicker and forms the dough faster.
Stand mixer. Some people can pour water slowly with one hand and stir with the other. I am not one of those people. So the first time, I added all the water and then started stirring vigorously. The second time, I just left the stand mixer going on the lowest setting as I poured the boiling water in slowly. No porridge. No gruel. Just a sticky, sticky dough.
With a stand mixer, you'll be poking and scraping down the dough two to three times over as many minutes, but it works.
Some other things I learned. The dough will be very sticky before the 15 minute rest. Less sticky afterwards. It was still Post-it-note tacky when I formed the patties, but I think that's OK, because that makes for a slightly lighter final product.
Measuring out the dough helps too. Trying to gauge how big to make the patty by hand is probably something that will come with practice, but 1/4 cup for the thinner, Colombian arepas, as many recipes say, works great.
Did I mention thinner arepas? I went with the unsplittable 1/4" patties for two reasons - first, I was hungry, and second, I figured they'd be a bit less likely to go wrong. A five minute skillet fry on each side is supposed to be enough to get them to done, and so if I do that, and it gets to done, then the ten minute fry plus fifteen minute bake for the splittable, thicker, Venezuelan-style arepas should also work. In the future.
The new arepas were lighter. Arepas are toothsome, there's no leavening or anything to them, after all, but there's a difference between toothsome and crispy, and tough and hard. Plus, since I had the right salt ratio, they were more flavorful. I think doubling the portion and the thickness should do the trick to give me something I can stuff with delicious goodness and top with an homage/pastiche of Hola Arepa's hola sauce.