I was first introduced to Arepas at a street fair in Key West. This flat bread made with precooked corn meal originated in Venezuela, but has since spread all over South America, South Florida and now…South Arlington. These tender flavorful and deceptively simple corn cakes are inexpensive and easy to make. My friend Paula and I put these together for a teachers meal at our daughters’ school. We used the mysteriously named “quesadilla melting cheese” from the Five Star Hispanic Market along with seasoned black beans, cilantro and caramelized onions. We call them South Arlington style.
Here’s what you need to need to make 18-24 small arepas:
- 4 cups instant cornmeal (See Note)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 1/2 – 6 cups boiling water
- 5 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 15.5 oz. can black beans, partially drained
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- couple of grates of pepper
- 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 cup caramelized onions
- 12 oz. quesadilla melting cheese or monterey jack (2 cups grated)
- OPTIONAL: Hot Sauce (not pictured)
NOTE: This recipe requires precooked cornmeal available at hispanic markets. This product goes by different names and brands, for instance “masarepa”, or “masa precocida”. We used “maseca” also identified as “instant”. This is NOT “polenta” or “masa harina”.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
Mix 4 cups cornmeal and 1 teaspoon kosher salt then add 5 1/2 cups of boiling water.
Stir with a wooden spoon until all the water is absorbed. Add the additional 1/2 cup of water if it seems dry.
Cover with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest. After 10 minutes, scoop out approximately 1/4 cup of the dough and form into a ball with wet hands. I used a #16 ice cream scoop.
Form the ball into a disk about 3 inches wide and 1/2-3/4 inches thick. Place the disks on pan or griddle greased with canola oil. Cook for about 5-7 minutes on each side or until they are slightly brown. Ours got a little cracked around the edge, which is apparently not ideal. I made arepas again a few days later and used more water and had a better result. This recipe reflects the additional water.
To recreate the proper ambiance for this moment, Paula and I recommend you listen to the Biggie Smalls remix of Party in the USA while a small boy “naps” on the kitchen floor.
Transfer the grilled arepas to a cookie sheet and cook in a 400 degree F oven for 15-20 minutes. They will sound slightly hollow when tapped. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly.
In the meantime, grate the cheese.
To make the beans, drain the beans reserving a little of the can water then pour all of this into a saucepan. Add 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and a couple of grates of pepper. If you prefer more spice, add a couple of dashes of hot sauce.
Cut a slit in each arepas and open them up on one side. Although crispy on the outside, the arepas are soft and warm on the inside. Mmmmm.
If they are thick, you may want to scrape out a little of the soft interior to make more room before you stuff them with cheese, black beans, caramelized onions and chopped cilantro.
Of course, Arepas lend themselves to all sorts of fillings from plain cheese to pulled pork to scrambled eggs. Anything you could put in a sandwich could go inside.