Arepas: Satisfying Latin flatbread is a versatile comfort food

2014-04-16T00:00:00Z Arepas: Satisfying Latin flatbread is a versatile comfort foodBy Gabrielle Fimbres Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Journey through the neighborhoods of Bogota, Colombia, and you are likely to find a dozen different ways to make arepas (ah-REH-pahs).

Travel to Caracas, Venezuela, and you’ll find even more variations on this Latin American comfort food.

Arepas are a simple, satisfying, corn-based flatbread, often cooked on the griddle. It serves as a fine accompaniment to a steaming bowl of soup, or makes a tasty treat served hot with butter and honey. Sliced and stuffed with roasted meats, arepas are the foundation for a hearty meal.

And they are finding fans in Tucson.

Walk through the doors of Contigo Cocina Latina, 1745 E. River Road.

“You are seeing a growing interest in Latin cuisine,” said Deborah Tenino, owner of Contigo. “You see so many people living in Tucson who are from Colombia, Chile and other Latin American countries, especially through the University of Arizona.

“We really wanted to elevate Latin cooking in Tucson, show it off,” said Teninio, whose mother grew up in Brazil.

When Contigo started making arepas a few years ago, Tenino had to order the masarepa — or precooked white maize meal — from Miami. Today, it is available in some local grocery stores and Hispanic markets.

“We have a lot of questions from customers on how to make them at home,” Tenino said.

They require no leavening, and are very low in gluten, making them attractive to gluten-intolerant diners or those with celiac disease.

Making arepas at Contigo is Dana Montenegro, executive chef. She grew up cooking Mexican food with her mother and grandmother, and made the transition to other Latin American specialties when she joined Contigo’s staff.

Most common at Contigo are arepas with a Venezuelan influence. Since the corn is not processed with lime — as it is with corn tortillas — arepas, made from a simple recipe of masarepa flour, water and salt, have a lighter, fluffier texture.

After cooking English-muffin sized arepas on the grill, Montenegro split one, spooned on Brazilian stewed pork, avocado crema and mango salsa, and topped it with the other grilled half. A Latin American slider was born.

Yum.

“It is probably one of our most popular items,” Tenino said. “South American food has layers of flavor that are really wonderful.”

Beans or chicken can be substituted in the dish.

For special occasions, Montenegro makes a slightly sweet, cheesy arepa called Arepas de Choclo that is more traditional in Colombia.

She grinds corn kernels in the blender and adds masarepa flour, sugar, salt, grated cheese and milk. It’s important to use cheese that melts, and Montenegro likes the flavor and texture of a mix of cheddar and jack. Others use Mexican panela cheese or even mozzarella.

Next comes the messy part — mixing it into a dough with your hands.

“A spatula just won’t do it,” Montenegro said. “You really have to work it.”

Montenegro forms balls of dough and pats them into 3-inch discs, which she cooks on the griddle in butter or an olive oil blend.

“It caramelizes more with the sugar and cheese,” she said. “It’s really simple for people to make at home.”

After griddling, the result is a cheesy, slightly sweet, crispy — and fabulous — flatbread.

“Some of the best cooks grew up in Latin kitchens, she said. “So much of Latin food is home involved — Mom and Nana’s cooking — and arepas are a great example of that.”

Basic Arepas

Makes: 12

  • 2 1/2 cups white masarepa flour (Harina PAN suggested brand)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 3/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil

Stir salt into arepa flour. Pour water over flour and mix well. Dough should be moist, but not too wet. Form the dough into a large ball with your hands. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.

Separate the dough into 12 pieces. Shape each piece into a smooth ball. Place each ball between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and flatten gently. Arepas should be about 3 inches in diameter and almost an inch thick. Use your fingers to smooth out any cracks along the edges. Place shaped arepas on platter, covered with plastic wrap. Heat a griddle to medium, placing 1/2 tablespoon butter or oil in the skillet. Place several arepas in the pan, allowing for room to turn.

Cook arepas about 5 minutes on each side. The surface should dry and form a crust. They will brown slightly, but do not let them brown too much. They should look like an English muffin. If they are browning too fast, lower the heat. Add more butter or oil for subsequent batches as needed.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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