Arepas – fluffy, golden-brown corn meal cakes – are the sandwiches made of late-night cravings and Sunday afternoon family gatherings. And ask any New Yorker where they get their fix for the Venezuelan staple and you’ll get a simple answer: Caracas Arepas.
Caracas Arepas Bar – a tiny shop tucked away in one of the East Village’s notoriously streets – has single-handedly made the arepa crave-worthy for hipsters, South Americans and Wall Street denizens alike. Co-owner Maribel Aruajo says it’s fun to look at the success that’s allowed her to open three outposts of the original restaurant, but the journey that lead her to transform the humble patty to creative culinary heights wasn’t easy.
“When I first arrived to New York from Caracas, all I wanted was an arepa just the way mom used to make,” confessed Aruajo. Once a dot.com worker bee, Aruajo entered the independent film industry when the tech bubble burst and all the while, dreamt of her mother’s arepas while working long hours on set. So she called her mother up, asked for her recipe and noticing a dearth of Venezuelan restaurants on the New York culinary scene, opened up Caracas Arepas Bar in 2003.
“Honestly, I thought I would work less hours,” giggles Aruajo, who, with partner Aristides Barrios, now owns four locations of the eatery, made popular thanks to Aruajo’s tech and social media savvy.
And while the best-selling arepa at Caracas is the traditional Venezuelan “De Pabellon” style dressed up with the addition of shredded beef, black beans, white cheese and fried platanos, Aruajo says the restaurant’s success lies in the perfect simplicity of its core product: the perfect arepa.
“The secret? It’s whipping the cornmeal and liquid with plenty of air, taking your time to blend the ingredients carefully,” Aruajo divulged. The restaurant staff then grills each arepa and bakes them to crispy perfection, not entirely unlike the method the native Indians in Venezuela used as they cooked the corn flour cakes in a clay grill pan they called the “aripo.”
Swayed by the fact that she can’t possibly pack all of NBC Latino’s readers in the original location’s twenty-odd seats, Aruajo gave us her time-tested, family’s recipe for making the perfect arepas and fixings to make your very own “De Pabellon” arepa. Authentic, delicious, and utterly perfect.
Caracas Arepas Bar “De Pabellon” arepa
Yield: 4-8 arepas depending on their size
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
2 cups Corn flour (you can find corn flour at the Hispanic grocery stores or markets, it has to be pre-cooked)
2 Tb Canola oil
½ oz Salt
2 1/2 cups of lukewarm water
Carne mechada (Shredded Beef):
1 lb Eye round
1 medium size Spanish onion
2 Red peppers bell
6 Jalapeno peppers
6 cloves Garlic
16 oz Tomato paste
2 Tb Worcestershire sauce
4 oz Panela or sugar cane
4 Tb Butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Caraotas Negras (Black Beans):
½ lb Black beans
1 medium size Spanish onion
1 Red pepper
4 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Cumin
4 oz Panela or sugar cane
1 Sweet Ripe Plantains
4 oz. Oil
White salty cheese – We use Cotija Cheese (Mexican) since it is the most similar to our Venezuelan “Queso de Año.” Just grind it.
For the shredded beef:
Simmer the beef until tender, about three hours. Add more, water or beef broth if the meat appears too dry. Remove from heat, let it cool, and then pull apart to shred. Save some stock.
For the sauce, Heat the oil in a casserole until hot to first make a “sofrito”, add the onions, garlic, jalapeños and red peppers, in the canola oil, then add the “panela” and let the first ingredients caramelize for 5 minutes, then add the Worcestershire sauce and let it simmer for 5 more, add some beef broth, tomato paste and butter to make the sauce and then the meat.
Salt and pepper to taste.
For the beans:
Simmer all the ingredients together, about 3 hours.
Salt and pepper, to taste.
For the plantains:
Slice the plantains in long slices (diagonal) and deep fry them until they are caramelized and dark brown
For the arepas:
In a bowl, put the water and salt and mix it. Then take the flour in to the water very slowly and keep working with your fingers in order to get a smooth dough. Once you poured all the water, work with your two hands in the dough.
When the dough is smooth and soft let it rest for about three minutes and then check the texture by making a ball with your hands. If you see the ball is cracking that means that needs more water if it stays in your hands and is hard to manipulate, that means that you need to add more flour
Once you reach the perfect texture add the oil and work in the dough again for a couple of minutes until the oil is blended.
Now you can have a frying pan in the burner with just a little oil to avoid the dough to stick to it. Moderate flame please.
Important Tip: every time that you are handling the dough your hands should be wet and try not to keep dough on your palms
Grab an amount of dough that can fit in your hand and make a ball with your two hands. It should be a solid and smooth ball. Then start passing the ball from one hand to the other in order to make a flat round cake (1-inch thick) and put it on the frying pan.
Keep it there for a few minutes until the coat is done and then flip it to the other side for the same procedure. The coat should be golden brown spots.
At this point your oven should be at 375 degrees F and once you have the coats done place the arepa in the oven for another 10 minutes, you can check it by grabbing the arepa and playing drums with your index and middle fingers, if it sound like a drum then is ready!!!
Take it out, open it and stuff it with whatever you want. In this case: shredded beef, black beans, fried sweet plantains and aged white cheese.
You can take all the dough out or just a little… Is up to you!!!!
Arepa de Pabellon – Assembly:
Once you have the arepa out of the oven, you have to open it up and take some or all of the dough out (up to your taste) and create layers with the shredded beef, then the beans, the plantain’s slices (2 to 4) and then a tablespoon or two of the white salty cheese and voila!