Something you might not know about me is that I have two part time jobs. I’m lucky because both are great. The are fun, intellectually stimulating, and I get to run around and don’t have to sit behind a desk. I also have flexible hours so sometimes I get home really early, and sometimes I sleep in late. But, the downside of this is that I often work on the weekends resulting in a 6-day work week and a 1-day weekend. So, imagine my great surprise and delight when my bosses and lady luck smiled down on me and gave me ALL of Memorial Day weekend off. That’s three days off! IN. A. ROW. It was greatness. And it gave me a lot of time to play in the kitchen. I made a spicy carrot and beef tagine, lemon squares, strawberry sorbet, pizza, cookies, and arepas.
Arepas are fried dough, and Ryan and I liken them to Puerto Rican latkes. Other Latin American places besides Puerto Rico have latkes, but we’re focusing on my family’s recipe today so we’re calling them Puerto Rican. I’ve been researching how to make arepas for almost a month, and the long weekend gave me the chance to final dive in and make them.
Let me say, before we get in too deep, that for me, this is a recipe in progress. Think of it as “Arepas 1.0.” The recipe I’m going to give you is a complete recipe that you can make and enjoy. But my quest isn’t done, because I’m trying to channel the arepas recipe that my grandmother used to make. My grandmother passed away a number of years ago, so while this recipe is delicious and works well, it’s not exactly the way I remember. So I’m going to continue tinkering and testing, and will update accordingly. I’m working on memories and tradition, and so maybe my nostalgia is un-achievable, but I’m having fun trying. Now, before we get into the recipe, let me back up and tell you about why trying this is so important to me.
I started cooking regularly, and with interest, about 2 1/2 years ago when I moved to New York. Before that I “cooked” in that I could make pasta, cook a chicken breast in a skillet, and heat a box of rice. But I didn’t know how to make anything that was a little bit special. When I moved to New York I wanted to try my hand at cooking because it was the first time I was living alone in a non-collegey atmosphere. Also, New York is expensive so cooking at home would be cheaper, and my apartment was only a few blocks from the Union Square Farmer’s Market, which is year round and has a huge variety.
But, also I started cooking, because I’m a little crazy. I was living in a new place, and when I thought about what felt like home, a lot of memories had to do with my favorite meals. And then I had a realization that I didn’t know how to cook anything that my future family might like, ask for, or long for. Now, I was a single girl (to be clear I was dating Ryan, so I was single in the government forms check box sense of the word) in New York, but I was worrying about the needs of my future family. A husband I didn’t yet have, and children that were non-existent. I was twenty-five, and crazily worrying about feeding future people.
So I started to learn how to cook. And in lieu of family, I fed classmates and friends. But all that prep paid off! I’m now happy to say that me and Ryan, my little family of two, has a few go-to recipes. There are meals now that Ryan requests or is happy to see when he gets home. Now that I have some of my own recipes, I’ve become interested in tackling some of my family’s existing recipes. Some recipes I’ve made, like my mom’s apple pie or the arroz con gandules that Titi Lisa (Aunt Lisa) brings to Thanksgiving every year. And some I haven’t gotten to yet, like Papa’s breakfast cornmeal.
But arepas have becomes especially important in part because they come from a potentially a lost recipe. As far as I know, when my Abuela (grandmother) passed away, no one knew her arepa recipe exactly. Her arepas were crispy, airy, and delicious. They were perfect for stuffing with rice and beans or eating solo and dipping them in the bean sauces. We only had arepas if we were visiting her, or if she sent some pre-made dough back home with us. They were somewhat special because we didn’t have them all the time. But mostly, they were so tasty. I would easily wolf down 3 or 4 in a sitting.
Now it’s funny that I covet this recipe so heavily because my abuela wasn’t known for her cooking. Her arepas were amazing, her rice and beans were good, and everything else was… not good. I liked going to her house because she had grape soda, which I had never seen anywhere else. And she bought us fried chicken buckets from KFC, which also wasn’t something I had at home. And for dessert she’d give us those little cups of ice cream, half chocolate and half vanilla, with a little wooden spoon. But she didn’t really cook and even heating things up didn’t always go well. I remember an Eggo waffle that was hot on the outside but rock hard on the inside. Eric, my brother, and I sawed at them until Papa gently suggested that maybe we should eat something else.
Most importantly though, my abuela was awesome. She was the first person I knew who lived in an apartment, and didn’t have a car, and walked everywhere. I thought that was cool, and scary, and unusual, but amazing. I’m totally convinced to this day that she could have wrestled a bear and won, because she was strong and had such a fierce personality. She liked to crochet and made pretty dolls and covers for tissue boxes. But she was also into WWE wrestling, following the story lines closely. Each time we visited she gave us gift bags full of fun goodies she bought at the dollar store. Things like puzzle books, pens that you can click to change the ink color, and crazy socks. And looking back now, I think she filled her home with things that just made her happy – no matter how silly. She wore sparkly shoelaces in her sneakers, she had a fake bearskin rug – complete with bear head, and she had a sign in her bathroom that said “if you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.” She had a print of Picasso’s Femme, which is basically a few lines that make a picture of a butt. I thought it was hilarious and awesome. She was loving, quirky, and passionate and it was fun to visit her.
So, I feel like by making her arepas it’s a nice way to cherish her warm, quirky, and unique memory. By doing this, I can feel close to her and remember all the lovely things about her.
Also, not only does this recipe make me feel closer to my grandmother, it’s brought me to my parents and my aunt. In preparation for this I reached out to my Titi Mari for advice, and she provided me with the recipe below. I also asked Papa what he remembered about the arepas. Then I made my first batch and sent my mom a picture with no information except, “looks good right?” She called me almost immediately exclaiming, “are those AREPAS?!” And so we had a nice talk about what had worked well and what I could do next.
And my arepas came out pretty darn good. We each ate two the first day. And I’ve been having them for lunch at work, greedily scooping up beans and rice and wishing I had brought more. I find myself budgeting the arepas so I have at least a few bites saved for the end of the meal. They tasted crispy and golden, with some doughy parts, just like I remembered. But they weren’t airy with pockets for beans. So I will push on and try again.
I hope you think of trying this recipe. Or, better yet, what’s a meal you love from your childhood? What gives you a happy memory? Whatever that is, I think that’s a recipe you should try. Hopefully we all have a happy food memory. So why not try and recreate it?
1/2 lb all purpose flour
2 oz lard
8 oz salted water (salted to your taste, I used 2 tsp and Ryan said it could use more)
Now, when I read this recipe from my aunt I said to myself, “lard?!” Lard can definitely make things delicious but it’s not popular any more. It’s texture’s a bit weird in the tub, it’s high in calories, and the fact that it’s pig fat (yeah, if you didn’t know, lard is pig fat) is a little off putting when you think about making pies or other meals. But I was going to try my damnedest to do it like my abuela, so I went on a quest for lard.
I usually show at Trader Joe’s, and they didn’t have lard. I then walked to Whole Foods thinking that foodies shop there and so might need lard, even though it goes against the healthy vibe. I had read that lard can be hard to find so I searched in the butter section, the baking section, the ethnic food section, and then finally to the meat counter. I went to the meat counter and had this conversation:
Me: Do you have lard?
Lady at the Counter: What?
Me: Lard? (In my head: sigh, if she doesn’t know what lard is I’ll never find it!)
Lady at the Counter gave me a confused face
Second Lady at the Counter jumped in and said she’d help me. She took me to the shortening, which she said I could use as a substitute. It was on the bottom shelf below all the cooking oils. I was feeling a little deflated and I called Papa to confirm that I could use shortening. He said yes, he had seen his mom do that. So that’s what I used. But I’m told lard is the best and can make the arepas more flaky. Next time I’ll do more searching and find lard. If you don’t want to use lard, use shortening or butter.
1. In a small bowl mix the water and salt. Stir to help the salt dissolve.
2. Put the flour in a medium bowl. Cut in the lard/shortening/butter.
3. Pour a little bit of the water (I did 2 tbsp at a time) into the flour. Mix with your hands. You want to add water until you have a dough that does not stick to your hands. You may not need all 8oz of water. If the dough gets too wet, add a little flour to dry it out.
4. Form discs with the dough. I made about 8 discs and they were about 1/2 inch thick. Put them on a plate, not touching each other. Let sit for 30 minutes.
5. Pour a thick layer of vegetable oil in a deep skillet. You’re deep frying, so pour as much oil as you’re comfortable with. Heat on medium to medium-high. Your oil is hot enough when a.) you flick water at it and it pops and bubbles or b.) you put a little of bread in the oil and it floats, not sinks.
6. Fry the arepas in the oil, flipping occasionally, until both sides are golden brown. If you’re nervous about frying oil, I totally get it. Oil can pop and splash up and even one little fleck can hurt a bit. To avoid lots of splatter when you put in the arepas, here’s a tip: use the side of the pan as a slide. Gently nudge the dough disk over the side of the pan and down the edges. It will slide in nicely to the oil.
7. Once cooked, put arepas on a paper towel to drain off excess oil.
8. Serve with rice and beans! Or even, eat it alone. I knew I was on the right track to making my abuela’s recipe when I was ravenously eating the arepas alone and wishing I had more to scarf down.
At the suggestion of my friend Charlotte, the new feature for Cooking is Messy is the “messy meter,” to help show how messy these recipes are. The scale is measured in dirty spoons, with one dirty spoon being low level messy, and five dirty spoons being high level messy. Hope you enjoy the new messy meter!
I’m going to call this medium. It’s messy first because you have to put your hands in and work the dough. If you over water the dough it gets really soupy, sticky, and sort of nasty on your hands. Also, oil is just a bit messy to clean up. It pops and splatters so you have oil on your stove top and on your apron (yeah I wear an apron). Also, cleaning up oil just takes a bit of work. However, you only need one bowl, one pot, and a spatula to make this recipe so the clean up really is minimal.