Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a treat for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
I have a soft spot for arepas.
My parents are both Venezuelan, so I grew up eating the cornmeal cakes common in Venezuela and Colombia. They’re a staple consumed at all hours of the day, whether at home, from street vendors, or at restaurants. Basically, they’re used like bread: served simply with a little cheese or butter, used to make sandwiches, or as an accompaniment for a sit-down family meal.
They're also remarkably easy to make. Arepas are made from a precooked white cornmeal called masarepa. (Note: Masarepa is not interchangeable with other types of cornmeal; masarepa is cooked before it is milled, yielding a finer, more flourlike consistency than regular cornmeal, which is milled raw.) And because they're corn-based, arepas are also gluten free.
Masarepa can be a little difficult to find in many parts of the country, but it's easily purchased online (P.A.N. and Goya are common brands). Simply mix it with water and salt to make a quick arepa dough, which can then be deep-fried or cooked on the stove and finished in the oven, as I’ve done here.
A popular Venezuelan sandwich is the reina pepiada, an arepa stuffed with chicken salad and avocado. The sandwich's name is a tribute to a former Miss World from Venezuela, and it loosely translates as “curvy queen.”
Every home or restaurant might have their own take on this chicken salad. My family’s version takes quite a long time to make, which means it’s not all that feasible for a weeknight. For this rendition, I tried to streamline it as much as possible while still retaining the flavor. To start with, I used a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken to keep things easy. If you’re making it from scratch, the traditional version uses poached chicken, but feel free to use any leftover chicken you have on hand.
Other common additions include boiled potatoes, onions, celery, lemon or lime juice, and red peppers—add any of the above and more, as you like. It’s also common to top the sandwiches with queso blanco (literally “white cheese”), or one of several other Venezuelan fresh cheeses. Alternatives include Mexican cotija, queso fresco, or even mozzarella or feta.
The arepas have a dense texture, and the chicken salad is creamy, but it also has a bright piquancy. A fresh white wine with some body seemed in order, so we opted to try a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Portuguese white blend from the Douro.
The Sauvignon Blanc offered plenty of bright citrus and tropical fruit notes, as well as some green pepper; it was juicy and refreshing and made a really solid match, but might have worked even better if the salad had included herbs, green chiles or peppers. The Douro blend had more rounded fruit notes of melon and ripe citrus. It was refreshing too, but also showed more minerality and textural complexity, which ultimately made it the favorite.
Arepas with Venezuelan Chicken Salad
Pair with a well-rounded white blend like Casa Ferreirinha Douro White Planalto Reserva 2015 (88 points, $15) from Portugal, or try a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc like Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc North Canterbury 2015 (89, $16).
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Approximate food costs: $21
- 1 green apple, shredded
- 2 tablespoons vinegar (white or apple cider)
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups roasted chicken, shredded
- 1/4 cup mustard
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup carrots, shredded
- 1 cup peas
- 2 cups masarepa (white corn meal)
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- 2 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil of your choice
- 1 to 2 avocados
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup queso blanco, crumbled (optional)
1. While oven is preheating to 350° F, shred apple using a box grater. Toss with the vinegar to prevent browning.
2. In a large bowl, mix the chicken, mustard, mayonnaise, carrots, peas and apple. Season with salt and pepper to taste. toss well to combine and set aside. (This can be prepped in advance and refrigerated for up to a day or more.)
3. Combine the masarepa with 2 1/2 cups water and teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Knead until the dough is smooth. If dough feels too dry, gradually add more water. Taste and adjust salt. Allow it to rest for 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Divide the dough into approximately 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk to make the arepas. Smooth and mold any cracks that appear. (Tip: To prevent the arepas from sticking, place them on a plastic cutting board, plastic wrap, or parchment paper.)
5. Heat cooking oil in a large pan (cast-iron preferred) over medium heat. Add the arepas, working in batches as needed, and cook for approximately 5 minutes per side, or until they are lightly golden-brown and charred in spots.
6. Transfer the arepas to a baking sheet and finish cooking in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Remove arepas from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Carefully slice them in half, using a dishtowel or paper towel to hold them if they’re hot.
8. Fill the arepas with the chicken salad. Top the chicken salad with sliced avocados and cheese, if desired. Makes 6 sandwiches.