My family, like most Venezuelan families, has been eating arepas for as long as I can remember. It felt like there was a never-ending supply of these white corn cakes when we lived in Venezuela -- we ate them with every meal, every day. My parents had plain arepas with their morning coffee, we would have them on the side if there was soup for lunch, and with whatever meat and rice we were eating for dinner (they come in very handy when trying to wipe deliciousness off a plate at the end of a meal). We also stuff them with our favorite fillings to have as sandwiches. When we moved to the States, there were a couple of years when I thought I was too cool for arepas, but my mother insisted on making them every Sunday to preserve our traditions and culture. Now I'm so grateful that she did. This is how she makes them.
Combine the arepa flour with the salt in a large bowl. Spread your fingers apart and make a claw with one hand and start circling the flour mixture while adding 1/2 cup water with your other hand. Make a fist a couple of times to bring the clumps of dough together, then squeeze to break apart any remaining larger dough pebbles. Repeat 3 more times, adding 1/2 cup water each time (for 2 cups water total) to the dry spots of the dough, squeezing out the pebbles, and combining the larger clumps.
After the final addition of water, bring the dough together and incorporate any flour left in the bowl. Make a fist to squeeze the dough through your fingers and repeat until no more clumps remain. Bring the dough together again and let rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
Poke a couple of holes in the dough and add 2 tablespoons water, then knead again. The goal is to get the dough dry enough so it doesn't stick to your hands or the side of the bowl, but not so dry that it cracks when you squeeze a little chunk of it between your fingers. If necessary, add 2 more tablespoons of water and knead to combine one more time. If the dough is too wet, sprinkle a flour in a little at time, then mix to combine. Let rest, uncovered, for another 5 minutes.
Heat a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat and lightly grease with an oiled paper towel.
Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces -- each should weigh about 4 1/2 ounces. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk about 3 1/2 inches wide and 1 inch tall. According to my mother, if the edges crack a little while flattening the disk, your dough is too dry. If this happens, add another tablespoon or 2 of water and let rest again.
Working in batches, if necessary, place the disks in a single layer in the skillet and cook until a golden-brown crust has formed on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Flip and repeat on the other side, 5 minutes more. Reoil the skillet for each additional batch.
Place the arepas directly on the oven racks and bake until crusty all over and the insides feel slightly hollowed out, 20 to 25 minutes. (Or if you're my mother, until you tap them 3 times, like a drum, and hear a deep “poh poh poh.”)
Serve immediately, plain, or with your favorite fillings. You can cut the arepas in half to make two half-moon pockets, or lay them flat, and cut halfway through the side to make one large round pocket. My favorite fillings are black beans, queso duro (aged, hard cheese) and crema, or the classic Reina Pepiada filling. Alternatively, you can store the arepas in a resealable plastic bag at room temperature for 3 to 4 days, or in the freezer, where they'll last for months.
Reina Pepiada (Chicken-Avocado Salad)
Combine the avocado, mayonnaise and lime juice in a medium bowl and mix, mashing the avocado with a fork as necessary. Stir in the onion, chicken, cilantro (if using), a sprinkle of pepper and a generous sprinkle of salt. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Serve with arepas and garnish with hot sauce, if you're into that.
Look for arepa flour at a market that carries Latin American products.
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