A high-pitched voice called out, “Arepa, Arepa, Arepa de Maiz!”
The ‘Parade of the Three Kings’ was heading our way and our son was marching with his South Miami High School band. Justin normally played the viola back in those days, but he surprised me as he hefted a huge drum and beat on it with energy and precision while he and his bandmates proceeded in musical celebration past us while tears of pride fell on my chest.
Many years have passed since that day but that parade remains very important to our Cuban community in that it was begun when Castro outlawed Christmas (!) as well as the Three Kings parades in Cuba in the early 1970’s. Little children around me were busy throwing exploding, ball-type firecrackers against the hot pavement of Calle Ocho. I moved my wife Janet and myself toward a slightly quieter spot in the shade of a building as a steady hunger now beat in me.
The eager, multi-ethnic street vendors were hawking variously interesting, enticing and aromatic things. Clouds of hot smoke wafted over their simple, portable kitchens as they shifted food over grills and griddles! Almost over-sized wooden skewers laden with marinated meats including lamb and beef were being tended to by some Argentines in festive cowboy hats in one stall. Fat, dripping, porky sausages on buns caught my attention next and I could see Janet’s eyes widening too! Classic, twice-fried tostones with a choice of salsas became a consideration.
But I always like to begin a wandering street-feast like this one by laying down a foundation with the earthy, Indian-Latino mixture known as arepa. Arepa are made simply from corn-based arepa flour, milk, butter and a generous supply of cheese.
The fuel of a cortadito would be wonderful and not so nerve-rattling with the arepa settling into my previously empty belly.
There is a liberating aspect to eating outside on the street that brings a cardinal energy that simply isn’t felt in the tranquility of a restaurant where you sit down and put a napkin on your lap. The immediacy of it, the energy, the proximity of customer to cook, it is a dance between seduction, decision, transaction and gratification!
We have moved far past the thinking that ‘fine cooking’ comes from restaurants with white tablecloths. The “food truck” phenomenon has hit a nerve. I’m happy about this ‘democratization’ of the food experience in America. I’ve sat around with a group of other chefs operating restaurants that take a staff of 40 and heard most say the same thing. “I think I’m just gonna open up a food truck and return to my roots, man.”
On that day of the Three Kings Parade I envisioned what I might do with an arepa-based food truck!
The great food writer Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz tells us that “the arepa are unique in the world of bread since they are made with cooked flour. Dried corn kernels are boiled with lime, (to loosen the skins), then the kernels are drained and ground, and, if not for immediate use, are dried and packaged as flour.
It fascinates me how ancient cultures figured all of these things about corn out and we are luckier for it. That Sunday in Calle Ocho I was one of the lucky ones. It was great to see my son with his big drum, marching down the street in his ‘Sergeant Pepper’ uniform.
Maybe I was not one of the Three Kings, but I sure was feeling like one.
Yield: 15-16 (3 inch) Arepas
Arepas are rich, cheese-topped cornmeal cakes and wonderful in a rather hedonistic way, though you might not know it if your only prior experience of them comes from Latin American street fairs and carnivals. I adore these cakes and look for all manner of ways in which to use them. Try them with a lean bowl of chicken soup or Sopa de Pavo or a bowl of chili.
Arepa flour, also called masarepa, harina de pan and areparina, is finely ground precooked white cornmeal, available in Latin American markets.
1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted, plus about 2 tablespoons for sautéing the cheese
1 1/2 cups arepa flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Canola oil for panfrying
10 ounces queso blanco, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Pour the milk into a medium saucepan, add the butter, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.
When the milk is just warm enough for you to touch, put the flour and salt in a medium bowl and add a little of the warm milk. Knead briefly, then add some more milk and knead again, continuing the process until all the milk is incorporated and you have a smooth dough. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Place a small bowl of water by your work surface. Pull off large pieces of dough and roll into balls approximately 1 1/2 inches across; keep shaped balls covered with the damp cloth as you work. Flatten each ball into a disk about 1/4 inch thick, dipping your fingers in the bowl of water and smoothing the frayed edges of the disks as you go. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp cloth until ready to cook.
In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat just enough canola oil to cover the bottom of the pan and heat over medium heat until hot. Cook the disks, in batches, turning once, until golden and crisp. Drain on paper towels.
Wipe out the pan and add just enough butter to coat the bottom. Sauté the cheese slices, in batches, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Lay each slice atop an arepa, and serve immediately.