Eat. Meat. Repeat.
I knew there would be a number of my favorite foods I'd have to leave behind when I relocated from New York to North Carolina. I thought one of them was going to be my beloved arepas—Venezuelan stuffed corn cakes—from Arepas Cafe in Astoria, but once I got down to Durham, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were actually a couple areapa spots in town. Both ended up being fine, but fell short of matching the quality and combinations of Arepas Cafe and ultimately left a hole in my heart. This led me to try my hand at arepa making over the winter, and to my surprise, it wasn't difficult at all to make ones that came close to what I consider ideal. I've been so overjoyed with this discovery that I wanted to share what I consider the pinnacle of arepas with all my friends here in North Carolina, so made the first Meatwave of the 2016 season one that celebrated these Venezuelan specialities and a more.
The arepas I was making over the winter I cooked first in a cast iron pan to get them crispy, then finished them up in the oven. I figured I could replicate this process on the grill by first cooking these patties made from masa harina and water over direct heat until they had a taut and hard exterior, then moving them to indirect heat to finish up. This worked very well and I was able to make arepas en masse, which came in handy when cooking for 12-15 people.
With a bounty of arepas, I set out mainly to recreate the two I ordered the most often from Arepas Cafe. The first of those was the Reina—avocado chicken salad. I've seen recipes for Reina arepas that include a fair amount of ingredients, but I kept mine really simple with only poached chicken breasts, avocado, mayonnaise, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper. I think the simplicity makes it all the better and this was pretty damn close to perfect with it's creamy and fresh flavored filling contrasted with the crunchy arepa wrapper.
The second is what Arepas Cafe calls the Guyanesa Tropical—sweet plantains, avocado slices, and queso blanco. It's a combo that's even more simple and even more delicious than the Reina, which leaves me dumbfounded that no one will make it here in Durham (I got one close to this though by ordering a meat areapa and asking them to hold the meat—a request that utterly confused the waitress). My triumph here was finally making great maduros at home, which I only did by cheating and buying those frozen ones Goya makes—they're just so much sweeter and softer than ones I've tried from scratch using overripe plantains.
Those were the only two arepas I set out to make, but I had a whole line up stuffings so people could compile any arepa their heart desired. This was my creation that included black beans, grilled skirt steak, and longhorn cheddar. It was so tasty that it deserves a whole blog post dedicated to it, so keep your eyes peeled for that soon.
Now I can't eat arepas without a side of tequeños. These Venezuelan cheese sticks give mozzarella sticks a run for their money with their salty queso blanco wrapped in a pastry shell. Trying not to order tequeños any time I see them on a menu is an exercise in futility.
When doing some research on other Venezuelan eats, I came across pepitos and knew I had to make them. These seem to be pretty ubiquitous sandwiches around Venezuela, but I had never seen or had one before. From what I gather, there isn't a hard and fast tradition on these, but a common pepito might include lettuce, tomato, meat, parmesan cheese, potato sticks, and sauces. This one here is stuffed with marinated and grilled skirt steak and sauced with mayo and ketchup. Altogether, it was a killer combo.
I did a chicken version as well where I held the ketchup and used guasacaca—avocado salsa—instead. Just the couple changes here made a big difference, giving this pepito a lighter, fresher flavor than its beefy brother.
While I had steak, plantains, and sauces on hand, I figure why not go for broke and make yet another item. I've had a persistent idea to make some meaty hors d'oeuvres using tostones—fried green plantains—as an edible holding vessel for a long time, but only tried it out now. It worked incredibly well, with the plantains giving a great crunch to the combo of skirt steak, gusacaca, and Matouk's West Indian Hot Sauce (which is probably the best hot sauce in the world).
With an early onset of spring, strawberries are already in high season here. Kristin and I picked up a giant ass container of them form the farmer's market on Saturday morning, then she turned about half of those into this incredible strawberry balsamic pie. I swear each pie Kristin makes is better than the last, and this didn't break that pattern with its perfectly tender, crispy, and buttery crust paired with the sweet, tart, and fruity filling.
My (recently-ex) co-worker Rachel and her wife Kerri were after my heart with this giant box of donuts from Rise. I was stuffed from all the meatiness, but somehow found room for a Fruity Pepples donut at the end of the night, then another one the next day along with a cookies and cream. Man, Rise makes so badass donuts and I'm happy they opened not far from our house.
This was the first NC Meatwave where the weather was perfect—the sun was bright, temperature warm, and the mosquitos had not yet unleashed their fury that will likely make future cookouts a little more trying. It made for a great setting for a game of Molkky—a Finnish lawn game in which you toss a stick at numbered pins. A rousing match went throughout the afternoon with Kris up here and Meredith, Rachel, Lindsay, and Steve looking on.
Here we have another couple of recent transplants to the area such as ourselves—Andrew and Kim. The came by way of Campaign-Urbana, where Andrew was pals with past Meatwave Katie. So glad we've been able to connect and become friends.
Bryan was supposed to be coming with an entire family in tow, but alas little Annabelle was sick, forcing Jenny and Benji to remain in Carrboro.
Sara and Joe made the trek from just down the street to their first ever Meatwave. Joe is as much as an eating and cooking enthusiast as myself, and I think I now have a good pal to throw back some beers with as I sit through long meat smoking sessions.
Evan and Meredith made their return to the Meatwave, stopping by after a weekend in Roanoke. They win for the photo with the best lighting of the day.
Oli and Marisa popped in at the end of the Meatwave and we enjoyed closing out the day with them as their little Ivy consumed just about everything she could grab from avocados, to the chicken salad, beans, and more.
This was a fantastic start to what will hopefully be another excellent Meatwave season. I feel so lucky to have met so many great people in North Carolina who are happy to help keep this tradition alive.
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rob I made the pepito. It's was awesome.
Natasha Reyes OMG this looks delicious. I am a Venezuelan girl, I moved from Philadelphia to NC two months ago. I was looking for Venezuelan food around here and I ended reading this amazing post. I can tell you did a great job, and I will definitely try to make your creation with black beans, grilled skirt steak, and longhorn cheddar. Thank you for sharing all this, it made me really happy to see how much can people like my country food tradition and even happier to see how great everything you made look and taste.