Venezuelan Arepas with Sweet Plantains, Avocado, and Queso Blanco
I can't say that I've evert been upset about not having a vegetarian option until the day I tried to order one of my favorite arepas from back in New York at one of the arepa joints here in Durham. The arepa in question is dubbed the "Guyanesa Tropical" by Arepas Cafe in Astoria and consists of sweet plantains, fresh avocado slices, and white cheese—a simple, yet highly effective combo. Having a hankering for one of these arepas, I went to a local Venezuelan spot and noticed that, while they didn't have this exact mix of ingredients on the menu, all could be found in other creations, so decided to try order exactly what I was craving.
I had no idea what type of confusion this would lead to with our server—"So you want an arepa without meat?"—but after a few minutes of back-and-forth, I got to something close enough by ordering a steak-stuffed areapa, minus the steak, plus plantains. I couldn't help but feel guilty when, after forcing a custom order, what came out fell pretty short of expectations, and decided that the best course of action would be for me to learn how to make a Guyanesa Tropical at home as best as possible.
It didn't take me long to try my hand at it, but I ended up failing pretty miserably mainly to my ineptness in making the required maduros—fried sweet plantains. In that first attempt, my plantains ended up tasting burnt and were dried and crisp, despite only frying them for a small amount of time. So that led to a couple more tries and luckily I'm finally getting somewhere.
The first thing I learned was that almost no plantain I took home from the grocery store was quite ripe enough. When a recipe for maduros calls for ripe plantains, it means totally blackened skins and a flesh that feels a bit mushy when squeezed. So in this instance I made sure to buy my plantains almost a week ahead of time to allow them to ripen even further at home.
The second problem was cooking temperature—a normal high heat frying temperature wasn't cooking the plantains evenly, forcing them to burn and dry out too quickly. So I adjusted to cooking them in oil that's between 225-250°F for a good 10-15 minutes.
When cooking them in this manner, I was ending up with plantains that had a soft, almost creamy inside and nicely sweet, but not burnt outside. I can't say these were totally perfect yet, but they were close (I cheated once to get the most ideal plantains by buying the frozen ones you can pick up in the supermarket).
While the plantains posed an unexpected challenge, the arepas, which I thought were going to be my stumbling block, ended up being exceedingly simple. They started with a 50/50 mix of water and Harina P.A.N. with a bit of oil mixed in as well. Once that was combined and rested for five minutes, I broke off chunks of dough and flattened them into four-inch discs.
Next I grilled the dough over direct heat until each side was lightly charred, then moved the arepas over to indirect heat, covered, and let roast until the dough was cooked through and the exteriors were dry and crisp.
All that was left was to slice a pocket into each arepa and stuff them with the maduros, slices of frresh avocado, and shredded queso blanco.
And there you have it, a creation totally worthy of trying to order a meatless items in a restaurant that doesn't have that option by default—and that's saying a lot for someone who calls their blog "The Meatwave." With so few ingredients though, each has to be pretty close to perfect, and this arepa delivered. The arepa itself was nice and crisp with a pleasant grilled flavor, while the dominant plantains were soft and sweet and given a fresh boost from the avocado and saltiness and moisture from the cheese. It gets even better if you can get your hands on a bottle of Matouk's West Indian Hot Sauce, which adds a fiery fruit flavor that contrasts with the sweet and fresh ingredients. It actually took me a few years to discover the Guyanesa Tropical at Arepas Cafe, but once I did, I could never turn back and I will not allow distance to ever be a reason I shouldn't be able to enjoy this incredible arepa.
Venezuelan Arepas with Sweet Plantains, Avocado, and Queso Blanco
- Yield 5 servings
- Prep 15 Minutes
- Cook 35 Minutes
- Total 50 Minutes
- For the Plantains
- 2 very ripe plantains, cut into 1-inch slices on a bias
- Canola or peanut oil for frying
- Kosher salt, to taste
- For the Arepas
- 1 1/2 cups masarepa
- 1 1/2 cups water, plus more as necessary
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 2 ripe avocados, pitted and cut into thin slices
- 6oz queso blanco, shredded
- Matouk's West Indian hot sauce (optional)
- To make the plantains: Fill a 12-inch skillet with 1-inch of oil and bring to 250°F over medium heat. Place plantains in oil and cook, flipping occasionally, until outsides have deeply browned and insides have completely softened, 10-15 minutes. Transfer plantains to a paper towel lined plate and season with salt to taste.
- To make the arepas: Combine masarepa, water, and vegetable oil in a medium bowl and knead with hands until a dough is formed. Take a small amount dough and flatten it between your hands. If the edges crack, knead in more water a tablespoon at a time until dough is supple and smooth but not sticky. Season dough to taste with salt, cover, and set aside for five minutes.
- Divide dough into five even pieces and roll into balls. Place one ball of dough on a sheet of parchment paper and flatten into a disk about 4-inches in diameter. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Brush arepas lightly with butter and place on hot side of the grill. Cook until first side is charred in spots and a dry crust has formed, about five minutes. Flip arepas and cook on second side until a dry crust has formed, about five minutes longer. Move arepas to cool side of grill, cover, and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove arepas from grill and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice a pocket into each arepa and stuff with plantains, avocado slices, and cheese. Serve immediately with hot sauce.
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Zack If you're back in Manhattan, Brooklyn or the Rockaways during the summer you can get something very similar at Caracas Arepa Bar - El Gato. Yum!