Colombian-born Ronny Abenhaim is the arepero behind Costas, the bustling takeaway joint in midtown Manhattan where he and his team make fresh dough from scratch, dishing out about 400 arepas on a daily basis. He also is the chef at Cocina del Sur, another lunch and dinner spot a few blocks away that showcases a range of fresh cuisine from South America.
One of Abenhaim’s must-haves as a chef is access to high-quality ingredients; he keeps his kitchen stocked with seasonal produce and meats from humanely and sustainably raised animals. Putting this care into the quality of his ingredients supports his philosophy that food should be a source of joy for his customers, not a source of stress. “In our restaurants, we believe in having everything in moderation and enjoying life doing so because eating healthy makes you HAPPY but being HAPPY is healthy too.”
BELatina asked Abenhaim to share five things every home cook needs to know in order to cultivate their inner arepero.
Don’t Overcook the Arepa
As a street food, arepas are extremely adaptable to what equipment you have on hand. They can be grilled, boiled, baked, or fried — basically, whatever you have available. Whatever you do, don’t overcook them; otherwise, you’re going to miss out on the full potential of flavor and texture that these corn-based, South American staples bring to the cuisine.
At Costas, Abenhaim first grills up the arepas so that they develop a nice crusty exterior, then finishes them in an oven to cook them through. “Only experience and doing it over and over again will make you an expert in knowing how long to leave the arepa in the cast iron pan, and how long to leave in the oven afterward. The perfect combination of these two is what makes the perfect consistency: moist on the inside and crispy on the outside. This helps prevent the juices of the meats and sauces to not to break the arepa or drip all over the place.”
Abenhaim’s Tip: Before scooping out the arepa, when you hit the outside of it with your fingers, it should sound like a drum. That’s a good sign that it’s perfectly cooked.
Try Making Dough from Harina Pan First
Abenhaim suggests trying out your arepa-making skills with a Venezuelan store-bought bag of harina pan first, since it’s a shortcut to the process and can help you get your bearings as an arepero. “Having a good consistency in the dough and forming the arepa itself is already a challenge.”
Once you feel comfortable with your arepa skills though, Abenhaim is super encouraging about taking your arepas to the next level by making the dough from maiz peto. “We make them from scratch with real white hominy corn, maiz peto; we cook it, we cool it, we drain it, we mill it and make the dough the day before. The day of, we make the arepas one by one by hand.”
Make Extras for Easy Meals
Having arepas on hand at home is an easy fix for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Commit to making a big batch of them to store in your freezer, shaping the dough into individual arepas and storing them uncooked in a freezer-safe container; make sure to separate each arepa with a piece of parchment or wax paper so that they don’t get frozen together. In the freezer, they should last you about a month before their quality starts to degrade.
Cooking frozen arepas is essentially the same process as cooking fresh dough. “To cook them, simply take them out of the freezer and place them on the griddle, cast iron pan, or a teflon pan (if you don’t have anything else) and cook both sides until golden brown and then pop them in the oven to crisp up for 10 minutes at 450 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Abenhaim’s Tip: If you’re looking to manage your time before having a big arepa party, you can make the dough the night before without freezing them. Store the dough overnight at room temperature, completely covered in parchment paper that has been wet with cold water; this will prevent the dough from drying out.
Don’t Worry About It
“I would compare making arepas to making pasta from scratch. The first time you do something, you kind of overthink it and make it harder than it really is.” Abenhaim said it might not turn out great the first time, but that you’ll get a feel for it with trial and error. “Practice makes perfection. Don’t overthink it, just keep making them, adjusting and making them again. Before you know it, you will be an expert arepero/ra.”
About Those Fillings
You can basically serve arepas with anything delicious, so the possibilities are endless in terms of arepa filling recipes. However, there are a couple of basic things to consider when topping or filling your arepa. “Aside from creating a good combination of flavors, you have to consider the consistency of the fillings since too much sauce or juices could literally break the arepa; once that happens the experience goes downhill because it becomes hard to eat.”
Also, don’t ruin a good arepa with mediocre accouterments. “Quality is everything when it comes to food. The better the quality of the ingredients you use and the less corners you cut, the better the results will be.”