A while ago, Jan went to Napa and came back raving about Pica Pica’s arepas. She demanded that I learn how to make these make these South American pocket breads. I did my best, based only on her description and what I could find on the internet. Last week, we went up to San Francisco and I actually got to try one of Pica Pica’s arepas.
Making the arepas, themselves, is simplicity itself—mix arepas flour with salt, hot water and butter, form patties with the dough, and fry them. Finding the special flour, masarepa, to make them is the challenge. You will generally not find it with the other flours, but if a store has it you will find it in the Colombian and/or Venezuelan shelves of the store. P.A.N. is the brand that is most available in the U.S—Goya masarepa is also available.
Masarepa is white corn that has been cooked, dried, and then ground to make a flour. Since the meal is precooked, you might think of it as “instant” cornmeal. It is perfect for a quick breakfast, but in Venezuela they like to make an English muffin sized bun and stuff it with goodness.
If you use vegetable shortening instead of butter you may also make them Vegan—as Pica Pica does. Pica Pica makes their arepas slightly larger than usual, so they can put in more fillings. Their fillings include: Beef, chicken, pork, and even a Vegan alternative.
I decided to fill mine with a slow roasted pork. Looking at recipes for Venezuelan pernil, I did not follow any one recipe. I looked at the range of ingredients for recipes that called themselves “Venezuelan pernil” and selected those ingredients and techniques that suited my own tastes. I though that Pica Pica’s idea of serving a tart cabbage slaw as a side was a good idea, so I made my own.
After Dinner Note: My family loved this pork. They all decided that simply stuffing it into the arepas was not enough and split their arepas in half. They piled the meat, tomatoes and guacamole on top to eat it more as a tostada. This is actually a more Columbian way of serving this dish.
I was less happy with this pork. It is not that it tasted bad, but it was unbalanced. The cumin and cilantro were flat notes that overpowered the rest of the ingredients. If I make this dish again I will leave them out and I suggest that if anyone tries this dish for themselves that they should too.
Karl’s Venezuelan Pernil Arapas
5 lb. pork shoulder blade roast
2 Tbs. corn oil, separate uses
1 medium onion, diced
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1 Jalapeño, seeded and diced
6 cloves garlic, sliced
3 oranges, juice and zest
2 lemons, juice and zest
2 Tbs. Worchester sauce
*1Tbs. cumin, powdered (See After Dinner Note above)
1 tsp. black pepper, powdered
3 cloves, powdered
1 tsp. cane sugar (panela or piloncillo)
*1 cup cilantro (See After Dinner Note above)
2½ cups hot water
2 Tbs. butter
1 tsp. Kosher salt
2 cups P.A.N. white corn meal
2 tomatoes, cut into ¼ inch slices
1-2 avocados, sliced into wedges
Note: At least one day before your meal.
1. Put the one tablespoon of oil in a pan and sauté the onion with the salt until they are starting to pick up some color.
Note: I am not writing this recipe as I actually made it, but as I will when I make it again. In making this marinade, I simply threw the raw vegetables and juices into a blender and processed them to a slurry. When I finished cooking this marinade—for hours—it produced an unappealing brown(ish) paste of a sauce. While my family might have liked it—they are not shy about telling me if they don’t—I was not happy with the result.
2. Add the Jalapeño and continue sautéing until the vegetables are soft, about another three minutes.
3. Pull the vegetables to the edges of the pan and add the garlic to the center.
4. Sauté the garlic until fragrant, about one minute, and stir it into the vegetables.
5. Deglaze the pan with the orange juice and add the rest of the marinade ingredients.
Tip: I recommend leaving out the cumin and cilantro.
Note: The cilantro may be saved and used, fresh, as a filling for the arepas.
6. Simmer the marinade until the flavors are blended and the sugar has dissolved.
Tip: The piloncillo is sort of halfway between densely packed brown sugar and hard rock candy.
7. Let the marinade cool completely.
8. Put the pork in a gallon plastic bag and pour the marinade over the meat.
Note: To trim or not to trim, that is the question. In light of Jan’s dietary restrictions, I almost always trim off the fat cap on a roast like a pork shoulder. Many cooks would consider this a crime—less fat = less flavor. If you choose to leave the fat cap on, crosshatch the fat to give the marinade access to the meat underneath.
9. Press the air out of the bag, seal, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
Tip: Twenty four hours is better.
10. Remove the pork from the marinade and pat the meat dry with paper towels.
Note: Reserve the marinade.
Tip: You are not trying to wipe off all of the marinade bits, you are simply trying to dry out the surface of the meat so that it sears, rather than steams, when it hits the hot pot.
11. In a large heavy pot, add one tablespoon of oil and sear the pork well on all sides over high heat.
Tip: I use a cast iron Dutch oven.
12. Remove the meat to a plate and deglaze the pot with the reserved marinade.
13. Return the meat to the pot and bring the marinade to a boil.
Note: The marinade should come about halfway up the sides of the meat.
14. Cover the pot and roast the pork for 8-12 hours in a 225º F oven.
Tip: Turn the meat over a few times during this roasting time. Be careful not to break apart the meat, as you are turning it.
Note: I had actually cooked my roast at 200 º F, after 12 hours it was still not even close to being tender.
15. Increase the oven temperature to 350 º F and remove the pot lid.
16. Roast the pork until the top is well browned, 40-50 minutes.
17. Turn the meat over, continue roasting until the second side is also well browned and the meat is fork tender, about another 30-40 minutes.
18. While the meat is in its final roasting time, make the arepas.
19. Put the hot, not boiling, water in a bowl and add the butter and salt.
20. Slowly stir in the corn meal, until it forms a thick paste, and then let it rest for three minutes.
Tip: While you may finish mixing the dough with a spoon, there is no substitute for a hand spatula.
Note: The resting time gives the come meal time to completely hydrate.
21. Divide the dough into 9-10 balls and press them into 3½-4 inch patties, about half an inch thick.
22. Grease a heavy skillet or griddle and fry the arepas over a medium high heat, until they are well browned on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side.
23. Put the arepas on a baking sheet and put them in the oven when you remove the meat.
Tip: Turn off the oven, the residual heat of the oven will finish baking the arepas.
24. Remove the pork to a plate and tent with aluminum foil.
Tip: You should have about two cups of sauce left in the pot.
25. If necessary, reduce the sauce and put it in a small serving bowl.
26. Slice the tomatoes and avocado and put them on a plate.
Note: I had intended to serve slices of fresh avocado, the way Pica Pica does, but my avocados were past their prime. I salvaged what I could and turned them into a guacamole with a tablespoon of lime juice and pinches of salt and sugar.
27. Pull the pork apart into bite-sized pieces and put it in a serving bowl.
Tip: If you like, you may toss the pork with some of the pot sauce to moisten it.
28. Serve the pernil with the arepas, sauce, tomato slices, and avocado on the side.
Tip: Diners slit open the arepas and stuff them as it pleases them. Pica Pica also provides garlic aïoli to spread inside the arepas.
Note: As I noted earlier, my diners were too impatient to limit themselves to what they could fit inside the corn pockets. They simply cut the arepas in half and piled them high with the fillings.