Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Venezuelan Arepas Reina Pepiada & Alfajores

Simón Bolívar was one of the most important leaders of Spanish America's successful struggle for independence. Often referred to as a hero, he's credited with contributing decisively to the independence of the present-day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia. His political legacy has been massive and he's a very important figure in South American political history. Born on July 24, 1783, this day is celebrated as Simón Bolívar Day and is an official holiday in Ecuador and Venezuela. What better way to mark today than with a Venezuelan inspired feast, or 'festeja' — Buen provecho!

Simón Bolívar

Spanish colonists influenced Venezuela’s cuisine, as they did the food of many South American countries. Yet the country’s geographic diversity sets its food apart from that of the rest of the continent. Its proximity to the Caribbean, for example, results in many tropical ingredients being incorporated with the corn, peppers, tomatoes, and other produce used by local cooks. This blend of cultural influences and ingredients makes Venezuelan fare unique. 

Chef Lorena Garcia

Take the arepa, a signature dish of both Venezuela and Colombia, and a specialty of celebrity Chef Lorena Garcia. Born in Venezuela, Chef Garcia specializes in authentic Latin cuisine infused with international influences, and is adored by viewers around the world for her charismatic personality and contagious enthusiasm. Lorena is the chef owner of Food Café and Elements Tierra restaurants, both located in Miami’s Design District, in addition to being the chef spokesperson for Nestlé. She has also joined the fight against childhood obesity with the program "Big Chef, Little Chef," which promotes healthy eating to reduce the health crisis among children.

Lorena Garcia's New Latin Classics cookbook

These flat corn cakes can be baked, sautéed, or grilled. Simple to prepare, arepas can be enjoyed plain as a snack or split open and filled with beans, vegetables, and flavourful cheeses for an entrée. Some versions offer these baked cakes topped with savoury pulled pork or chicken. Grated cheese can also often mixed into the arepa dough for added flavour, with the dough sometimes serves double duty as Venezuelan dumplings. To make a Nuevo Latino version of the traditional recipe, Chef Garcia bakes arepas rather than deep-frying them, for a healthier version of this Venezuelan classic.

Arepas Reina Pepiada

Arepa with Shredded Chicken and Avocado
Makes 16 Arepas
Recipe and photo courtesy: Chef Lorena Garcia

Reina Pepiada is basically an arepa, or corn cake, stuffed with a mixture of shredded chicken, mayonnaise and avocado.

For the arepas:
2 cups Masarepa corn flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the reina pepiada:
2 cups cooked and shredded chicken
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
3/4 cup light mayonnaise
2 tbsp of fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Hass avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and finely diced

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together the corn flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk the butter into 21/2 cups of water, then add it to the flour mixture, stirring until well combined. The dough will start out loose but the flour quickly absorbs the liquid. Start to knead the dough in the bowl and once it becomes very soft and doesn’t stick to your hands, after about 8 minutes, the dough is ready to be shaped. If, while kneading, the dough seems too stiff and breaks apart, add a few tablespoons of hot water; if it is too sticky, add a little more corn flour.

Divide the dough into 16 equal balls and flatten each between your palms into a 3 1/2- to 4- inch patty that’s about 1/3 inch thick. For a less rustic-looking arepa, press the arepa into a disk using a flat-bottomed plate; you can wet your hands with a little water if the dough is slightly sticky.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add 3 or 4 arepas to the pan, depending on how big your pan is. The arepas should sizzle as they hit the skillet. Cook the arepas until they’re golden and have a nice crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip them and brown the other side for an additional 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the arepas to a rimmed baking sheet and set aside. Repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil if the pan is dry, and the remaining arepa dough disks — you’ll probably need to use two baking sheets to bake the arepas.

Bake the arepas until they puff up, 20 to 30 minutes, switching the pans so the top baking sheet is on the bottom and the bottom moves up to the top midway through cooking. Remove from the oven and set aside for 5 minutes before serving with butter, cream cheese, queso fresco, or mozzarella.

Place the chicken in a large bowl. Add the onions, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and cilantro and salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Gently stir in the avocado, taste, and adjust the seasonings as needed. Slice a slit into the top edge of each arepa and gently wiggle a paring knife into the arepa, creating a pocket. Divide the chicken salad among the arepas and serve. 

Spinach & Goat Cheese Empanadas
Makes 40 empanadas

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp of baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup shortening, melted
1 cup warm milk
1 large egg, beaten

2 cups spinach, scalded
1 cup goat cheese
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg beaten with water, for an egg wash

In a food processor, place all ingredients for the filling, leave aside. Mix flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Add shortening, milk and eggs. Stir with a fork until dough forms a ball. Divide the dough into 40 pieces and form balls. Spend each ball on a floured surface and form a circle of 5 inches. 

Preheat oven to 400°F.

To assemble, place a spoonful of filling in center of each circle, moisten the edges with water and fold in half. Seal the edges by pushing them with a fork. Place the patties on a parchment lined baking sheet. Varnish pies with the beaten egg with water and bake until well browned. Serve warm.

Alfajores, buttery sweet shortbreads from Latin America

Alfajores with Dulce de Leche
Makes 36
Recipe and photo courtesy: Stacy Adimando

6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 14-ouce tub dulce de leche, for filling
1/2 cup powdered sugar, for dusting

Sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl and set aside. Using a standing mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until it becomes light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the egg and egg yolk one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract. Then add the flour mixture and blend just until the dough starts to come together. Using your hands, form the dough into a solid ball and flatten to make a disk. Wrap it with a couple of layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, until firm.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and roll to 1/4 to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch fluted or round cookie cutter, cut the dough into rounds and carefully transfer them onto the prepared sheets, placing them about 1-inch apart. Chill the sheets again for about 15-20 minutes, until the dough is very firm, then bake for 8-10 minutes, until tops of the cookies have just firmed up and the bottoms are starting to colour slightly. Cool the cookies on wire racks. 

When completely cool, fill them with a teaspoon dulce de leche. Place another cookie on top, like a sandwich, and sift confectioner’s sugar over the alfajores and serve.