AREPAS – A Central American Favorite

arepas textI’ve been on a mission to try making foods from scratch that you would normally never think of, such as tortillas (flour and corn), Italian rustic bread, yogurt, cream cheese, and pasta. I think you get the idea.

But all the aforementioned foods have been homemade for centuries, and without the aid of modern kitchen conveniences.  How hard could it be? So far – not very. Yes, it takes more time than buying ready-made, but at what price? When I cook, I know what’s in my food. Plus, the price mark-up is incredible. Did I mention that I’m cheap?

Arepas are cornmeal flat, round bread patties (like an English muffin) that are slit open and stuffed with whatever you like. I’ve included a recipe for my favorite filling. You can even spread them with jam or honey. Use your imagination. They are amazingly easy it make – even kids (with very clean hands) can prepare the dough.

NOTE: The most common masarepas is PAN Harina. Below is a photo of what I bought. PAN is a brand, but others make it, too. You may need to go to a specialty store for hispanic foods (I had to). PAN Harina is NOT the same as masa harina, which is used for corn tortillas.

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TIP:  Store masarepas, and all extra flours & grains, in the freezer until use to prevent bugs and keep them fresh. Bring to room temperature before using.

AREPAS – makes 6

  • 2 cups masarepas
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • about 2½ cups water
  • about 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Put the masarepas, salt, and baking powder is a bowl. Use your dominant hand to mix it. (Yes, you’re going to mix the dough with your hand – it’s the easiest way.) With your non-dominant hand, pour in about 1 cup of the water. Slowly squish the mixture until water is absorbed. Add another cup of water and slowly squish. (If you squish quickly, the water squirts and makes a mess.) The end result should be a soft dough (softer than Playdoh), but not so soft that it sticks to your hand and won’t stay formed. Add more water, if needed…or more masarepas, if you’ve added too much.

Divide dough into 6 equal pieces. Shape each into a patty 4″ in diameter and about 1/2″ thick.

Preheat oven to 400º Fahrenheit.

Have ready a wire rack sitting on a cookie sheet.

Over medium flame, heat 2 T oil in a 10″ skillet, or 4 T oil in a bigger skillet. When oil is hot, place in as many discs that will fit. When bottom is browned (about 3 minutes), flip cooking again until browned. Place on wire rack. Add more oil to skillet with each batch.

When all arepas are fried, place cookie sheet into oven for 10 minutes. Remove and cool until you can slice them in half without burning yourself.

BLACK BEAN & RICE FILLING – makes about 2 cups

  • 1 cup cooked black beans, mashed
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice (I use Brown Rice Medley from Trader Joe’s)
  • 1/2 cup SALSA VERDE
  • 1/2 cup tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 cup avocado, mashed
  • 1/2 cup jalapeño jack cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1  2.25 oz can jalapeño sliced black olives

Blend all ingredients together.

 

 

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PANZANELLA: It’s Fresh Tomato Time!

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Many of you know by now that I’m the self-proclaimed Queen of Freeze. Not only do I cook in bulk and then freeze the extras in portion sized containers for future use, but I also freeze unused ingredients that I don’t need at the moment – for example, egg whites when I only need the yolk, or the remaining tomato paste when I only need a tablespoon. I’ve been teased about my frugality, but these bits and bobs have saved a trip to the market many a time.

Quite often I have partial loaves of homemade bread laying in my deep freezer. I generally use them in bread pudding or an omelette casserole. But recently I found a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen for Panzanella, a bread and tomato salad.

It’s quite simple to make, but you need to allow 15 minutes for the bread cubes to toast and the tomatoes to drain, and 10 minutes for the toasted bread cubes to marinate in a vinaigrette, so plan your timing accordingly.

PANZANELLA – makes about 5 cups

  • 6 cups rustic Italian or French loaf, cubed in bite sized pieces
  • 8 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3/4 tsp salt, divided
  • 1½ lbs tomatoes
  • 3 T red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped (TIP: chop in a cup using kitchen shears)
  • 1 shallot clove, sliced thin

Combine bread cubes, 2 T olive oil, and 1/4 tsp salt. Use your hands to mix – it’s easier than a spoon. Pour onto jelly roll pan and bake at 400º fahrenheit for 13-17 minutes (tossing midway), until browned.

While bread is toasting, slice tomatoes in half along the equator and poke with your finger to loosen seeds. Shake halves over sink to remove them. Chop tomatoes into bite sized pieces and put into a strainer that’s resting on a container to catch the juice. Make sure the bottom of the strainer isn’t touching the bottom of the container. Sprinkle on 1/2 tsp salt and mix with hands. The salt will draw out the excess juice. Let drain for, at least, 15 minutes. You’ll use the strained juice in the vinaigrette, so don’t throw it out!

Whisk together 1/4 cup of the strained tomato juice, 6 T olive oil, vinegar, and pepper in a large bowl. Add in the toasted bread cubes and mix to coat. Let marinate for 10 minutes.

To the bread cube marinade add the tomatoes, cucumber, basil, and shallots. Toss gently to mix and serve immediately.

 

TOMATO SOUP – Mmm Mmm Good…For Your Waistline!

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It’s that time of year when the temperature starts to rise and the clothing starts to shed. No more bulky sweaters to hide those extra pounds.

Years ago there was a soup commercial with a girl hanging a yellow polka dot bikini on her wall as incentive to stick to her diet. To aid in her endeavor, she would eat soup for lunch – all the while singing “she wore an itsy bitsy teeny weeny….”.

It’s really not a silly idea. Soup is low in calories and filling enough to get you away from the table unscathed by a grilled cheese sandwich and French fries.

I found an easy recipe from America’s Test Kitchen for creamy tomato soup – without the cream (or any dairy at all, for that matter). Of course, I adjusted it for vegetarians by substituting vegetable stock for chicken stock.

Here’s the important thing: DON’T BUY TOMATOES FROM A SUPERMARKET! They were picked green and have no flavor. Either grow them yourself, or buy them from a local farmer’s market. Otherwise, buy canned whole tomatoes (Muir Glen brand is rated best), which is what you’ll have to do most of the year.

TOMATO SOUP – makes about  5 cups

  • 3-4 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 28 oz can whole tomatoes OR 2 lbs fresh Roma tomatoes
  • 3 slices white bread, crust removed
  • 1 T brown sugar (I used dark brown sugar)
  • 2 cups vegetable stock (here’s my recipe for homemade: VEGETABLE STOCK)
  • 2 T brandy (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste (I used 1/2 tsp salt)

Heat 2 T oil in large saucepan, then add onions, garlic, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes. Sauté about 5 minutes.

Remove stem ends and any skins or impurities from tomatoes. Coarsely chop (don’t worry too much about this – they’re going in the blender eventually) and add to onions, continuing cooking.

Tear bread into pieces and stir into soup, along with brown sugar. Cover pot and let simmer 5 minutes. Remove lid and cool 15 minutes. DISCARD BAY LEAF!! This is very important – you don’t want it blended with the soup or you’ll have to throw it out.

Purée the soup in a blender. Depending on the size of the pitcher, this will require 1-2 batches. With each batch, add in 1 T olive oil before blending.

Clean out saucepan (or use another) and pour in puréed soup. Add in the vegetable broth and bring to a simmer, stirring until heated through. Stir in brandy, if using. Adjust seasoning, as needed.

GNOCCHI WITH BROWN BUTTER SAGE SAUCE

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Making Potato Gnocchi from scratch sounds scarier than it really is. Honestly! Basically, all you have to do is make mashed potatoes, roll them into ropes, cut them into 1″ pieces, and boil them. You can even get the kids involved…or your spouse.

The potatoes need to be lump-free, so you’ll need either a ricer or a food mill. Another tool that is nice, but not essential, is a gnocchi board (see photo) to form the ridges. A fork will work if you don’t have one. (The ridges help hold the sauce.)

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A huge bonus to making gnocchi is they freeze well so, as long as you’re at it, you may as well make extra for those days when you lack the desire, time, energy, and desire (it bears mentioning twice!) to cook.

I’ve included a Brown Butter Sage Sauce recipe below, but you can top gnocchi with pesto, pink sauce, or anything you fancy.

POTATO GNOCCHI

  • 1.5 lbs (approximately) russet potatoes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt

Peel and chop potatoes in thirds. Boil in salted water until easily pierced with a fork. Drain.

Immediately put the hot potatoes through a ricer or food mill. Stir in the salt and flour first, then the egg. (Adding the flour first cools down the potatoes a bit to prevent cooking the egg.)

Empty the potato mixture onto a well floured board and knead the dough for about 30 seconds to get it to stick together.

Have ready a cookie sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper and, if you’re going to be eating immediately, start the water boiling in a large pot.

Pull off kiwi sized (it really doesn’t matter is it’s not exact) hunks of potato dough and, on a well floured board, roll into a rope 1/2″ in diameter. If your rope is too long for your board, use a smaller hunk for the rest. Slice into 1″ segments. Form ridges by rolling each one along a gnocchi board or the backside of a fork, going towards the tip of the tines. The ridges help the sauce to adhere to the gnocchi. Place them on the cookie sheet, not touching. Continue until all dough is done.

When the water is fully boiling, drop in desired amount of gnocchi. Once they’ve all floated to the top, turn off heat and let them sit in water for 30 seconds. Remove the cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon to the sauce. Save the gnocchi water to add to the sauce, as needed – the water will extend the sauce, and the flour will thicken it.

NOTE: If you don’t want to cook the gnocchi immediately, place cookie sheet in freezer. When gnocchi are frozen, store them in portion sized containers.

BROWN BUTTER SAGE SAUCE – for 2-3 servings

  • 4 T butter
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1 tsp fresh sage, chopped
  • 1½ tsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp salt

NOTE: Prepare the sauce just before cooking the gnocchi.

Melt butter in a 10″-12″ skillet over medium-high flame, swirling until butter turns amber and becomes aromatic (about 1½-2 minutes). Remove pan from burner and add in sage and shallots, stirring for 1 minute off-heat (the residual heat is enough to cook the sage and shallots). Blend in salt and lemon juice. Cover to keep warm.

Spoon cooked gnocchi directly into sauce. Add gnocchi water, if needed to expand the sauce.

Top with a grated hard cheese such as Pecorino-Romano, if you like.