Since incurring moving costs, darting between jobs, and spending several weeks without a paycheck, the food budget's been pretty tight. But I remembered how I avoided starvation in my early 20's on a thrift store employee's salary: ethnic = cheap. Find yourself an Indian, Chinese, or Latin market in your neighborhood and put your grocery savings towards bills, beer or, ahem, a new tattoo.
Enter my new affair with Hi-Lo, the Latin supermercado up the street. I'd rather go there than to the Stop-and-Shop in Jackson Square; it's closer and cheaper, and as long as I stay clear from the creepy meat aisle, I'm all set. No, it's not organic, not local, but it's what I got. And shopping there always inspires me to cook Latin. I wanted to do something with the Goya corn flour that my sister gave me awhile back. It's just been chillin' in my freezer, so for inspiration, I went straight to the back of the bag: arepas! They're a Columbian/Venezuelan griddle cake made from corn flour, sometimes milk and butter, or just water.
Polenta, mush, hasty pudding, grits, hominy - folk culture has a long history with similar dishes, as corn was often the only grain available to poor or disenfranchised groups. Most of our ancestors probably ate a steady diet of corn and cured meat, and we can be thankful if they were spared from pellagra. Which is why I'm always amused when a polenta dish shows up on a menu. Peasant food becomes haute cuisine and the green grass grew all around...
Anyway! ¡Back to arepas! I threw in some additions based on this Times recipe and had enough batter to make 'em twice. The first time I fried them, as tradition dictates, and found them to be crispy, yes, but too greasy even for this lover of all things deep-fried (potatoes, clams, oreos...). The next day I baked those babies, and while they were more palatable with less oil, I was missing the crispy outside. So, I'll lay out both ways and let you be the judge. Also, I wussed out and removed the seeds from the jalapeño, and I got no heat, which was not my plan. And let me just say that while I don't love cornmeal dishes (I've never had a polenta dish that I like), I see oodles of possibilities with these guys. I first tried them with flash-cooked cherry tomatoes. I ate my leftovers with sauteed kale and onions. With some sort of gravy, these would be a bangin' breakfast item.
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup water, milk, or perhaps soy milk (which I just thought of!)
½ cup queso fresco o queso columbiano, crumbled
1 jalapeño, seeded if you're shy about heat, and finely diced
¼ cup cilantro, finely minced
possible accompaniments (not all traditional, but tasty): salsa, black beans, cooked greens, quartered tomatoes, chopped scallions, gravy...
For the dough: Combine the cornmeal and queso, then slowly add the water or milk and stir to combine. Allow the dough to rest for about 15 minutes. Form the dough into a golf-ball sized ball and flatten with your palm.
To fry: Add 3 tablespoons of mild oil (corn, grapeseed, or canola) to a a fry pan with a sturdy bottom. Heat the oil and when it's good and hot, add the arepas, cooking until crisp and browned on one side (about 3 minutes). Flip and cook the other side. Set on a paper bag or paper towel to drain.
To bake: Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a baking sheet or pan with oil. Add the arepas, bake until brown on one side (about ten minutes), flip and bake until the other side is browned.
To serve: You can slit a cooled arepa through the middle like a pita and stuff it with your choice of yummies. Or you can serve them sandwich-style, with two arepas subbing in for bread. Or you can serve them griddle-cake style, with some sort of veggie on top.