My good friend Sonia is from Venezuela. Last week we spent a really fun afternoon together cooking in her kitchen. She taught me how to make one of her favorite authentic recipes from back home, Reina Pepiada: arepas with chicken and avocado. Arepas are english muffin-shaped cornmeal cakes that are eaten in place of bread in Venezuela. They’re typically served warm from the oven, split open, and filled with a variety of savory stuffings such as shredded beef, grated cheese, scrambled eggs, or chicken and avocado. They have a mild corn flavor and are firm and crunchy on the outside, soft and tender inside. The filling is what sets them apart. Reina Pepiada is Sonia’s family favorite – shredded white meat chicken tossed with tender avocado, mayonnaise, garlic, onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and cilantro. It’s easy to imagine how delicious this chicken salad would be just from reading the ingredients, right? Just wait until you try it sandwiched between an arepa that’s still warm from the oven!
Arepas are made from just three ingredients: corn meal, water and salt. They’re naturally gluten free. The corn flour used for arepas, also called Masarepa, is precooked and ground. The most common brand is P.A.N. I had no problem finding it at a few different stores, including Stop and Shop. Or you can order it on line.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed sinking my hands into the bowl of warm water and corn flour and kneading. Sonia commented, too, about how this part of the recipe – the feeling of the dough in her hands and the smell of the warm corn flour – transports her back home to Venezuela and back to her grandmother’s kitchen, where she learned to cook arepas.
After you shape the arepas, you sear them in a hot skillet with just a bit of oil. Sonia explained that you just want to seal them and get them a little brown.
Once they’re seared, they finish cooking in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes.
Remove them from the oven, split them open, stuff them, and enjoy them while they’re still hot.
In Venezuela you can find arepas for every occasion – arepas appetizers, arepas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks. There are also many restaurants around town called areperas, where you can grab a quick arepa with the filling of your choice. Once you learn how to make arepas, you can get creative with what you put inside. Butter and white cheese (or substitute feta) is another version that Sonia recommended to me.
Reina Pepiada is an exceptionally good arepa. By the way, in case you’re curious about the name, the literal translation of Reina Pepiada is “curvy queen.” Apparently, as the story goes, back in 1955 a Venezuelan woman won the Miss World title. This scrumptious chicken & avocado arepa – recognized as a thing of beauty – was named in her honor.
- Poached Chicken
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
- ½ small onion, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Chicken & avocado salad
- 1 pound shredded poached chicken (see recipe below)
- 2 Haas avocados, peeled, pitted, roughly mashed
- 2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
- ½ red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
- ½ jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (2 medium cloves)
- ½ teaspoon salt or more, to taste
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 3 cups precooked white corn flour (P.A.N. or Masarepa)
- 3¼ cups warm water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Poach the chicken Put the chicken onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and salt in a medium saucepan. Cover, by an inch or two, with cold water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from the pot and set it aside to cool. When chicken is completely cool, shred it by pulling it apart by hand or with the fork method (see my BBQ Chicken Enchilada post for more on the fork method)
- Make the chicken avocado salad In a medium bowl mix the mashed avocado with mayonnaise and lime juice. Add the rest of the ingredients: chicken, bell pepper, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and store in the fridge until you're ready to eat. Can be made a day ahead.
- Make the arepas Preheat oven to 350ºF. Pour warm water into a large bowl. Stir in salt to dissolve. Pour in the corn flour and immediately start kneading the mixture with your hands, being sure to squeeze out any lumps. Allow the dough to sit for 3-5 minutes. Divide dough into 8 pieces. To shape an arepa, roll the dough into a ball and then pat it, between your hands, into a disc. Press your thumbs around the outside of the disc to form a nice edge. Discs should be 3½ - 4 inches in diameter and ⅓ to ½ inch thick. Set discs on a large platter or baking sheet as you form them. (If the dough seems dry or cracks when you roll it, add a more warm water)
- Sear the arepas in a skillet Lightly oil a large skillet (cast iron or non stick). Turn the heat to medium and get the skillet nice and hot. Brown the arepas in batches, about 4 minutes per side, until they are seared with some brown areas on both sides. Set them back on the platter or baking sheet as you go.
- Finish the arepas in the oven When all the arepas are seared, set them directly on the wire rack in the center of the oven. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until they are puffed up a bit. They will have a very taut outer skin. Set them back onto the baking sheet for just a minute or two until they're cool enough to handle. Cut them open. Fill them with Reina Pepiada chicken & avocado salad. Serve warm. Enjoy!