FLATTEN THE CORNMEAL DOUGH: Brown, then bake.
It’s a particularly wonderful experience to eat Venezuelan food in the middle of a sleet storm in Maine. While biting through a steaming hot, toasty, white arepa, dripping with cumin chicken, soft green and red peppers, and yellow onions, I couldn’t help wonder: what the heck were Mona Child and her husband Gustavo doing here, in Sleetville?
They could be living where they used to live in Miami, or before that in Venezuela, where mangoes ripen not on trucks but trees, and were practically free. Answers: they were US citizens who were not learning any English in Miami, and in Venezuela they got bitten by the bug that makes you want to leave where you grew up to see another part of the world. They tried Boston, but didn’t appreciate what they got in return for rent. “Here, sit in the bathroom,” Gustavo joked. A cousin encouraged them to visit Portland. They’ve been living here for nine years now, running a day care in their home for 12 kids who all come rushing with glee at “A comer!”
I’m not going to tell you how to make arepas con pollo mechado because you can’t do it. Mona imports two key ingredients herself via her suitcase: raw-milk palmito cheese and annatto seeds. She tells me you could use mozzarella, but mozzarella isn’t as tangy, or coated in natural vinegar. “Do you have these?” She says, holding out a silver tin of brick red seeds shaped like half-carat diamonds. “Ah note oh,” she says, offering to get me some on her next trip. Without the annatto, the stewed chicken would not look enticingly yellow-orange but pale white, a color I happen to be at odds with until mid-June. Without those two ingredients, this meal just wouldn’t be the same.
We can, however, transport ourselves from the sleet of the culinary grind by making ourselves one piece of the meal, the arepas. La Bodega Latina on Congress Street carries the Venezuelan P.A.N. pre-cooked white cornmeal we need. Arepas would make a lovely substitute for biscuits, English muffins, crumpets, and other small-pancake-shaped fodder. They’d be great sliced in half and embedded with butter and honey for breakfast, or made into a series of small ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch. Plus, making them is fun, and (if you’re looking for this type of thing) a gooey, hands-on but simple project for kids.
Mona doesn’t even look at the recipe on the bag. She turns her oven to 350 degrees, fills a medium-sized bowl halfway with water, adds enough salt to make the water slightly salty to taste, and then dumps in a bunch of cornmeal. She plunges both hands into the bowl, mixes everything around, adding a little more cornmeal and squeezing the dough through her fingers until she has the right consistency: soggy Play-Doh. She lets it firm up for a minute while getting a large pan up to medium heat on the stove. She forms balls of dough slightly larger than limes and then flattens them into half-inch thick patties by throwing them from hand to hand. She pats corn oil directly onto the patties before placing each in the hot pan. She browns both sides on medium heat before sticking the arepas directly on the oven rack. Forty minutes later they’re toasty warm, crunchy on the outside, bread-like in the middle, and as comforting and mild. Of course, you can’t import a whole culture to a new land, only pieces of it. After brunch with Mona and Gustavo, I wish it weren’t so.
Lindsay Sterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.