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Healthy You

We Made Arepas de Queso—in Honor of “Encanto” and Colombia!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022 10:33 AM

If you’re planning a spring break staycation (and even if you’re not!) we’ve got a great activity you can enjoy with your kids. We teamed up with our friends at Familia Kitchen who show us how to make authentic Arepas de queso, the star of Encanto.

Instead of popcorn, munch on Arepas de queso and cue the movie!

Encanto

By Kim Caviness

Arepas de queso play a starring role in Encanto, which shines a light on Colombia the way Coco did for Mexico. This Disney película, with music by one of our favorite Boricuas Lin-Manuel Miranda, tells the story of the familia Madrigal. They live in a small Colombian village, and everyone in their family has magical powers, except for ”normal” Maribel. Our heroine must discover what makes her special: what is her magical skill?

It’s certainly not her mother’s gift, Maribel sighs. Her mamá can heal everyone in their village with homemade arepas, the daily bread of Colombia made from corn meal.

Magical arepas that heal? We love that! So much so that we asked two of our favorite Colombian cooks, Janeth Barrera, and her daughter Luna, 7—who were the first in line the day Encanto opened in theaters—to show us how they make arepas, Colombian-style, of course.

Janeth and Luna were up for the cooking challenge and went into their Chicago kitchen to make a batch of traditional cheese arepas. They used the same recipe and techniques Janeth learned from her mother when she was growing up in Medellín.

The tradición continues, and today Luna is the one learning to make the family arepa recipe.

”I like to make arepas because I love cooking,” says Luna. ”I love to eat arepas because they taste so good. I love arepas made with a lot of cheese.”

Eating Arepas in the U.S. and Back Home in Colombia

”We eat a lot of arepas in Colombia. The arepa accompanies all the meals,” Janeth says. But in their home in the States? Different story. Yes, there’s a Colombian neighborhood in Chicago where she can find fresh arepas for sale, but it’s an hour from where Janeth’s family lives.

So Janeth buys precooked cornmeal from her local Latino market to make this traditional treat several times a month. Thankfully ”they are very easy to make,” says Janeth. ”Luna, my husband and my son just love them.”

One of the best things about arepas? In addition to being caliente, crunchy, and deliciosas, “they are the perfect food any time of day,” says Janeth. “Whenever you are hungry, there is usually an arepa right there. You can eat them with everything. You can add tuna, sausage, ham or queso. Whatever you add, you’ll have a good dinner.”

Arepas are especially ideal for dinner back home, Janeth explains. ”In Colombia, we eat the main meal during the day, and then dinner at night is something very light, something fast. Whatever is leftover from the earlier comida, we might eat that with an arepita. A lot of people eat arepas with ahogao sauce on top and you have a meal.”

This makes us wonder: How does the Madrigal family eat their arepas in Encanto? We know they like them with queso, but what else?

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups precooked cornmeal, like P.A.N.
  • 1 Tbsp butter or oil, for mixing into masa
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 2 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 cup melting cheese, like mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup salty cheese like queso fresco, to give it extra flavor
  • 1 Tbsp oil, for frying arepas

Directions:

  1. In a bowl, mix the salt, flour, and butter.
  2. Add the warm water, a little bit at a time, mixing it into the flour with a spoon first and then your hands when the dough starts to form.
  3. Add the cheese and keep mixing the cornmeal masa with your hands.
  4. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.
  5. When the masa is smooth and easy to work with, shape small chunks into little balls, about 2 inches wide each. Flatten the sides slightly with your hands and then, using your palms and fingers, pat each one into the classic arepa shape: about 1/2 inch thick and 4 inches across.
  6. Pour the oil into a large frying pan (Janeth and Luna like to use their cast-iron skillet). Over medium-high heat, fry the arepas in batches, being careful not to overcrowd. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes and then flip them. Fry the second side for another 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. When both sides are a beautiful golden-brown color, they are done!
  8. You can eat the arepas de queso plain: nice and steaming hot, just like that. Or you can cut them in half and fill them with more cheese. Or your favorite meat filling (like this beef carne mechada) or this traditional Colombian tomato-garlic hogao sauce.

NOTES

  • When working with the arepa dough, you can slightly wet your hands so that the masa doesn’t stick to your hands.
  • Important: when buying the cornmeal, be sure to buy precooked cornmeal and not accidentally get corn flour, the nixtamalized masa harina used to make corn tortillas. The two ground corn products are very different in texture, process and taste results! Consider precooked cornmeal products like P.A.N.