Manuela Villasmil was beaming, enthusiastically waving one hand around to punctuate tales of growing up in Maracaibo and gingerly holding delicate plantain leaves in her other.
She giggled as she recalled picking out the raisins from all of the hallacas when she was a kid, because she didn’t like their sweet intrusion in the traditional Venezuelan holiday dish. She doesn’t do it anymore, she assured the audience gathered around her to learn from her cooking demonstration, but she still doesn’t love with them.
“I mean, it’s really what kids do,” she admitted. “But ok, if a raisin or two falls out of the stew while I’m eating, it’s not like I’m going to complain.”
Villasmil is chef and co-owner of Puyero Venezuelan Flavor, a fast-casual arepa and tequeño haven that opened two years ago on South Street, and it’s evident she loves having the opportunity to share her cultural traditions in an intimate setting. She’ll get to share her excitement with people in a new hallacas cooking class, set for the next couple of Wednesdays leading up to the holidays.
Last year Puyero did its first winter sale of hallacas, the popular Latin American stuffed corn dough dish. They sold only one kind — chicken stew hallacas, “adorned” (as the traditional vernacular goes) with potatoes, olives and raisins — because they wanted to familiarize their clientele with the limited edition menu item.
“Usually the stew has mixed proteins,” Villasmil explained. “A combination of chicken and beef, or chicken and fish or seafood, for example, but that can be weird for some people. Plus, a lot of people don’t eat pork.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Villasmil and her husband and brother-in-law — Simon and Gil Arends, the other co-owners and chefs of Puyero — were all shocked by how many Americans were ordering the dish, she said, estimating they’d put out close to 500 orders from their tiny shop.
Some of the customers were fellow ex-pats. “It’s awesome when people that are not Venezuelan respond positively to our food, but of course, it feels so special when Venezuelans step inside and say that they feel at home,” Villasmil told Billy Penn.
Of note, Sazón Restaurant & Café also serves the traditional holiday platter this time of year. Hallacas are popular during Christmastime not only in Venezuela, but also in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia and eastern Cuba.
An evening of Latin America delights
For their second Christmas at Puyero, Villasmil and the Arends decided to not only sell hallacas of different varieties — chicken and pork, and veggie — but also to host a family-friendly holiday cooking series, hosted right at the restaurant.
Billy Penn got a chance to attend one of these cooking series demos and get a taste of Venezuela during Las Navidades.
When you first are situated at Puyero for these private events, in groups of four or five with 15-20 participants in total, you’ll find a couple of prepared ingredients already in front of you: the stew (which in this case was a combination of chicken, pork, potatoes and raisins), corn dough, olives and plantain leaves.
Though much of the fun of cooking classes come with the ability to actually cook ingredients, hallacas are a multi-day recipe, requiring that the stew be made at least a day prior to the preparation so it can sit overnight in a fridge and set.
Villasmil explained the contents of the stew, thoroughly going over all of the ingredients that lead to the robust, hearty flavor with a dash of sweet. The answer is sofrito (also known as ahogado and refogado), a base comprised of several different spices, tomato paste, white wine and extra virgin olive oil. It’s not hot-spicy, she said, noting that the idea all Latin American dishes are is a myth.
While discussing how to handle the plantain leaves and corn dough, class participants had the choice of either papelón con limón (lemonade sweetened with unrefined brown sugar cane) or Andes-style hot chocolate (thick and creamy hot chocolate with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla) to drink.
Other traditional Christmastime goodies were passed around, such as pan de jamón (sweet bread filled with smoked ham, raisins and olives) and ensalada de gallina, which directly translates to chicken salad.
Making the hallacas
After some chatter and getting to know other participants over the food, we were then asked by Villasmil to slather our plantain leaves with oil — carefully, as they are extremely fragile and can rip with even the slightest pressure — and flatten out the balls of corn dough (masa harina), on the leaves.
The next step is to scoop out chunks of cold stew and place them on the corn dough pancake, arranging it in a rectangle. You can make the rectangle as large as your pancake can fold over it, and include as many olives to the mix as your appetite desires.
Much to the chagrin of raisin haters out there, raisins are included in the stew (but if you don’t mind getting judged a little, you can pick them out like Villasmil sometimes does).
Final step? Gently roll up the hallacas into the plantain leaves and tying them up in a square mesh pattern. Villasmil went around helping the participants do the tying part, as it is the most difficult part of the recipe to master.
The hallacas we made were given to us to take home in containers with cooking instructions. They can last for several weeks in the freezer and several days in the fridge.
All you need to do is thaw the hallacas to room temperature, submerge them completely in water and boil them for about 25 minutes.
Puyero’s holiday cooking series will be held on Wednesday evenings, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the restaurant. Upcoming dates are Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. Tickets are available for $30 per person.
Hallacas will be available at Puyero through Three Kings Day (Sunday, Jan. 6) in packages of five and ten for $42.50 and $80, respectively.