RECIPES: Savor the flavors of Venezuela at home

Mrs. Rosa Foods founders Maria Rosal (left) and Zaimar Castillo (center), along with employee Isaura Leiva, show some of the typical Venezuelan dishes inside the food truck, where they continue a family tradition. 
Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Mrs. Rosa Foods founders Maria Rosal (left) and Zaimar Castillo (center), along with employee Isaura Leiva, show some of the typical Venezuelan dishes inside the food truck, where they continue a family tradition. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Mrs. Rosa Foods honors family tradition of making cheese, cachapas and empanadas

Family recipes can be passed down through the generations, like the secret to the gravy for grandmother’s smothered chicken or how to get the perfect consistency for the fluffy frosting for mom’s famous devil’s-food cake.

But recipes for making cheese?

Indeed, cheese recipes passed down through three generations of the family of Zaimar Castillo are the foundation for Mrs. Rosa Foods, the Decatur-based creamery producing nine varieties of Venezuelan cheese.

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Rosa Carvajal (center) was a single mother supporting 12 children in Venezuela by making cheese, empanadas and arepas, which she sold to the neighbors. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Rosa Carvajal (center) was a single mother supporting 12 children in Venezuela by making cheese, empanadas and arepas, which she sold to the neighbors. 
Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Rosa Carvajal (center) was a single mother supporting 12 children in Venezuela by making cheese, empanadas and arepas, which she sold to the neighbors. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Castillo’s grandmother, Rosa Carvajal, was a single mother supporting 12 children in Maturin, Venezuela, the capital of the state of Monagas. She made empanadas and arepas that she sold to the neighbors, and cheeses produced from the milk of the cows she raised.

A hallmark of Venezuelan cuisine is a wide range of fresh white cheeses often named for different regions of the country, such as queso guayanés from the Guayana region of southeast Venezuela.

Rosa Carvajal passed along those recipes and her cheese-making skills to her daughter, Estefania Carvajal, the fifth of her children.

Caravajal, in turn, married, raised four daughters, and had a small farm where she kept 10 cows and made cheese, which she sold to neighbors.

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Estefania Carvajal in Venezuela, married, raised four daughters, and had a small farm where she kept 10 cows and made cheese that she sold to neighbors. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Estefania Carvajal in Venezuela, married, raised four daughters, and had a small farm where she kept 10 cows and made cheese that she sold to neighbors.  
Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

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Estefania Carvajal in Venezuela, married, raised four daughters, and had a small farm where she kept 10 cows and made cheese that she sold to neighbors. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Castillo grew up watching her grandmother and her mother make cheese.

At Mrs. Rosa Foods, Castillo and her sister, Julia, along with Castillo’s partner, María Rosal, and Rosal’s brother, Carlos, produce nine varieties of fresh cheese and a range of other Venezuelan foods, such as cachapas, empanadas and arepas.

Castillo trained as an attorney in Venezuela but came to the United States in 2017, seeking asylum, fleeing persecution in her home country. Rosal arrived in 2018.

Nostalgic for the flavors of home, she and Rosal cooked the dishes they remembered. While they could find many ingredients they needed, they could never find cheese that tasted right.

“We missed the flavors we remembered from home, of very simple fresh cheese. So we started to make it ourselves from the recipes we had learned from our families,” said Castillo.

In December 2019, she and Rosal began selling their homemade cheese. Then, when Castillo lost her job at the start of the pandemic, they decided it was time to open the first Venezuelan creamery in Atlanta.

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Mrs. Rosa Foods produces nine varieties of Venezuelan cheese in their creamery on Covington Highway. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Mrs. Rosa Foods produces nine varieties of Venezuelan cheese in their creamery on Covington Highway. 
Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

caption arrowCaption
Mrs. Rosa Foods produces nine varieties of Venezuelan cheese in their creamery on Covington Highway. Courtesy of Mrs. Rosa Foods

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“For many, the pandemic was a tragedy. But for us, it was a moment of opportunity,” said Rosal.

Selling cheese is not as simple as selling baked goods. Cheese making is a highly regulated industry because of the potential for spreading illness.

They started commercial production in shared kitchen space at Leaven Kitchen in Decatur. Soon, with the help of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta Entrepreneurship Center, they received a grant that enabled them to purchase their own equipment and build a creamery space to their specifications in a storefront at 4086 Covington Highway in Decatur. They were careful to follow all the regulations and credit the Urban League and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for helping them through the regulatory process.

Sales were good, and demand increased. Orders were not for 4 pounds of cheese but for 20 or 30 pounds. The staff of four may produce up to 400 pounds of cheese each week.

Their cheese and hot dishes are available weekly at seven different farmers markets from Norcross to Avondale Estates, and the cheese is sold at eight Hispanic supermarkets across metro Atlanta and the Buford Highway Farmers Market.

Recently they opened a retail store in the front of their creamery and added a food truck.

Just as Castillo’s grandmother and mother made cheese to support their families, Castillo’s cheese making supports her family both in the U.S. and back home in Venezuela. Rosa Carvajal died in Venezuela five years ago at age 90, but Estafina Carvajal still lives there with two of her daughters.

“I implored my family to come to the United States, but they want to stay there, still on the farm,” Castillo said. “One of the reasons I have this company is so I can help to support them so they can have a better life.”

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Mrs. Rosa Foods founders Maria Rosal (left) and Zaimar Castillo (right) pose inside their food truck. With two years in the market, they have grown as much as in producing cheeses and typical Venezuelan dishes. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Mrs. Rosa Foods founders Maria Rosal (left) and Zaimar Castillo (right) pose inside their food truck. With two years in the market, they have grown as much as in producing cheeses and typical Venezuelan dishes. 
Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

caption arrowCaption
Mrs. Rosa Foods founders Maria Rosal (left) and Zaimar Castillo (right) pose inside their food truck. With two years in the market, they have grown as much as in producing cheeses and typical Venezuelan dishes. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

RECIPES

Mrs. Rosa Foods co-founder Zaimar Castillo shared recipes for two Venezuelan favorites, learned from her grandmother and mother. She recommends using Venezuela-based P.A.N. precooked corn flours in these recipes. Both the white and yellow versions are widely available at Hispanic grocery stores, where you can find Mrs. Rosa cheeses. In addition to the cachapas and empanada recipes here, P.A.N. corn flour is also used to make arepas and tortillas. In the new Mrs. Rosa Foods storefront, you can purchase cachapas, empanadas and arepas, as well as their cheeses.

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Cachapas are Venezuelan corn pancakes, cooked on a griddle, crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. This one is filled with chicken and cheese, then topped with more cheese. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Cachapas are Venezuelan corn pancakes, cooked on a griddle, crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. This one is filled with chicken and cheese, then topped with more cheese. 
Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

caption arrowCaption
Cachapas are Venezuelan corn pancakes, cooked on a griddle, crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. This one is filled with chicken and cheese, then topped with more cheese. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Cachapas

Cachapas are Venezuelan corn pancakes cooked on a griddle, crisp on the edges and soft in the middle. Queso de mano is the most traditional filling and gets its name from the cheese-making process. Once the curds start to form, the cheese is molded into a circular shape by hand.

Fill a cachapa with cheese, use the Beef Filling or Chicken Filling from our recipes, or fill with a combination of cheese and meat.

A filled cachapa makes a hearty meal as good for breakfast as it is for dinner. In our photos, the cachapas are topped with queso rallado, a grated Venezuelan cheese, and nata, a creamy cheese similar to creme fraiche.

Cachapas
  • 1 cup yellow P.A.N. precooked corn flour
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
  • 2 cups milk, or as needed
  • Beef Filling (see recipe)
  • Chicken Filling (see recipe)
  • Queso de mano or shredded mozzarella
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together corn flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Stir in corn. Stir in just enough milk to make a loose batter.
  • Heat griddle or cast-iron skillet over high heat. Spray surface with nonstick cooking spray. Add 1/2 cup batter and if necessary, spread to make a 5-inch circle. Cook until bottom is crisp and well-browned, about 3 minutes. Then carefully turn over and top with filling or cheese. When bottom is crisp, about 2 minutes, fold pancake in half and serve hot.
  • Repeat process with remaining batter, wiping out the previous oil and spraying the skillet or griddle generously with cooking spray for each batch. Makes 8 pancakes.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per pancake without filling: 106 calories (percent of calories from fat, 17), 4 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 168 milligrams sodium.
caption arrowCaption
Venezuelan empanadas are made with a simple dough of corn flour mixed with a little fat and salt. These are served with guasacaca, an avocado-cilantro sauce. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Venezuelan empanadas are made with a simple dough of corn flour mixed with a little fat and salt. These are served with guasacaca, an avocado-cilantro sauce.
Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

caption arrowCaption
Venezuelan empanadas are made with a simple dough of corn flour mixed with a little fat and salt. These are served with guasacaca, an avocado-cilantro sauce. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

P.A.N. corn flour makes a crisp, full-flavored dough for these empanadas. The goal is to stir together a dough soft enough to roll out without cracking. A 1-quart resealable plastic bag cut along the sides makes a sturdy surface for rolling the dough.

In our photos, the empanadas are accompanied with guasacaca, a guacamole-like sauce made of cilantro, mayonnaise, lime and avocado.

Empanadas
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 1 3/4 cups white P.A.N. precooked corn flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water, or as needed
  • 3/4 cup Beef or Chicken Filling (see recipes)
  • In a Dutch oven, heat 3 inches oil over medium-high heat to 350 degrees.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk corn flour, vegetable oil and salt. Stir in 1 cup water and continue adding water until a moist dough is formed. Divide dough into 6 balls and cover with plastic wrap so the dough does not dry out.
  • Place one ball in the center of an oiled piece of heavy-duty plastic. Top with another piece of oiled plastic and roll into a 6-inch circle. Top dough with 2 tablespoons filling and use the bottom piece of plastic to fold the dough in half over the filling. Press edges to seal. Remove from plastic and add empanada to the hot oil. Form as many empanadas as your Dutch oven will hold without crowding. Fry until golden, about 4 minutes. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and continue process until all empanadas are formed and cooked. Makes 6 empanadas.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per Beef Empanada: 363 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), 8 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 25 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 19 milligrams cholesterol, 426 milligrams sodium. Per Chicken Empanada: 319 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 8 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 20 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 415 milligrams sodium.

Beef Filling
  • 1/2 pound beef chuck, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 small bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Black pepper
  • Put beef in medium saucepan and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to simmer and cook until beef is easily shredded, about 2 hours. Remove from heat and let rest until beef is cool enough to handle. Remove beef from cooking liquid, reserving cooking liquid, and shred the meat and set aside.
  • In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, cilantro and garlic. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add shredded beef and enough cooking liquid to make a moist filling. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard any remaining cooking liquid. Makes 2 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 2-tablespoon serving: 48 calories (percent of calories from fat, 75), 3 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 10 milligrams cholesterol, 19 milligrams sodium.

Chicken Filling
  • 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Black pepper
  • Put chicken in medium saucepan and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until chicken is easily shredded, about 35 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest until chicken is cool enough to handle. Remove chicken from cooking liquid, reserving cooking liquid, and shred the meat. Set aside.
  • In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, green bell pepper, red bell pepper, celery, cilantro and garlic. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add shredded chicken and enough cooking liquid to make a moist filling. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard any remaining cooking liquid. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 2-tablespoon serving: 34 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 3 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium.
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