“I enjoyed it so much and was quick,” said Melian, 52, now a professional chef and author. “Basically, I was born to do empanada crimping.”
Melian was born and raised in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, where she learned cooking from her grandmother Porota, who was inventive in the kitchen and often used leftovers to turn them into something different and delicious. Melian recently wrote a cookbook, “Gaby’s Latin American Kitchen,” about dishes she learned as a child and those she learned after coming to the United States.
She says she hopes her book and the many recipes it contains will inspire children to learn more about Latin America and find ways to explore its food and learn about its people. She also wants to encourage them to keep their hands busy in the kitchen.
“I put the recipes there, and then they’re yours,” she said. “You can do whatever you want with them.”
The book is your guide to an exploration of Latino foods. You can start in Mexico with a breakfast of chilaquiles verdes (tortilla chips with green salsa, cheese, beans, topped with fried eggs). Head south to Central America to dip your hands in some masa harina and make Salvadoran pupusas – a corn tortilla that’s often filled with cheese, beans and chicharron (pork). For dinner, head to the Caribbean for Cuba’s famous ropa vieja, a pulled beef stew.
Many of these foods — and their ingredients — are easily found in the United States, Melian said, due to the strong influence of Hispanic Americans in our culture. There are more than 60 million Hispanics in the United States, according to the census, so you can find restaurants specializing in arepas, empanadas, pupusas, and tacos.
Melian said that as you develop your skills, you can choose an ingredient used in Latin countries, like platano, and prepare it in different ways. For example, try Puerto Rican tostones (fried green plantains) or Dominican maduros (fried sweet plantains). People eat plantains for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Latin America, and they can be cooked when firm and green or soft and black. You can fry them, bake them or mash them.
If you’re thirsty, try a Mexican agua fresca de limon (lime water). And if you want to snack between lunch and dinner, enjoy a sopa paraguaya, a special cornbread from Paraguay.
In Buenos Aires, Melian often came home from school and ate leftover empanada. You can make him a chicken empanada with leftover roast chicken.
“Growing up, we didn’t have snacks. It wasn’t like I came home from school and said ‘abuela tengo hambre’ and my grandma handed me a bag of crisps,” Melian recalls. “No, she would go to the kitchen, open the fridge and scramble something…and that was the snack.”
Some days she would make pancakes with dulce de leche or panqueques (pronounced pahn-KEH-keh). They’re still Melian’s favorite postre, and these days she makes them with store-bought dulce a leche, one of her favorite ingredients.
“I usually make them when someone comes because if I make them myself, it’s ¡peligroso!” or dangerous, because she would eat too much, she said. “I love them.”
More from KidsPost’s conversation with Gaby Melian:
Question: What inspires you to cook?
Answer: My book is dedicated to my grandmother. She’s basically the reason I cook. She understood that cooking was my thing [and] allowed me in the kitchen very young. I was in the kitchen observing and learning by imitating.
Q: You were so young when you started?
A: I helped in the kitchen when I was 8 years old. Then gradually I got most of the tasks. My mother never learned how to cook rice well, either it was too dry or too velvety. I was probably 10 when I was already making the rice for her because she said, “Oh, you’re good at that.”
Q: How did you learn all these Latin American recipes?
A: I was very curious, but obviously living in Argentina, I only knew people from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, but I didn’t know anyone from Mexico. I didn’t know anyone from Panama. It all happened when I came to the United States. You go to New York and you meet people from all over the world. The [recipes] from Argentina, they obviously have a special place in my heart because they come from my grandmother’s kitchen. But the others are things I learned here.
Q: So we can learn about Latino culture through the food in the book?
A: All these recipes come from families, and each family adds their own personal touch to the dish. Every time I make a recipe, I say “this is my version”. You can do it yourself. Find the different countries on the map, look for similarities and differences, and maybe if you do pupusas and meet someone from El Salvador, you can have a conversation about their food.
Ingredients — ingredients
Pancakes with Dulce de Leche
Tools: Medium bowl, whisk, 8-inch non-stick skillet, ¼ cup dry measuring cup, spatula, plate, small icing spatula, serving platter, spoon, fine-mesh strainer.
Handling time: 25 minutes
¾ cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and softened
1 to 2 cups dulce de leche (store bought)
Powdered sugar (optional)
1. In a medium bowl, whisk egg until well blended. Add half the flour and half the milk. Whisk until well blended.
2. Add the remaining flour and milk and continue to whisk until smooth. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
3. Ask a parent to help you with this next step. In an 8-inch nonstick skillet, melt 1 piece of softened butter over medium-high heat. Pour ¼ cup of batter into the pan and tilt the pan slowly until the batter forms a thin, round layer and coats the bottom of the pan. Place the pan on the burner and cook until the bottom is golden brown, about 1 minute.
4. Use a spatula to gently flip the panqueque. Cook until the other side is golden brown, about 1 minute.
5. Carefully slide the panqueque from the pan onto a plate. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the remaining butter and batter, stacking the panqueques on top of each other on the plate. Turn off the stove.
6. Working with 1 panqueque at a time, use a small icing spatula to spread 2 tablespoons to ¼ cup dulce de leche over the panqueque. Use your hands to roll the panqueque into a log and place it on a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining panqueques and dulce de leche.
seven. Add a spoonful of powdered sugar (if using) to a fine-mesh strainer. Hold the colander over the panqueques and gently tap the side to release an even layer of sugar. Serve.
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