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For Gaby Melian, her career path started in the family kitchen

Melian became an expert at crimping empanadas as a girl in Argentina. Now she shares family recipes and more in a new kids cookbook.

Chef and cookbook author Gaby Melian browses at a farmers market. Melian, who grew up in Argentina, started helping in the family kitchen when she was a girl. She became the family's empanada crimping expert. (Armando Rafael)

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When she was a little girl, Gaby Melian spent lots of free time helping in the kitchen, where, she says, she fell in love with food.

Her abuelita taught her how to crimp Argentinean empanadas — pastries filled with meats, vegetables and spices. By the age of 12 she was the family’s crimping expert, helping make as many as 100 empanadas for birthday parties.

“I enjoyed it so much and I was quick,” said Melian, 52, now a professional chef and author. “Basically I was born to make empanada crimping.”

Melian was born and raised in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, where she learned the food of 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 in childhood and ones she learned after coming to the United States.

She says she hopes that her book and the many recipes in it inspire kids to learn more about Latin America and find ways to explore its food and get to know its people. She also wants to encourage them to get their hands busy in the kitchen.

“I put the recipes out there, and then they’re yours,” she said. “You can do whatever you want with them.”

The book is your guide for 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 sink your hands into some masa harina and make Salvadoran pupusas — a corn tortilla that is often filled with cheese, beans and chicharron (pork). For dinner, jump to the Caribbean for Cuba’s famous ropa vieja, a stew of shredded beef.

Many of these foods — and their ingredients — are easily found in the United States, said Melian, because of 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 that specialize in arepas, empanadas, pupusas and tacos.

Melian said as you expand your skills, you can pick an ingredient that is used across Latino countries such as the plátano and make it in different ways. For example, try the Puerto Rican tostones (fried green plantains) or the Dominican maduros (fried sweet plantains). People eat plantains for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Latin America, and they can be cooked when they are firm and green or soft and black. You can fry, bake or mash them.

If you are thirsty, try a Mexican agua fresca de limon (lime water). And if you want a snack between lunch and dinner, taste a sopa paraguaya, a special cornbread from Paraguay.

In Buenos Aires, Melian would often come home from school and eat a leftover empanada. You can make her chicken empanada with leftover rotisserie chicken.

“Growing up we didn’t have snacks. It wasn’t like I got home from school, and I said, ‘abuela tengo hambre’ and my grandma would hand me a bag of chips,” Melian recalls. “No, she’d go to the kitchen, open the fridge, and scramble something … and that was the snack.”

Some days she made dulce de leche crepes or panqueques (pronounced pahn-KEH-keh). They are still Melian’s favorite postre, and these days she makes them with store-bought dulce the leche, one of her favorite ingredients.

“I usually make them when someone comes over because if I make them for myself it’s ¡peligroso!" or dangerous, because she would eat too many, 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 why I cook. She figured out 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 that young when you started?

A: I was helping in the kitchen when I was 8. Then, progressively I got most tasks. My mother never learned how to make rice well, either it was too dry or too soupy. I was probably 10 when I was already making the rice for her because she said, “Oh, you’re good at it.”

Q: How did you learn all those recipes from Latin America?

A: I was very curious, but obviously living in Argentina I only knew people from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, but I didn’t know anybody from Mexico. I didn’t know anybody from Panama. Everything 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 obviously they have a special place in my heart because they came from my grandma’s kitchen. But the other ones are things that I learned here.

Q: So we can learn about Latino culture through food in the book?

A: All these recipes are from families, and each family adds their own twist to the dish. Whenever I do a recipe I say “this is my version of it.” You can make it your own. Find the different countries in the map, look for the similarities and differences, and maybe if you make pupusas and meet someone from El Salvador, you can have a conversation about their food.

Glossary – Glosario

Breakfast — desayuno

Bread — pan

Dessert — postre

Dinner — cena

Drinks — bebidas

Food — comida

Ingredients — ingredientes

Lunch — almuerzo

Snack — meriendas

Sides — guarniciones

Panqueques con Dulce de Leche

Tools: Medium bowl, whisk, 8-inch nonstick skillet, ¼-cup dry measuring cup, spatula, plate, small icing spatula, serving platter, spoon, fine-mesh strainer.

Hands-on time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Makes: About 6 to 8

Ingredients

1 large egg

¾ cup all-purpose flour, sifted

¾ cup whole milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and softened

1 to 2 cups dulce de leche (store bought)

Powdered sugar (optional)

Steps

1. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg until well combined. Add half the flour and half the milk. Whisk until well combined.

2. Add the remaining flour and milk and continue whisking until smooth. Let the batter sit for 5 minutes.

3. Ask a parent for help with this next step. In an 8-inch nonstick skillet, melt 1 piece of the softened butter over medium-high heat. Pour ¼ cup of the batter into the skillet and tilt the skillet slowly until the batter forms a thin, round layer and covers the bottom of the skillet. Set the pan on the burner, and cook until the bottom is golden brown, about 1 minute.

4. Use a spatula to carefully flip the panqueque. Cook until the other side is golden brown, about 1 minute.

5. Carefully slide the panqueque from the skillet 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 of 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.

7. Add a spoonful of the powdered sugar (if using) to a fine-mesh strainer. Hold the strainer over the panqueques and gently tap the side to release an even layer of sugar. Serve.

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