Total time:20 mins
Servings:3 to 6
“All of the comments from the children in the cookbook are real — from real children,” Melian said. “There are recipes that didn’t make it to the book because the children didn’t like them or because they were too hard. And then there were the winners — the clear winners.”
The chef, however, had her own wealth of experience to draw upon. “I’ve been teaching children all my life,” she said, noting that she has taught cooking in public and private schools, at nonprofits, and even in her home.
If you talk with someone who loves to cook, you’ll often hear about how they learned by watching a loved one at home. Melian is the same. In the introduction to her book, she writes: “I grew up watching my abuela, my mom’s mom, cook in our tiny kitchen in Buenos Aires. She started teaching me when I was very young.”
“When I said this is the book I wish I had when I was 8, I meant that,” she said of her first cookbook, noting that the colorful, lively instruction manual could also help parents who aren’t into cooking but want their child to have this life skill.
“If a child has an interest, this book can be a book that can close that gap,” she said.
Throughout the cookbook, Melian notes, “When in doubt, ask a grown-up for help.” There are, however, recipes that children can make on their own, especially if they follow her advice. She tackles basic skills, from how to chop an onion and peel garlic to the best way to grate cheese and stem and chop chiles. She explains how to accurately measure dry and wet ingredients.
While Melian is from Argentina, the cookbook draws on breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, snack and drink recipes from Mexico, South and Central America, and some Caribbean islands, and she first tasted many of them while going to culinary school and working in New York.
For each recipe, she provides the country of origin (there is a map and a Spanish glossary of words as well) and a difficulty level (beginner, intermediate and advanced so a child can grow into the book). Each recipe gets a brief origin story, often featuring a home cook or chef from that country. For example, an Ecuadoran chef shared the ceviche recipe, which calls for briefly boiling the shrimp rather than simply “cooking” them in an acid as many recipes do.
“This book is for anyone that has a curiosity about Latin American cuisine,” she said. (I agree. I love pupusas but have never made them. After reading her crystal-clear recipe and looking at the step-by-step photos, I’m going to.)
As I chatted with Melian, I couldn’t help but smile and remember my first cookbook: “Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook.” Like Melian, I learned by watching my grandmother and mother cook, but that was unconscious, really — knowledge through osmosis.
That thin, spiral-bound cookbook gave me permission to strike out on my own, igniting that first spark of pride that I still feel when I make something and hear the mmms around the table. I could pick a recipe and then cook for the family, making a meatloaf or sugar cookies or sloppy Joes.
Melian is doing that for a whole new generation, with her takes on pupusas, alfajores de maicena and arroz con pollo. Cheers to that.
Tostadas de Frijoles y Queso (Bean and Cheese Tostadas)
Melian writes that tostadas were “invented as a way to use up leftovers. Toasting or frying stale tortillas turns them crunchy and delicious. And then you can top them with other leftovers.” Think of this simple recipe as a jumping-off point. You could add leftover chicken, pork or sausage, or jazz up your beans with spices. Serve with Melian’s Agua Fresca de Limon (see recipe here) if you like.
NOTE: If you do not have crema, you can substitute with sour cream: In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sour cream and 1 tablespoon each of water and lime juice until well combined.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftover beans for up to 5 days.
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- One (15-ounce) can refried beans (black or pinto)
- 1/4 cup water, plus more as needed
- 6 tostada shells
- 1 cup (6 ounces) crumbled queso fresco or shredded mozzarella cheese
- 4 romaine or iceberg lettuce leaves, thinly sliced
- Flesh of 1 large avocado, sliced
- Mexican cream (crema) (may substitute with sour cream; see NOTE)
- Hot sauce, such as sriracha, for serving
- Lime wedges, for serving (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the beans and water, and warm, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the beans are warm and spreadable, about 3 minutes. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed. Remove from the heat.
Place the tostada shells on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Evenly divide the bean mixture among the shells, spreading into an even layer. Sprinkle the cheese evenly on top.
Transfer the baking sheet to the oven for about 5 minutes, or until the tostadas are warmed through.
Divide the tostadas among plates and top each with lettuce and avocado. Drizzle each with crema or sour cream and hot sauce, and serve with a lime wedge, if using.
Per serving (1 tostada, 1 tablespoon crema, 1 tablespoon sriracha)
Calories: 275; Total Fat: 17 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 32 mg; Sodium: 736 mg; Carbohydrates: 22 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 11 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Gaby’s Latin American Kitchen” by Gaby Melian (America’s Test Kitchen, 2022).
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to [email protected].
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