Tostones on the Fly
Until recently, I rarely fried anything at home. I hated the smell, the splatter, the guilt. When I started writing about Latin American food, I knew I couldn’t avoid it much longer and finally bought a deep fryer. While it produces perfect batches of churros, empanadas and buñuelos, it’s the SUV of fryers requiring such a massive amount of oil that I keep it parked most of the time. It wasn’t practical for smaller, any-night batches of plantains. Maduros I can handle. Overly ripe, they caramelize and brown in a second while using grapeseed oil keeps them light. My tostones or chatinos, the green plantains fried twice till they’re crispy gold, however, were disasters. I’d buy bright green plantains but put off making them till they were just about to ripen, somewhere between a maduro and tostone. Overly cautious when I added the plantain chunks, I’d stand too far back, giving it a nervous last-minute flick, that sent oil everywhere. Taking too long to cook because I hadn’t let the oil get hot enough, they’d soak up every extra drop. Finally, I’d put them in a tostonera to smash down but they’d go to the side instead. They did not look like flowery golden discs, they looked run over. By the time I got to the second frying, both the tostones and I were exhausted and covered in oil.
That was my story until this Christmas Eve. Papo, a friend of my Uncle’s had come over to help set everything up for dinner. A one-man catering company, he’d been working since the day before preparing the pig for the roast, peeling yuca, and chopping plantains. He’d just started frying the plantains but got called away to the kitchen when the oven wasn’t equipped to handle the massive amounts of rice required for a Cuban family of fifty. The resulting domino effect meant that in fifteen minutes we were suddenly two hours behind. Wanting to help out, my mother, from whom I’d inherited my fear of frying, and I volunteered to take over the tostones. I’d been pestering Papo with questions all day and was dying to do something. He took one look at us gingerly mashing the too hot plantains between to worn pieces of aluminum foil and the defeat in his eyes was heart wrending. He went back to the kitchen and came back with two cans of beans for even mashing. We went to work, improving a little with each batch. Making a dozen or so every few months hadn’t helped, but making over 200 in an hour, I learned fast. With no time for jitters, I got used to the bubbling oil, the draining, and mashing by being careful not skittish. In the end, the rice cooked, the pig roasted, the plantains fried, and the family ate. Once the momentary panic was over, it was hard to remember why we’d gotten so worked up in the first place.
Tostones (or Chatinos)
I think the reason I had so much trouble with them is that I was relying too much on the directions rather than what I had in front of me. It is easier to wait for a digital timer to tell you it’s 365 degrees than to watch the plantains to make sure they’re cooking as quickly as they should. Similarly, if they don’t mash evenly, they just need to be fried a couple of more minutes so test one before removing the entire batch from the oil. If you’re making them in advance, they can be frozen after the initial frying and mashing, then fried the second and final time just before serving.
3 large green plantains
1 cup corn oil
Cut the ends off the plantains and slice down the middle. Remove the peel and cut into 1″ chunks. Heat one cup of corn oil in a deep frying pan until hot. Add plantains in batches and fry until golden all around, about 3-5 minutes.
Test for doneness by using a can or flat bottomed bottle to smash to desired thickness. The plantain should spread out evenly but hold together from the center. If so, remove from oil and drain on paper towels of brown paper.*
Refry a second time till evenly crisp. Drain once again and add sea salt to taste. Though they’re best eaten immediately, they can be warmed in the oven a few minutes before serving if made in advance.
*At this point, they can also be soaked in warm salted water a few minutes. This works well for thicker plantains making them more tender. Drain well before frying the second time.