Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tostones and Other Debacles

I learned to make tostones from a Puerto Rican abuelita who would probably shake her head in dismay if she could see the mess I just made:

But there’s something about learning how to cook “ethnic” food from people who actually are said ethnicity, and it goes like this:  They lie.
Well, OK, not lie exactly, but they sure as hell don’t tell you everything you need to know.  Because they don’t know you need to know it, because to them it’s just second nature, knowledge they got through their mother’s milk, or, as my more colorful relatives used to say back in the day, “straight from the titty.”
But I digress. 
Exhibit A: Beans.  When I grew up (a white girl in rural 1970’s Ohio), we ate beans exactly four ways:
1.      Canned lima beans as part of “succotash.”  Disgusting.
2.      Kidney beans as part of “chili.”  Edible, but nothing like “chile” as it is cooked anywhere south and west of, say, Kentucky.
3.      “Three Bean Salad,” a critical part of any family summertime get-together.  For the uninitiated: a cold dish made from canned green beans, wax beans, and kidney beans, dressed with vinegar, oil, and sugar.  Two baby steps shy of disgusting.
4.      Baked.  From a can.  Cloying, and usually involving little bits of flaccid bacon.  Disgusting.
When I got older and my dad started doing more cooking, we branched out, and he made a lot of garlicky Italian fried greens with cannellini beans, or chick pea1 salads, and those were good.  Then I became a vegetarian for about a decade, and discovered enough ways to eat legumes that I wouldn’t get bored.
But I had never eaten beans like I had them when I moved to El Paso and worked in Ciudad Juarez.  Of course, there were the usual refried beans, which I had seen before in what passes for Mexican food in Ohio (like cans of "Old El Paso" brand food or the arrestingly named restaurant chain, Chi-Chi’s).  But there was also this amazing dish they called “frijoles de la olla,” or “pot beans.”
They were just pinto beans, cooked in a big pot—but oh, how delicious.  I begged my Mexican friends and co-workers to teach me how to make them, and they all just rolled their eyes. 
“What do you mean, ‘how to make them,’?” one woman asked me.  “You put the beans in a pot of water and cook them!”
So I tried that.  And my beans sucked.  They were awful.  Hard, mealy, bland--they made succotash look good.
Eventually, I realized there was a lot of cultural information buried in the direction to just “put them in a pot of water and cook them.”  You have to soak the beans.  And then bring them up to a boil.  Skim off the foam.  And don’t add salt or acid until they’re already tender.  And put an onion in the pot.  Maybe with a clove stuck in it, or maybe not.  Maybe a bay leaf.  Epazote, if you can get it.  And fresh beans cook faster than old ones. Old ones, maybe throw in a pinch of baking soda.  And cook them until you can mash one against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.
My beans got better and better, but they were never as good as what I’d had in Mexico, or Mexican-America.  Until one day, over a decade later, I happened to be talking to a woman and she off-handedly said, “Oh, and if the water gets low and you have to add more water, you need to make sure it’s really hot first.  If you add cold water to the beans when they’re cooking, they get tough.”
Shazam.  Just like that, I finally was cooking beans like a Mexican.  It only took me ten years.
And so it goes with tostones.  Only I haven’t found the magic yet.
Tostones are fried green plantains.  You can find variations on this theme in every Latin American cuisine that I know of.  
When I worked in Juarez, my boss was Puerto Rican, and on a couple of very memorable occasions, she invited me over to eat at her house.  Her mother, whom I knew only as “Mami,” shuffled about the kitchen in her apron, completely ignoring my effusive praise of her food, and turning out dish after amazing dish.
The tostones were an appetizer.  Crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, a little salty, not quite sweet…I could have eaten my body weight in tostones.
This fact was not lost on Mami, and I think she liked me if for no other reason than I ate tostones as fast as she could fry them.  After dinner, in my best (not good) Spanish, I asked her how to make them.  She seemed confused.
“You take the plantain, you cut it, you fry it.”
But! But! No!  There was so much more involved.  There was a bowl of water on the counter.  I gestured at it.
“Oh, you soak them.”
When?  Before frying?  After?
There was some muttering, maybe you soaked them twice, definitely put salt in the water.
And then what?
“Then you fry them.”
But…but the finished tostones are not the same shape as the slices of raw plantain.
“Oh, yes, you put them under a glass.”
What???
She took a heavy rocks glass and pantomimed smashing the toston.
But…When?  Before the soaking?  Before the frying?  In between?  After?
Gah!
I tried to re-create her instructions at home.  My tostones sucked, and they continued to suck for years afterward.  (This was long before “Just Google it” was an option).
Eventually I found a great little cookbook, The Book of Latin American Cooking.  (And I would not include an Amazon associates link if I didn't truly think this was a worthwhile book, which you can--hello! get used for next-to-nothing.)


The author, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, shared my fondness for tostones, and starts with her favorite recipe, the Columbian Patacones.  She goes on to list variations from Costa Rica, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Puerto Rico.  All of the variations involve frying the plantains two separate times.  Sometimes they are smashed, sometimes they are layered with a second slice, sometimes they are soaked in cold salted water.  In Puerto Rico, Lambert Ortiz says, the tostones are soaked twice, fried twice, and smashed in between.
So I have a lot of advice on the plaintain-frying front.
But my tostones still suck.
I mean, they’re tasty and crispy, and my daughters will eat them as fast as I can fry them, but the smashing stage goes poorly, and I end up with either thick, unharmed slices or a pan full of plantain crumbles (see above).
Yummy, but…I know Mami would be flabbergasted by my inability to “take the plantain, cut it, and fry it.”
(And if, by some bit of good fortune, you happen to know what I’m doing wrong, by all means leave a comment and tell me.)

***
1 - Talk about a culturally confusing food: Chick peas, aka a “garbanzo beans”—a mainstay of Mediterranean food, they are known as “ceci” in Italian.  I grew up in an Italian area, where chick peas are known colloquially as “chi chi beans.”  Years later, this puzzled a Mexican co-worker of mine, who looked at the beans and asked, “Why do you call them ‘boobs’ when they look like little butts?”

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