Wow, those are some big bananas! (Tostones: fried plantains with rice and beans)

8 Nov

If you’ve never seen a plantain, you may be surprised to see it looks like a prolific banana.  In fact, when I taught Spanish and brought them to my class, it drew quite a bit of attention from the immature minds of my high school students.  In addition to the inappropriate comments, most students said they had never seen such big “mutant bananas” and others thought they might have been rotting since even the green ones had some spots on them.

Interestingly enough, most people don’t know that our sweet beloved bananas are the real mutant.  The original fruit is the starchy plantain that can be traced back thousands of years to Southeast Asia, and is usually cooked when eaten.  And although the most popular banana we eat today is the sweet yellow one, the truth is that the banana mutation occurred in 1836 in Jamaica, when discovered by Jean Francois Poujot in his plantation.  After that, entire nations were developed due to the rising power of the banana industry.

Bananas are indeed delicious, and had a significant influence in world history, but today I acknowledge its parents, the plantains.

When purchasing plantains, you may see they are often sold either green (platanos verdes — unripe) or yellow (platanos maduros — ripe).  If you want them ripe for other recipes, you could also buy the green ones and wait several days.  But for today’s tostones, green is good.

Way before I started preparing the plantains, I planned ahead for my rice and beans.  Both needed to be soaked several hours before preparation, so I did that first thing in the morning.  But note the difference:  the beans should be soaked in boiling water, and the rice should be soaked in cold water.

Both rice and beans from dry packaging require rinsing to remove any dirt or powder.  In addition, the beans should be examined to be sure there are no tiny rocks or twigs (I have found rocks!).  For improved digestion, rice should also be soaked in cold water because it will release its phytic acid, which can interfere with the absorption of protein and certain minerals.  Beans should be soaked in hot water because it helps to break down indigestible sugars known as oligosaccharides (known to cause gas!)  Also, in both the rice and the beans, the time soaked contributes to the cooking time, thus resulting in a faster preparation later in the day.

The rest of the rice and beans preparation can occur right before you fry the plantains, or during, if you can multi-task.

For the beans, be sure to drain the soaking water and rinse them completely to wash away the oligosaccharides and any remaining dirt.  The best way to cook them is in a pressure cooker, but it could be done in a regular pot too if you give yourself more time.

If you have a pressure cooker, put the beans in it with enough water to cover approximately one inch above the beans.  Add bay leaves, and some spices to your liking.  Today, I used about 1 tsp each cumin, annatto, chili powder, dried cilantro, and garlic powder because I was going for some of the Latin flavoring.  The measurements for these depend on how much beans you’re cooking (I only had about 2 cups).  Put the lid snugly on the pressure cooker as per the directions, and set the burner on high.  Your pressure cooker may vary in its directions, and it will also vary with your choice of beans.  I used black beans, so they only needed about 15 minutes of cooking after the pressure cooker reached the point of pressure.  Unless your pressure cooker has a specific way of identifying this status, you may just need to rely on what you see and hear happening.  With mine, I start to hear a rise in a hissing sound, until it’s making quite a fuss and blowing some steam through a hole in the lid.  Then suddenly it stops and I hear a quiet rumble and hiss.  That’s when I start the timer.  When time’s up, I wait for the pressure to drop and check the beans.  If the beans are soft, then they are done.  Don’t worry if there is extra water.  You can leave the beans in that water, because this water is OK to save or even use in another dish.

Meanwhile, the rice can be drained and rinsed, and then prepared in another pot.  With the exception of the presoaking part, I still make my rice as my sister-in-law showed me using sauteed onions in the pot first, then adding the rice and mixing it all together with water and a boullion cube.  A quick trick to quickly chopping an onion:  cut the onion in half down its vertical center (not its equator!), then make several slices perpendicular to it’s root, but not all the way through so that it does not come undone.  Then slice parallel to the root and the onion will magically appear chopped into little squares.

Since the rice has already been soaked, I just use a 2:1 ratio of water to rice, instead of the 2.5:1 recommended for dry brown rice.  Once the water is on the rice, it really shouldn’t be stirred because the starches break up and make the rice mushy.  Leave it to boil until you notice that enough water has evaporated and you see sputtering holes in the rice’s landscape.  At that point, lower the burner to a simmer, and keep a lid on it for 20 more minutes.

When finished, you can mix the rice and beans together in a bowl, if you don’t mind the color of the beans running into the rice (like a dirty rice), or keep them separate and plate the rice with the beans on top or on the side.

Now the plantains!  Peeling green plantains can be a challenge.  I try to cut lengthwise along the natural creases and peel them.  If you have a very hard time, it could help to cut them first into 1.5 – 2 inch chunks and cut the skins off by tilting them on their sides and cutting downward where the plantain meets its skin.  There’s actually a great step-by-step explanation with pictures here.

Once you have these chunks, you are ready to deep-fry.  Yes, I did say deep fry.  But don’t be alarmed!  If done correctly, deep-frying can result in less oil absorption than other forms of frying.  Some general tips:

  • Use an oil that can stand high temperatures, like safflower oil, and always monitor it with an oil/candy thermometer.  Oil that is too cold will be absorbed into the food.  If it is too hot, it will obviously burn the food and also release carcinogenic compounds.
  • Use tongs to both place and remove your food from the oil, so you do not splash hot oil on yourself or your stove (it’s hard to clean).
  • Do not put all your foods in at once — that will cause the oil temperature to drop.  Regulate the oil by monitoring your burner at all times.  370 degree is generally a good temperature (recipes vary), but it should never go above 400 for most oils — also, depending on your oil thermometer, watch that the temperature doesn’t go anywhere near the maximum number, because it will break!  If you see it rises high, just pull the thermometer out so it can cool in the air, but never put it into cold water.
  • After frying, rather than setting the foods on the paper towel (where they sit in their own oil), put them on a cookie cooling rack instead, with paper towels or a cookie sheet underneath to catch the dripping oil.

To make tostones, they must actually be fried twice.  The first time, they are fried in their chunk forms only until the outside is golden and you no longer hear crackling — just sizzling.  As you fry each batch, make sure they are on a cooling rack , and keep them in some kind of order so that when you are ready for the next step you start with your cool ones first and don’t burn yourself!

Next they will be squashed with a beautifully simple device called a tostonera.  Place the fried plantain chunk onto the circular indent and close the handle onto it.  You need not smash it completely to smithereens — just enough to make it into a patty.

Once your patties are ready, they go back in the deep fry oil (check the temperature!) and continue to fry until they have become a crispy golden patty.  Remove them from the oil and drain them once again on cooling racks.

Sprinkle the tostones with coarse salt and serve with the beans and rice.



One Response to “Wow, those are some big bananas! (Tostones: fried plantains with rice and beans)”

  1. Doris November 8, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    Looks yummy! I bought a pressure cooker on sale several years ago and never used it. Beans in 15 minutes?! That’s a great reason to figure out my pressure cooker!

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