The plantain is a staple in Latin American cuisine. Sometimes referred to as the macho banana, it’s a member of the banana family, but quite different from the ubiquitous sweet yellow Cavendish most common in North American grocery stores. (Fun fact: There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas.) Besides tending to be bigger, the plantain has a thicker skin and starchier, firmer, and less sweet flesh. But it all depends on how and when you cook it.
They can be almost dessert-like when fully ripe (maduro) and caramelized in slices in a frying pan. For example, plátanos maduros are a common breakfast side in Guatemala.
But when they are still quite green (plátanos verdes), they function more like a starchy potato, and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, they are prepared similarly: fried.
The resulting pieces, resembling medallions, often come alongside a main dish in the same way French fries do. They are called patacones in places such as Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru. I learned to make them while living in Panama. But throughout the Caribbean, they are called tostones.
Tostón sounds related to the Spanish verb tostar—to toast—and surely that makes sense with the toasty golden color of the food. But some sources indicate the coin-like shape has a coin-like connection: A tostón was the nickname for a silver coin during the Spanish colonial period, worth four reales or half of a piece of eight. In fact, in Mexico, the half peso is still regarded as such. But did the coin nickname come from its resemblance to the food? This may be a chicken or the egg debate; I digress.
A Smashing Side Dish
However you refer to them, they are delicious and easy to make. Much as with good homemade French fries, you need to cook tostones twice.
First, however, you’ll need to remove the thick peel, by carefully slicing only the skin with a knife along the length of the plantain, then peeling it off. This is sometimes tricky for me, as the green fruit does not always want to give up its skin. A suggestion is to start at the next step—cutting the plantain crossways into 1-inch pieces—and then slice and peel the skin off of each smaller piece.
These 1-inch chunks make the first trip into the fry oil. The second time into the oil, the plantain pieces need to be smashed first. A typical Caribbean kitchen likely has a tostonera, a tool comprised of two flat pieces of wood or plastic connected by a hinge. This is used to flatten the tostones into their final medallion shape.
However, you can get creative with what’s at hand. I’ve used the bottom of shaker pint glass on a cutting board. I’ve seen someone use a coffee mug. In Panama, I had a small wooden sort of hand mallet that also did the trick. The key is to have two hard surfaces and apply even pressure to flatten the tostones into discs. When all the coins are all thusly minted, take them back to the fryer or a frying pan and fry them again until golden on both sides.
Much like fries, tostones make a great side dish, but they also like a good dipping sauce. Sure, you could use ketchup or a mayo-ketchup blend, but try something with a bit more pizzazz, like aioli or mojo sauce.
Tostones (Fried Plantain Medallions)
Makes 4 servings
- 2 green plantains
- Oil, for frying
- Salt to taste
Peel the plantains by carefully slicing only the skin along the length of each plantain, then removing the thick peel. Cut the peeled plantains into 1-inch coins. (Alternatively, first cut the plantains into 1-inch pieces, and then peel each smaller piece.)
Pour fry oil into a deep pan to just past the one-inch level. Heat it to medium, but not so hot that it smokes. Working in batches if needed, use metal tongs to carefully place the plantain pieces into the oil. (Don’t splash.) Fry them until they are golden, then remove and lay them on a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool.
When cool enough to handle, transfer the pieces to a cutting board or tostonera and flatten them evenly into medallions about 1/4-inch thick. Return the flattened pieces to the pan and fry again until golden on both sides. Remove, drain, salt, and serve hot.