Friday, June 25, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Having The Cahones To Make Tostones

Today's combination visit to the Howe Meadow Farmers Market and Giant Eagle resulted in an interesting array of raw products that I would have to transform into dinner tonight. The seeds of a dinner are usually planted when I visit the farmers market and discover what is available that day. It isn't until the follow-up trip to the supermarket where my mental lens focuses in on exactly what I will be making for dinner actually happens. It can be a little daunting to cook that way, and I can understand why it would make people uncomfortable, but I find it both challenging and rewarding.

Today's market visit left me with a bag full of beets, apples, onions, broccoli, seven-grain bread, and, of course, a sour cherry pie. To this bounty, I added only a few more ingredients from my grandmother's local Giant Eagle. I knew my protein would be either pork or chicken, I just had to figure out my starch for dinner. Because my grandmother cannot each small things, e.g., rice, nuts, seeds, etc., I knew I had to be creative when it came to the starch department. I've done roasted potatoes many times and while she likes them, I felt like I needed to push the envelop a bit.

As I wandered around the produce section, I happened to spy that unripe plantains were being sold next to the bananas (at triple the price of the bananas I happened to note). Having seen plantains be used many times on various television programs to make tostones, I immediately thought that this would make an interesting, and hopefully tasty, side dish and cover my starch requirement. In what came as a not-so-surprising turn of events, after I got to my grandmother's condo and finished unpacking, I noticed that the cashier had rang up the plantains as bananas. Ah well, no way to correct it now.

I knew that the roasted beet and caramelized onion compote I was planning to make to accompany the chicken would take the most amount of time, so I started working on that right away. I essentially roasted the beets the same way I did last time. As soon as I got the beets in the oven, I turned my attention to the two medium onions. I peeled each, sliced them in half (pole to pole) and then cut onion half-moons. After runnings my fingers through them to separate the onion layers, I ended up with a bowl of onions ready for caramelizing:

I preheated my grandmother's stainless steel skillet over medium heat. When it was ready, I added about a tablespoon and a half of butter, let it melt (but not turn brown) and added the onions to the pan:

It should be noted that I did NOT salt the onions right away. Since I wanted the onions to caramelize, the salt would've drawn out the moisture of the onions and they would've steamed instead of sautéed. In my mind, caramelizing onions takes time. Yes, there are shortcuts you can use, but I was resigned to do it the classic way, butter, onions, and heat.

As soon as I had gotten my onions into the pan, I decided to make the gastrique as well, since it needed to reduce quite a bit before it would be ready. To a saucepan, I added:

1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup brown sugar

After stirring it to dissolve the sugar, I put the pan on the hot element to bring it to the boil:

Once it came to the boil, I turned the burner down a bit. It was still hot enough to keep the mixture boiling and reducing, but not at a crazy speed. In the end, the mixture reduced by probably 75%, which is how much liquid needs to evaporate in order to make a syrupy consistency. The vinegar smell can be quite strong, so an open window or turning on the ventilation fan above the stove might be a good idea.

After about twenty minutes or so, the onions looked like this:

As you can see, they've cooked down immensely and have a translucent look to them. They are just starting to color a little bit as well. Another twenty minutes or so and my onions now looked like this:

It was at this point, I added salt, turned the burner off and just let them sit until I was ready for them.

While my onions cooled and my gastrique reduced, I turned my attention to tonight's vegetable selection: roasted broccoli. First I cut the broccoli into bite sized florets and arranged them in a single layer on a foil lined cookie sheet:

I then drizzled the broccoli generously with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I used my hands to toss the broccoli in the topping so that it was evenly coated and placed them into a pre-heated 400 degree oven. They only took about 30 minutes or so to crisp up and be ready for dinner. You won't believe how much water comes out of the broccoli. I know I didn't the first time I tried this technique.

Now it was time for the tostones. I took my grandmothers other skillet, of the non-stick variety, and placed it on a medium burner and added enough canola oil (I know, gentle reader, not very traditional) to not only coat the bottom of the pan, but also be about 1/4" deep. Utilizing a technique called pan frying, the oil has to come partway up the food.

Unripe plantains are quite a bit harder than what Americans think of ripe bananas. This was helpful in keeping the flesh of the plantains intact during peeling. Here was a shot of the plantains that I got at the supermarket:

To peel them, I cut off the top and bottom and ran my knife down the peel from top to bottom. Then, using my thumb, I split the peel and used my thumb to essential slip between the peel and the flesh. It was a bit more difficult to do than I had originally thought, but after a bit of effort, I had these:

Knowing that tostones are made by frying the plantains, smashing them down, and frying them again, I cut the them into fairly large chunks:

They were sliced somewhere between 3/4" to 1" thick. Once the oil had come up to temperature, I placed them in a single row in the pan and fried them for about three to four minutes before flipping them onto their opposite side. As you can see in the photo below, you don't want to color them too much during this first fry:

The top side looks a little dried out and has just a hint of brown color. Perfect! After frying the second side for an additional three to four minutes, I removed them from the oil and placed them on a paper towel lined plate to drain:

Since the next step was to smash each plantain down, I set up a smashing station:

The big plate would hold the finished plantains and the small plate with custard cup would be my smashing tools. I took each fried plantain and placed it on the small plate. Exerting surprisingly little force, I smashed each one flat. I tried to make them all an even thickness so that they would fry up evenly during the second fry:

Finally, I returned each of the smashed plantains to the same sauté pan I used during the first fry:

These took even less time than the first fry, maybe two to three minutes per side, just long enough until they had that lovely brown color. Using a slotted spatula, I removed these to a foil lined tray and sprinkled each batch with a little sea salt while they were still hot. Unlike the first fry, I had to do the second in four batches, but the good news was that once they were fried, they held up fairly well. I also had a chance to sample one while I made up the additional batches of tostones. If you've never tried these before, you must give it a try. Crispy and a little salty, they tasted nothing like bananas. They were crispy on the outside, but still a little creamy on the inside. And they tasted ... well, good! I gave one to my grandmother who was extremely wary and even she was surprised at how tasty they were.

The final component of my dish tonight was the protein. I had selected a package of chicken breasts at Giant Eagle and after trimming them, I simply seasoned them with salt and freshly cracked pepper before placing them into a skillet in which I had placed a combination of grapeseed oil and a tablespoon of butter. After the butter browned slightly, I placed the breasts in the sizzling oil:

I seared each side of the chicken for three minutes before placing them into the toaster oven set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cooked them an additional 15 minutes, or until the instant read thermometer read an internal temperature of between 155 and 160 degrees.

While my chicken finished cooking through, I returned to the gastrique and caramelized onions that I had been working on the entire time:

When the gastrique had reduced by about half, I added it to the pan which contained the finished caramelized onions. By doing this, I could "deglaze" the pan and pick up all the little brown bits. Once the skillet bottom was clean, I poured everything back into the saucepan and continued to reduce. My roasted beets now clean, I diced them up and added them to the pot as well (probably 5 small-medium sized beets). When the mixture finally reduced and became syrupy, I added a handful of chopped fresh tarragon, salt to taste, and just a small pinch of crushed red pepper (you could also do cayenne, too).

All the elements of the dinner now ready, I prepared two plates, one for me and one for grandma:

I have to say, this was a most delicious meal. The tostones were nice and crispy (I had kept them warm in a turned off oven), the chicken was moist and tender, the broccoli was caramelized and crispy, and the roasted beet and caramelized onion compote utilizing the sweet and sour gastrique really hit this meal out of the ballpark. Grandma couldn't believe how tender and juicy the chicken was and when I told her how I did it, she was surprised at how easy it was to do. While I always purposely give her just a little bit more food than I think she will eat, tonight she surprised me by completely cleaning her plate.

I highly suggest you try both the compote and the tostones. While there were multiple steps involved in getting each ready, the end result was definitely worth it. In addition, you could totally make the compote the day before and just re-warm it for dinner. I think it would be a wonderful addition to many different proteins, chicken, turkey, pork loin, and ham, just to name a few. I continue to be amazed at the wonderful bounty available at the farmers markets and I can't wait until I get to try out my skills again.

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