Measurements.

by Mari Aviles 
inspired by TBAWP’s 2020 Heritage Lunch

There is no denying that food is important. It’s what we need to fuel our bodies and to survive. It’s what we use as an excuse to have conversation and invite people over. It helps us identify with our cultural heritage and understand parts of who we are. But for some of us, food can also be scary. 

I remember the first time like it was happening still. I was seventeen and I was invincible. I knew that I was talented, funny, smart, and gorgeous. Despite the heartbreaks of boyfriends and broken promises, I knew without a doubt, that I was spectacular. I had spent the last four years of high school working in the theater department at school, in Community Theater, and being part of city-wide choirs. I was chosen for role after role, solo after solo, and had even spent two weeks in Spain, all expenses paid, on a choir tour. Now, I was entering college, and I expected just more of the same fabulousness of myself.    

Two weeks away from my first day as a college freshman, and my mother and I decided to go and do my back to school clothes shopping. I loved this time of year.  We were not rich, and we never had a lot. But each year just before school, my mother made sure we had a couple of new outfits to start the year out with… at least enough to have 3 days’ worth of newness. There we were in Alexander’s, and I had armfuls of clothes…ten pairs of jeans: dark wash, light wash, medium wash, tapered leg, flare leg, boot cut;  twenty tops: pink, black, purple, green, long sleeve, ¾ sleeve, turtleneck, scoop and v-neck;  and even a couple of jackets. I was sure to be gorgeous in them all. 

I went into the dressing room and my mother followed behind. I began the exhausting task of taking off and putting on, taking off and putting on. But even the annoyance of trying on clothes couldn’t dampen my excitement. I knew that this was going to be the start of wonderful things. 

I tried on the first outfit- a pair of gray acid-washed jeans and a soft pink sweater. I looked pretty darn good, I thought, as I looked in the full-length dressing room mirror. The soft pink was complimentary to my fair skin and rosy cheeks. The delicate little flowers embroidered around the neck were subtle and romantic. My straight brown hair hung down from my shoulder just enough to caress one of the flowers. I looked beautiful and ready to be on a college campus. 

 “Let me see,” my mother called. I opened the stall door smiling and asked, “What do you think?” “Well,” she responded, “it’s fine. You may as well get it; it looks as good as it’s gonna look in that big size.” And that was it. My skin tingled, and my face got hot. I fought back tears that would surely bring me more ridicule. I went back in the dressing room and looked at myself again, fat and ugly, and it was like seeing myself for the first time. I was seventeen, but that day formed the way I would see myself for decades.

What does this have to do with heritage lunch? Well, you see, cooking is all about measurements, and growing up, we never used any. Following a recipe was not something my mother did, so when I watched her cook and asked, “How much of that do you put in?” The response was always the same, “Un poquito.” A little bit. On our plates, though, it wasn’t “un poquito.” There were heaps of carbs. On a regular day there was rice, beans, and more often than not, a fried meat. On a special occasion, it wasn’t uncommon to have rice, pasta, and potatoes on the same plate, along with some fatty meat. When it came to ingredients or portion sizes, measurements didn’t matter, but when you tried on a pink sweater with little embroidered flowers and gray acid-wash jeans, suddenly they did. 

After battling weight for many years, and not wearing shorts for 2 decades, I finally came to a place internally and externally that I can be at peace with. Food is sometimes still scary, particularly many of the traditional cultural dishes that connect me to my heritage like tostones, which are green plantains, twice deep fried, sprinkled with salt and then dipped in a garlic aioli. I sometimes struggle to taste only the ingredients on the plate without the seasoning of my own guilt and insecurities. But with every passing year, it gets a little better. I learn, I grow, I adapt, and I learn to make them in the air fryer. After all these years, I realized it was never the oil that brought everyone together to eat them, it was the love with which my mother made them. I have a lot of love too. Too much to measure. 

Air Fryer Tostones Recipe:

  • 3 green plantains
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • coarse salt for sprinkling
  1. Peel and cut the plantains: Remove the ends of the green plantains with a sharp knife. Score the plantain down its back side and use the fleshy part of your thumbs to push the peel up and away from the plantain.
  1. Preheat your air fryer to 350°F.
  1. Soak the plantains: Combine 4 cups of cold water and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Slice the plantain into 1 1/2-inch-thick chunks and soak them in water for 20 minutes. (Soaking the plantains prevents browning and keeps the air-fried plantains from drying out while cooking.
  1. Dry then par-fry the plantains: Remove the plantains from the water and dry each one thoroughly. Toss the plantain slices in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the cooking oil. Make sure each plantain is coated in a thin layer of the oil.
  1. Transfer the plantains to your air fryer’s basket. Organize in a single layer, leaving a 1/2 inch of space on all sides of the slices to allow the air to circulate properly. Fry until the plantain offers no resistance when pierced with the tip of a knife. This can take anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes per side.
  1. Mash the plantains: Increase the air fryer’s temperature to 400°F. Carefully remove the plantain slices from the basket and smash each one in a tostonera or place your soft plantain between a piece of parchment paper (or a brown paper bag) and smash it with a coffee mug. The plantain should be a flat 1/4-inch thick disc that holds together.
  1. Air fry the smashed plantains: Return the smashed plantains to the air fryer basket (you may have to work in batches depending on the size of your basket).
  1. Brush a light layer of oil onto the top side of the tostones and fry for 3 minutes on the first side. Flip the tostones and brush once more with a light layer of oil, then fry for the final time for 4 minutes instead of 3 minutes.
  1. While still hot, sprinkle with salt.

FOR THE MOJO DE AJO:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper

In a small saucepan, warm the olive oil and garlic over low heat for about 10 minutes. Oil should bubble slightly, but not be hot enough to brown the garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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