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Tostadas are like a party-salad on an edible plate. Here's everything you need to know to add them to your repertoire.
As an Arizona-born gal, I'm always surprised more people don't know about tostadas. Tostadas are like a party-salad built on top of a healthy, edible plate slathered (usually) with refried beans. They're an easy, healthy, delicious one-dish meal that is a total crowd-pleaser.
Tostadas are in regular rotation at my house, a relatively quick weeknight meal that just so happens to be meatless (although you can include meat, see below) They are easily pulled together in about 30-40 minutes if you have the key ingredients on hand (which I usually do), including the plants that are in season in the summer and early fall.
But here in the northeastern US, they have yet to break through to mainstream cooking consciousness. Let's see if we can change that.
YES, TOSTADAS ARE HEALTHY
This is not generally a health-food website, but since this Mostly Plants series is about a healthier way to eat, we have to get this out of the way first:
Tostadas are fried in oil - and yes, they are still healthy! Just for fun, I googled "how to make tostadas" to see what the Internet has to say on the subject, and was horrified to find that most of the top posts recommend making tostadas with baked, or worse, microwaved, tortillas, supposedly to make them "healthier" or "less fattening."
Allow me* a brief aside to set the record straight:
As documented in this article from Harvard Medical School (and many, many, many other sources), we can all stop worrying that the fat found in nature is going to kill us or make us fat. (The one type of fat that probably does do both these things is trans-fat, which is factory-made in the form of hydrogenated oils.)
Tostadas are fried in unsaturated fats (eg canola or vegetable oil), which, as it turns out, are actually downright good for us.
And now about those corn tortillas: Tortillas are made from a type of corn that is akin to hominy in this country, not the sweet corn we buy at the supermarket (which is also delicious). It's a whole-grain food that has been nixtamalized (an ancient process) to release all the nutrients to our bodies. It's been nourishing Mexicans for thousands of years. So yes, also healthy.
...AND SO ARE REFRIED BEANS
Refried beans (an essential component of a great tostada, in my opinion) are simply mashed-up cooked beans. At some point, they gained a reputation in this country for being some sort of evil, fat-laden junk food, but that was never true. They actually don't have much fat at all (not that it would necessarily be a problem if they did, per above). What they do have is ...beans, of course! Which are a really great food for lots of reasons - full of protein, fiber and healthy carbohydrates. Simple to make, and soul-satisfyingly tasty to eat.
And bonus: the combination of beans and corn tortillas provides you with a complete vegetarian protein. There's a reason people have been eating these foods together for millenia.
OK, SO HOW DO I MAKE TOSTADAS?
The word tostada can refer to the fried tortilla itself, as well as to the finished dish. To fry a tostada, warm a quarter-inch of flavorless oil (like canola, corn or vegetable oil) over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. When the oil begins to shimmer and the edge of a tortilla briefly dipped into it sizzles quickly and vigorously, the oil is ready. Do not allow the oil to smoke.
You can fry tostadas one at a time in a saucepan as shown above, but if you're frying a larger quantity it will be faster to do 3 or 4 at once. To do this, warm 1/4 inch of oil in a wide saute pan instead of a saucepan.
You can fry tostadas ahead of time and store them in a zip-top plastic bag until you're ready to use them. (They keep perfectly well stored this way for up to a week in my house.) I usually fry a dozen at a time (or however many come in a package). Our family of four will eat about 8 or 9 for dinner, then I'll keep the rest on hand for a quick lunch or snack later in the week.
WHAT KIND OF TORTILLAS?
Tostadas are made with corn tortillas - never flour. Read the ingredients carefully: some manufacturers have begun adding flour to corn tortillas to make them softer, but you don't want this kind. Tortillas that contain flour won't fry properly for tostadas. It doesn't matter if the tortillas are made with white or yellow corn; as long as they are all-corn, they'll work great.
WHAT KIND OF BEANS?
As I said above, refried beans are just well-cooked, mashed-up beans. To make them from scratch, you can use this recipe to make a pot of beans, then use this recipe to turn them into refried beans. I usually use pinto beans, since that's what was most common where I grew up in Arizona. But black beans are equally authentic and delicious.
You can make your own pot of beans very easily; it takes a few hours, but about 95% of that time is totally unattended. When I make my own, I usually have them simmering away fragrantly on the stove while I'm working or cleaning the house (or if I'm lucky, watching Netflix). The good thing about making beans that are destined to become refried beans is that there is very little risk of overcooking them. If you do let them cook a little too long, they'll simply start to fall apart, as they will when you mash them up anyway.
You can absolutely use canned beans if that's easier for you. If you go this route, you can either buy whole canned beans and refry them yourself, or you can buy canned refried beans. Whether refried or whole, look for beans that have very few ingredients: beans, water, salt, a little fat, and maybe onions. If they don't have salt, you can add your own (be generous - beans need a good amount of salt for their flavor to shine through). Avoid beans with additional flavors like cumin, spicy chiles, lime, etc. The traditional Mexican approach is for the beans to be very simple; the more complicated flavors are in the toppings. (When I make my own beans, I do sometimes also add a whole blackened jalapeno or other chile to add subtle flavor as the beans cook, but I remove it before it breaks apart and makes the beans too spicy.)
Once you have the fried tostadas and the refried beans, you can top them with whatever you like. Traditional toppings are mostly plants, including things like salsa or pico de gallo, avocado slices, diced tomatoes, grilled onions, pickled jalapenos, guacamole, shredded lettuce or cabbage, cilantro leaves, and diced or sliced radishes. You can also add cheese, Mexican crema (or sour cream), shredded chicken or pork, or even thinly sliced steak.
Tostadas are so simple, it almost seems silly to write a recipe for them. It's a lot like making a sandwich - once you are familiar with the basics, you don't really need a recipe to know what to do. Just add a little of this and a little of that and it will be great. But if you are encountering tostadas here for the first time, it might be helpful to have some guidance, so I've provided recipes for Tostadas with Roasted Tomatillo Salsa and Tostadas with Avocados and Pico de Gallo this week.
*Who am I to set the record straight? I'm the creator of Adventure Kitchen, and I'm passionate about celebrating and appreciating the foods of people around the world. I'm also a well-informed, voracious consumer of food and nutrition information and a lover of science. I have taken a college-level nutrition course, but I'm not a nutritionist or a registered dietician, and of course I don't know what your individual health concerns might be. Feel free to share the information on this page with your doctor, and then of course, make the right choice for your particular situation.