Something special happens when you fry tortillas, one at a time, in a pot filled with oil. As Gabrielle Hamilton wrote in one of the most memorable similes of her 2011 memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter,” the tortilla will “float and sizzle on the surface for a moment like a lily pad on a pond.”
When Hamilton was forming them into edible salad bowls as a teenager at a Pennsylvania restaurant, she writes, the flour tortilla “came up around the bowl like the long dress and underskirts of a Victorian woman who had fallen, fully clothed, into a lake, her skirts billowing up around her heavy sinking body.”
I rarely fry flour tortillas, but I think of Hamilton’s description every time I drop a corn tortilla into oil, which is something I do at least once a week. I adore tacos in soft corn tortillas, too, but when you turn them deep golden brown and crispy via frying, they become even more compelling to eat.
You can pile them high with your favorite toppings and pick them up for eating – sometimes causing some spillage, but what’s more fun than something a little messy?
Those toppings can be just about anything: I usually go for some combination of beans, avocado, cilantro and salsa (and sometimes chicken or shrimp for my husband’s), adding leftover roasted vegetables or greens as I see fit.
A recent cookbook, Esteban Castillo’s “Chicano Eats” (Harper Design, 2020), gave me another inspiration: Castillo tosses roasted squash with a combination of the spices that typically flavor Mexican chorizo. As someone who has explored multiple vegan twists on chorizo, I was hooked immediately.
Castillo suggests sandwiching the squash in buns for tortas or folding it into tacos. But even before I tasted the tangy, spicy squash, I knew I’d be frying up some tortillas for this and that I’d first smear on some refried beans (either out of a can or mashed from leftovers).
To me, they’re a must for the bottom layer, not just for their flavor and protein but for their stickiness, which will help hold the tostadas and their other toppings in place as you take bite after bite.
Chorizo-Spiced Squash Tostadas
Based on a recipe in “Chicano Eats” by Esteban Castillo (Harper Design, 2020).
1 ½ pounds acorn squash
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups sunflower oil
8 (6-inch) corn tortillas
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ½ teaspoons ground ancho chiles (may substitute chili powder)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
1 (15-ounce) can no-salt-added refried beans, warmed (may substitute 1 ½ cups mashed or pureed cooked beans)
Flesh of 2 avocados, sliced
½ cup homemade or store-bought salsa of your choice (such as Frontera brand)
Cilantro leaves or sprigs, for garnish (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
Line a plate with a clean dish towel. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out and discard the seeds (or save for another use), and cut the unpeeled squash into ½-inch half-rings.
In a large bowl, toss the squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange on a large rimmed baking sheet in a single layer, and roast for 10 minutes.
Flip the pieces and continue roasting for about 5 minutes or until the squash is cooked through and golden brown. Let the squash cool in the pan.
In a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the sunflower oil until it reaches 375 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Fry the corn tortillas one at a time until golden brown and crisp, 1 to 2 minutes.
Use tongs to keep each tortilla submerged as it fries, and flip it as needed. When the tortilla is ready, lift it out of the oil and gently shake to let as much excess oil drip off as possible. Drain on the towel-lined plate, and repeat with the remaining tortillas.
In the same bowl you used for the squash, whisk together the remaining olive oil, lime juice, ground ancho, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, smoked paprika, cumin, allspice, cinnamon and cloves. Return the squash to the bowl and gently toss to coat the squash in the spice mixture.
Smear 3 tablespoons of refried beans on each tostada. Divide the squash pieces among the tostadas and top with avocado slices, salsa and cilantro. Serve warm.
Yield: 4 servings
Note: With proper frying temperature, all eight tortillas absorb barely 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil total; to save time, you can use store-bought tostada shells.
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