Plantain A-Peel

Don’t Call It A Green Banana

The humble plantain is so much more than just another starchy fruit. This tropical staple has been gracing tables and nourishing generations for centuries, as early as 500 BCE. Despite that, they remain mysterious and unapproachable to many American cooks, at least in my experience. After fielding the same questions every time I share a plantain recipe, time has come to set the record straight. Rich with history, flavor, and nutrition alike, plantains are a culinary treasure that deserve a place in your kitchen, too.

A Very Brief History of Plantains

Plantains, often mistaken for their close relative, the banana, are actually a distinct and hearty fruit that originates from Southeast Asia. Over the centuries, they’ve become a staple in many tropical regions around the world, with particularly strong roots in African, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisines. The spread of plantains can be attributed to their affordability, durability, and adaptability, making them a reliable source of sustenance for many cultures across the continents.

Selecting the Perfect Plantain: Shopping Tips

When it comes to picking ideal plantains, a little patience and a keen eye are key. Unlike bananas, plantains are usually selected for their starchy nature. This means you’ll often find them in varying stages of ripeness, each lending itself to different culinary uses.

  • Green Plantains: Firm, green plantains are perfect for savory dishes. These are the ones most commonly called for in recipes, and the ones I’m referring to when I call for them unless otherwise specified. They’re not sweet, similar to potatoes in consistency and flavor. Look for ones with minimal black spots or blemishes for the best results.
  • Yellow Plantains: As plantains ripen, they turn yellow and develop a sweeter taste. These are excellent for both sweet and savory preparations, offering a balanced flavor profile.
  • Black Plantains: Fully ripe plantains with blackened skin may seem past their prime, but they’re actually at their sweetest, similar to their banana brethren. They’re perfect for making sweet dishes like desserts and snacks.

Common Cooking Methods

Plantains are incredibly versatile, embracing a wide range of cooking methods to suit your culinary desires. Here are a few popular techniques to explore:

  • Deep frying or air frying: Sliced plantains can be fried until golden brown to create the beloved dish known as tostones or patacones. These crispy delights are often served as a side or appetizer, accompanied by a variety of dips or salsas. Cut into paper-thin coins, you’ll create crunchy plantain chips, especially popular as a grab-and-go snack at convenience and grocery stores worldwide.
  • Boiling or steaming: Boiled plantains are a staple in many Caribbean dishes. They take on a softer, smoother texture that’s easily mashed or pureed, and can be enjoyed alongside meatless proteins, stews, or beans.
  • Baking or roasting: Baking plantains brings out their natural sweetness. Simply slice them, drizzle with a touch of oil, and bake until caramelized for a healthier take on this tropical treat.

Unlike bananas, they’re not as tasty eaten raw. While perfectly safe to consume, they can have a slightly bitter flavor that disappears with the application of heat, and an unpleasantly chalky texture.

Must-Try Plantain Dishes

Plantains play starring roles in a multitude of traditional dishes across different cultures. Here are a few iconic preparations that truly showcase the versatility and flavor of these remarkable fruits:

  • Mofongo (Puerto Rico): Mashed green plantains combined with garlic, pork cracklings, and seasonings, resulting in a savory dish that’s both hearty and comforting.
  • Fufu (West Africa): Plantains are boiled, mashed, and shaped into a dough-like consistency. They’re often paired with stews or sauces, serving as a delightful alternative to rice or bread.
  • Maduros (Latin America): Sweet plantains are fried until caramelized, resulting in a delightful side dish or dessert that perfectly balances sweet and savory flavors.

Less conventional but more creative takes abound for such an endlessly versatile ingredient. Just a few ideas to get you started include:

  • Baked in their skins and stuffed like a loaded potato
  • Steamed and mashed, with vegan butter or gravy
  • Sliced and grilled, on or off skewers
  • Thinly sliced lengthwise and used to make lasagna
  • Mashed and used to make quick bread, tortillas, pancakes, or burger buns
  • Diced or shredded and sauteed like hash browns

That’s only the start! Anything you’d make with potatoes or sweet potatoes, you can make with plantains, too.

Nutritional Bounty of Plantains

Beyond their delectable taste, plantains offer a range of nutritional benefits. Rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, and magnesium, they support immune health and heart health especially. They’re also a great source of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, making them a satiating source of energy, but bear in mind that they are very calorie dense for this same reason.

Platano, Good To Go

Plantains are more than just a tropical fruit; they’re a culinary adventure waiting to unfold. From their storied history to their myriad of cooking possibilities, these versatile gems have found a place in kitchens and hearts across the globe. Whether you’re savoring the crispy delight of tostones or relishing the sweetness of maduros, plantains are sure to make every meal a richly rewarding journey worth savoring.

Raising a Stink

Durian, the so-called “king of fruits,” is quite possibly the single most polarizing food known to man. The aroma is so distinctive that you’d identify it in a second, even on your first encounter. I’ll never forget my first time in Hawaii when I spotted one of those prickly, thorn-covered shells. Sussing out the smallest one in the pile, I bagged my prize and escorted it back to my room. Surely, the rumors were overblown; this didn’t seem too bad! There was a light funk but nothing unmanageable. I stashed it in the mini fridge and went about my day.

Later that evening, something was amiss. Had an animal gotten in and died in the walls? Had someone forgotten to take out the trash, full of dirty diapers, for a week? To my horror, as I approached my door, the smell got stronger, and stronger…

Yes, it was the durian.

What does durian taste like?

Some people love that ripe pungency but to me, it’s an obstacle to get through. My best explanation is to compare it to a mixture of rotting onions, moldy cheese, sweaty gym socks, and a porta potty at the end of a music festival. Pungent and assertive, it’s the reason why durian is banned from many public spaces in Southeast Asia.

The flavor of durian is considerably more mild, with subtly sweet notes that add a final note of confusion on the back end. Some call the texture custard-y because it’s creamy and rich, but the high fat content would put the average pudding to shame. The unctuousness makes it impossible for me to eat more than a few bites straight.

How can you cook with durian?

Durian will never be my favorite food. However, once I stopped trying to eat it like a dessert or a sweet snack as it is typically recommended, I started I see the appeal. Leveraging the allium flavor to lend greater depth to recipes where raw onion would be far too harsh, my first big breakthrough happened when I blended it into a bright, punchy pesto sauce.

Pureed to a silky smooth consistency, this also helps alleviate any textural challenges. Durian pesto pasta might sound a bit crazy, and maybe it is, but it’s also delicious.

My greatest success came in the form of crispy durian rangoons. Chopped enoki mushrooms lend the filling a chewy seafood-like texture to take the place of crab meat, while durian brings in that creamy, gooey decadence typically conveyed by cream cheese. This killer app could help ease durian-haters back into the fold. No one can resist a deep-fried wonton, especially with a beer or two.

Fresh durian is not cheap, and a little bit goes a long way, so I’d suggest blending the whole thing and freezing it in ice cube trays for future use. That way you can pop out a cube or two whenever you’d like, which will prevent spoilage and cut down on that oppressive aroma. It only gets more intense as the fruit sits out at room temperature. Consider yourself warned!

Try incorporating durian puree into a wide variety of dishes, such as:

Don’t be afraid to play around with it! Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget your first durian.

Continue reading “Raising a Stink”

Buckle Up

A relic of a bygone era, buckles appear in books mostly as footnotes, a passing mention as an antiquated dessert with a funny name. For all the cobblers, crumbles, crisps, and pies out there, hardly anyone stops to consider making a slump, grunt, brown Betty, or our hero of the day, a buckle.

While everyone was staying home and stress-baking banana bread during the pandemic, it would have made much more sense to see a resurgence of fruit buckles. The dessert gets its name from its appearance, dimpled with fruit and streusel topping, like the wrinkled surface of a bridge about to give way. Given the way the world itself felt warped out of shape, distorted and liable to collapse any moment, the humble fruit buckle seems well suited to that unstable energy.

Thankfully, this construction is much more structurally sound than it may look. Though there’s a high ratio of fruit to batter, it holds up admirably under pressure, including transportation, advanced prep, and indelicate slicing. In fact, it’s much more stable than our beloved pumpkin pie.

This holiday season, I’m bringing the buckle back. Dressed in a spicy cloak of ginger and warm brown sugar, winter’s finest crimson cranberries sparkle from within, dusted with a heavy snow of confectioner’s sugar over sweet cinnamon crumbs. Blueberry buckles may be the best known of the bunch, but there’s no reason why we can’t switch gears with the seasons here. Emblematic of the fleeting nature of the holidays, cranberries will be gone before you know it, so you had better get your fill of these tart little jewels while they’re still around.

Plan ahead and toss a bag or two of fresh cranberries in the freezer to extend the joy. You can toss them right into the batter without thawing to speed right through to the good part: eating. Enjoy warm, at room temperature, or even chilled. My favorite approach is to enjoy it lightly toasted in the oven or air fryer, individually crisped slices with extra crunchy edges, and a big scoop of ice cream slowly melting on top.

Just because it buckles doesn’t mean it will break. It’s stronger than it looks, just like all of us.

Continue reading “Buckle Up”

More Matzo? Say It’s Not So!

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, we must ask ourselves why on Earth we bought so much darned matzo meal.

Don’t tell me I’m alone here. Year after year, as Passover draws nearer, I have an inexplicable fear of running out of matzo meal. Surely, THAT will be the one thing that the stores run out of right in the moment of need. Not toilet paper, not water, but matzo meal. It’s even more incomprehensible because I don’t even like the stuff. Truth be told, I hate matzo! Made into balls or drowned in toffee is the only way I’ll accept it. Otherwise… What the heck do you do with all this dry, flavorless sawdust?

You turn it into a fruit crumble topping, that’s what! Thanks to the magic of nature’s candy, there’s plenty of rich, sweet flavor in the filling to make up for any of matzo’s shortcomings. Bolstered by the warmth of ground cinnamon and dark brown sugar, it turns into a crisp, downright buttery struesel to cap off the tender berry jumble. Served warm with perhaps a scoop of ice cream melting luxuriously into all the crevasses, or a soft dollop of whipped coconut cream melding into each layer, there are few desserts more comforting.

You’d never even know that this formula included the plague of my pantry, that ever-present matzo meal, perpetually purchased in bulk for no good reason. At least, now it has a good purpose, even beyond the Passover Seder. For both its crowd-pleasing taste and effortless assembly, this dessert is a definite keeper.

Continue reading “More Matzo? Say It’s Not So!”

Dynamic Duo

Can true harmony be found in a single sweet bite? That’s the theory behind Sweetduet, touted as “a luscious duo of chocolate and fruit for the mindful snacker.” Treading the fine line between decadent and dietetic, the results make no compromises on either side. While the packaging reads like health food, the taste is pure indulgence.

Dates are at the heart of this dulcet symphony, and not just when dipped in dark chocolate. Date nectar is actually the sweetener of choice, imparting notes of amber caramel, a touch of malt, and a hint of macerated fruit. Beneficial trace vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B, iron, magnesium, potassium, give it an extra boost that straight sugar can only dream of. This superfood infusion is exactly what makes it such a great choice for anyone on your gift list.

Better than your average box of chocolates, there are no duds that get left behind in this assortment. Soft, fudgy, unsulfured dried fruits offer style and substance, seamlessly blending smarts with satisfaction. Dates, mangoes, apricots, and pineapples take center stage as the curtain of cacao drops away slowly. Together, they dance for a fleeting moment of bliss, as the initial hit of intense chocolate melts, allowing the fruit to then take the lead.

The love of chocolate is nearly universal. Bridge that final gap by finding that sweet spot where the nutritious choice is also the most delicious. Sweetduet has you [and those naturally nectarous fruits] covered.

Sweetduet can be purchased online for local Los Angeles pickup or nationwide next-day shipping. Treat yourself, or your loved ones near and far, for a sweeter, healthier holiday.