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.