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Try Steven's recipes for grilled plantains and plantain soup.

Savor other Latin flavors in Steven's article on Cuban Food.

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Plantain Plenty
By Steven Raichlen

To the untrained eye, the plantain (PLAN-tihn) could easily be mistaken for a banana. But woe betide the unsuspecting eater who slices one onto his corn flakes! Though it's shaped like a banana and has a banana-like aroma, the plantain is never eaten in its raw state. But roast, grill, bake, boil or fry it and it becomes an epicure's morsel.

I didn't realize how popular plantains were until I moved to Miami. This jumbo cousin of the banana turns up at our ethnic grocery stores and mainstream supermarkets, at humble sandwich shops, exclusive restaurants and eateries of a dozen nationalities. Tostones, mariquitas, maduros and other plantain preparations (see below) are as popular in South Florida as French fries are in the North.

Plantains are among the most prolific food crops. The same acre of land needed to grow 50 pounds of wheat or 100 pounds of potatoes can support a whopping two tons of plantains. "It's an incredibly versatile vegetable", explains Douglas Rodriguez, chef of Manhattan's sizzling nuevo Latino restaurant, Chicama. "You can serve it as an appetizer, entree, vegetable and dessert, use it when it's hard and green, soft and ripe, and at every stage in between."


A New Food Vocabulary

Fried plantains are popular throughout the Caribbean and Central America, where they often take the place of potato chips. Known as mariquitas in Cuba and tajadas in Nicaragua, plantain chips are made by slicing green plantains lengthwise into paper-thin strips on a mandoline or meat slicer. These strips are deep-fried until crisp and served lightly salted. Tip: To make heart-healthy plantain chips, arrange the strips on a non-stick baking sheet, lightly spray on both sides with oil, and bake in a 400° F oven until crisp.

Another popular plantain snack is tostones, thick diagonal slices of plantain, which are lightly fried, squashed in a wooden press that resembles a tortilla press, then fried again until crisp. Puerto Ricans favor aranitas, "little spiders," crisp fritters of grated plantain and garlic. Here too, you can "bake fry" the plantains in the oven to cut the fat.


Stewed and Mashed

Most of the Spanish speaking islands have a version of mofongo, boiled green plantains mashed with onions and garlic. Mangu, mashed plantains with garlic and pork cracklings, is a traditional breakfast in the Dominican Republic. Tip: To make a low fat version, use lean Canadian bacon in place of the cracklings.

In Cuba boiled plantains are combined with cilantro and chicken or beef broth to make a comforting soup called sopa de plátanos. Besides being served in soup, green plantains can be boiled or baked like potatoes. When baking them, be sure to make a few slits in the peel to allow the steam to escape.


Sweet as Candy

Green plantains are only part of the story. Dine at a Cuban or Nicaraguan restaurant and you're sure to find maduros (literally "ripe ones"), fried ripe plantains that are as sweet as bananas foster. (Below you'll find a fat free way to prepare ripe plantains on the grill.) Plátanos en almibar, ripe plantains poached in sugar syrup with a cinnamon stick, is a popular dessert in Puerto Rico. As for plátanos a la tentación, the mere mention of these plantains poached with sugar, rum and lemon juice will make a Cuban American's mouth water.

Delicious at Any Stage Of Ripeness:

When green, the plantain is bland and starchy, like a yuca or potato. As it ripens, it becomes sweeter, tasting more and more like a banana. But even when fully ripe, the plantain remains firm, which makes it easy to cook. As the name suggests, a green plantain will have a hard bright green skin. A semi-ripe plantain (known as pinton in Spanish) will be yellow with black spots, while a ripe one will be completely black. Like many tropical fruits, the plantain is at its sweetest when it's so ripe it looks like you should throw it out! Ripen plantains in a loosely closed paper bag at room temperature. It takes six to eight days for a green plantain to fully ripen.

A Bellyful of Goodness

Whenever someone has an upset stomach at our house, our Cuban housekeeper, Elida, prepares a pot of plantain soup. Plantains are used as a folk remedy for stomach woes throughout the Caribbean Basin. In 1984, three researchers at the University of Aston in Birmingham, England, investigated the plantain's ability to relieve ulcers.

The team gave laboratory animals ulcers by feeding them massive doses of aspirin. The animals were then fed powdered, dried green plantain. The researchers discovered that plantains could reduce the severity of ulcers when administered preventively, and could heal them when served as a cure.

The researchers proposed that plantains help heal stomach ulcers by thickening the layer of gastric mucosa—the protective lining of the stomach wall. Conventional anti-ulcerogenic drugs work by stimulating the cells to produce more mucosal cells, and plantains seem to work in the same manner. In order to gain the plantain's anti-ulcerogenic properties you must use green plantains, as ripe ones—tasty as they may be—lack this benefit.

One cup of plantains contains only 125 calories. In addition to being good for your stomach, plantains are rich in potassium and vitamin C.

How to Buy Plantains

Plantains are widely available—even in the Northern part of the United States. Look for them in the produce section of your supermarket or in any store that caters to a Caribbean or Latin American clientele. Green plantains should be bright green, firm and free of blemishes. Semi-ripe plantains should have a yellow skin, speckled with black. A plantain encased in a shriveled black skin will be sweet and delicious.

related links How to Peel a Plantain
  • Plantains are more difficult to peel than bananas, especially when green. There are two easy methods for skinning this hard-to-peel fruit. To obtain plantain pieces for soup, cut off the ends and cut the fruit crosswise into three-inch sections. Make a lengthwise slit in the skin of each section. Soak the plantains in ice water for five minutes, then slide your thumbnails under the slit to pry off the skin.
  • To peel a whole plantain, first cut off the ends. Then using the tip of a paring knife, make lengthwise slits in the skin (try not to cut into the flesh) and soak the plantains in ice water for five minutes. Slide your thumbnails under the slits to loosen the skin.

Try Steven Raichlen's recipes for:

Grilled Plantains
Plantain Soup

 

About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the author of 21 books, including the IACP/ Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (both published by Workman), Healthy Latin Cooking (Rodale), and the new Healthy Jewish Cooking (Viking). He recently created a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his web site: www.barbecuebible.com. He has appeared numerous times on national television, including The Today Show and Good Morning America as well as CNN and The Discovery Channel. Raichlen lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with his wife Barbara.

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