It's easy to get off on the wrong foot with plantains, or platanos. They're often sold in grocery stores next to their cousins - bananas - as they bear the close resemblance you'd expect from relatives. But even though they look like bananas, they don't act like them, and they'll let you down if you fail to understand their unique character.
For starters, they must be eaten cooked. Never raw. They're prized in Latino cultures not as quick fruit snacks, but for their versatility, their starchy, potato-like qualities, and their longevity on the kitchen counter. As plantains slowly ripen, they go through major personality changes. When hard and green, they're traditionally sliced and fried for tostones, or chips. As plantains turn yellow-brown, they can be cut into strips or chunks and pan- fried, or added to soups and stews. And when black and smelling faintly like banana, they become semi-sweet (but never as sweet as bananas) and can be baked whole or in halves like potatoes, boiled and mashed with garlic or sauce, or grilled.
Once they turn black, cook plantains within a few days. When you're in a hurry, cut the ends from yellow-brown or black plantains, cut into 2-inch chunks, put in a microwaveable dish, and add water to a depth of about ½ inch. Cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until creamy and evenly softened. Then peel, mash, and season as you wish. Plantains are tricky to peel before they're dead ripe and black. When they're green or yellow, rinse and slice off the tips, cut into about four sections, slit the tough peel lengthwise, and remove the peel in strips, pulling up and across rather than straight along the length.
The skins can be amazingly stubborn, so attack with a knife and cut them away if need be. Or, add unpeeled chunks of yellow-brown or black plantains to water, soup, or stew, simmer for at least 20 minutes, lift out the chunks, peel, and return them to the pot. How do you prepare plantains?
Kale and Plantain Soup
This hearty soup comes together quickly, making it a good choice for a weeknight supper. Substitute spinach or Swiss chard if you wish, and add beans for an extra protein boost.
1 pound kale
2 large yellow-brown plantains
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 jalapeno chilies, seeded and diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 tablespoons peeled, diced ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 quarts chicken stock
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Strip the kale stems from the leaves and cut the leaves into ¼-inch strips.
Remove the tips from the plantains, cut them into 2-inch chunks, slit the peel lengthwise and remove it in strips. Then cut the chunks in half lengthwise and cut into slices.
Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat.
Add the chilies, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, or until fragrant.
Add the kale and salt, cover, and cook, stirring several times, until the kale wilts, about 10 minutes.
Add the plantains and broth, bring just to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the plantains are tender.
Serve hot, garnished with scallions.
Recipe courtesy of the Latino Nutrition Coalition
Grilled Plantains with Molasses-Citrus Glaze
Use plantains that are black, and almost rotten looking, to experience the peak of their sweetness. Serve with chicken, seafood, or pork, or as a dessert.
4 tablespoons molasses
Juice of 3 oranges
4 tablespoons lime juice (from about 2 limes)
2 tablespoons dark rum
6 very ripe plantains (about 2 pounds)
Make the glaze: Combine the molasses, orange and lime juice, and rum in a small bowl. Do not peel the plantains. Slice them in half lengthwise. (The skin will serve as protection and allow the interior to cook through before the exterior scorches.)
Over a medium fire, place the plantains face down on the grill and cook for 2 minutes, or until the surface is well browned. Turn and cook them face up for another minute. Remove the plantains from the grill and either paint or spoon the sauce over them. Serve immediately.
Recipe from The Thrill of the Grill by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (William Morrow and Company).