If you’re dreaming of Caribbean breezes, white sand and azure waters, but stuck at home with little chance of experiencing them, you can relieve the pain of the late-winter blues. Take a culinary cue from the islands and cook your way to contentment.
Caribbean cuisine is as varied, vibrant and enchanting as its landscape. The dishes reflect a fusion of French, African, Chinese, Indian, English, Portuguese and Spanish influences. Synonymous with Caribbean cuisine, coconuts, mangos and seafood seem to dominate.
Maybe you’ve overlooked the less flamboyant, but no less delicious plantains. They are an essential gastronomic underpinning — the 10th most important staple food in the world, and are especially important in the tropics.
Plantains are native to India and the Caribbean where they are treated as more vegetable than fruit. Although there is no formal botanical distinction between bananas and plantains, “dessert” bananas are generally eaten raw, while plantains are cooked because of their high starch/low sugar. Unripe green and ripe yellow bananas are treated in much the same way as plantains and often serve as stand-ins when plantains are unavailable.
Green plantain (platano verde) has a tough skin and is starchy and bland, similar to a potato. When the skin is bright green and firm, use plantains for tostones, plantain chips, mashed plantains and soup. To peel green plantains, remove the ends and make a lengthwise slit through the peel with a knife before you strip off the peel with your hands and slice the fruit.
Semi-ripe plantain (platano pinton) is yellow with brown spots and firm but will yield to a squeeze. Platano pinton is good for fufu, a mashed plantain dish.
Fully ripe plantain (platano maduro), has a banana aroma and is almost banana sweet with dark yellow to brown skin. The tips turn black and the fruit feels tender. Use platanos maduros to prepare fried sweet plantains, a fried plantain omelet or or boil, mash and form deep-fried plantain balls.
Very ripe plantain (platano negra) has very dark, sticky skin and will feel very soft. Despite its appearance it’s still delicious for desserts like bread pudding.
To ripen plantains store them in a loosely closed paper bag. It will take a plantain one to two weeks to fully ripen, depending on the ambient temperature. Don’t refrigerate plantains until they are at the ripeness you desire. Cold halts ripening.
Look for plantains at your favorite Latin, African, or Caribbean market. You may bake, microwave, grill, broil, boil, roast or fry them into delicious savory side dishes or dream on a few of the many delicious creations Caribbean cooks have devised to show off plantains.
• Tostones: Sliced green plantains, fried, smashed, and fried again
• Banana or plantain chips: Thinly sliced green or ripe fruit deep-fried into chips
• Arañitas: Shredded green plantain fritters
• Piononos: Dough made with boiled ripe plantains mashed with egg and flour, rolled into balls, stuffed with meat picadillo (spiced meat), and fried. Or fried ripe plantain strips wrapped around picadillo and pan-fried.
• Jibarito: Long slices of fried plantain used as the “bread” for roast pork sandwiches.
• Piñon or pastelon de amarillos: A baked “lasagna” of layered meat and fried ripe plantain strips or mashed cooked plantains.
• Pasteles: Plantain and/or taro paste “tamales” stuffed with meat and annatto-spiced filling steamed in banana or plantain leaves.
• Fu-Fu: Boiled and mashed ripe or green plantains poular in Cuba.
• Mofongo: Puerto Rican boiled and mashed plantains seasoned with fried pork cracklings; sometimes mofongo is “stuffed” by pressing it into the bottom and sides of a bowl and pouring in stews or sautés.
• Mangú: Dominican boiled and mashed green plantains served for breakfast.
• Conquintay: Dried and ground green plantain flour; used for dumplings or to thicken.
Vinegar-Marinated Green Bananas (Banana Escabeche)
Escabeche or escovitch is a traditional method of preparing fish that came directly from Spain and North Africa. Though Cubans and Jamaicans prepare escovitch with fish, this dish substitutes boiled green bananas.
Yields 5 cups, 4 to 6 servings
2 lbs. 10 ounces green unripe bananas, about 6 medium (8-inch long), washed
1/4 C. plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 C. seeded and finely slivered red bell pepper
1 C. seeded and finely slivered green bell pepper
1 C. peeled and finely slivered onion
4 T. white wine vinegar
3 T. drained capers
1-1/2 t. fresh thyme leaves
Slit green bananas (shallowly) lengthwise and slice off both ends. place in 4-quart saucepan, cover with cold water, and stir in 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt. Bring bananas to a boil and lower heat to a high simmer. Weight bananas with small lid to keep them immersed. Cook until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if a purple scum appears: it may come off the ends of the green banana if they are not trimmed completely away. Rinse bananas under cold water, drain, and set aside to cool.
In the meantime, heat oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat and add peppers and onion. Cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in vinegar, capers, and thyme, and season with salt to taste. Remove pan from heat.
Peel bananas, discard peels, and slice bananas into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Place bananas into pan with the warm onions and peppers. Toss well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Marinate 1 hour or longer at room temperature.
To serve: Mound banana escabeche into serving bowl or onto serving platter; spoon some of the vegetables and marinade over top. serve at room temperature or chilled.
Adapted from: “Beyond Gumbo” by Jessica B. Harris
Twice-Fried Plantains (Tostones)
Popular in Puerto Rico, tostones have become a Caribbean-Latin American favorite. Some varieties of plantains work better than others: look for short, fat ones with distinct edges. The second dip into saltwater steams and crisps the tostones.
Yields about 16 tostones, 4 to 8 servings
2 lbs. large unripe, green plantains
Oil for frying
1/2 C. mayonnaise
1/2 C. ketchup
1/4 C. oil, preferably olive
1-1/2 t. peeled and minced garlic
Cut the ends off plantains and slice shallowly through the skin lengthwise in two places to loosen peel. (If peels won’t budge, immerse plantains in hot tap water 5 to 10 minutes and drain.)
Mix 1 quart cool water with 3 tablespoons kosher salt and stir until salt dissolves. Slice peeled plantains into 1-inch-thick rounds. Immerse plantain slices in salt water and rest 10 minutes. remove plantains and blot dry. Reserve salt water.
Heat 1/2 inch oil in 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat until oil sizzles when a plantain hits it. Fry plantain slices in batches until tender and a golden crust forms, but not until overly brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. If oil gets too hot, turn down the heat or remove pan briefly from burner. Transfer once-fried plantains to paper towel-covered sheet pan to drain. Set skillet with oil aside and reserve.
Place a still-warm plantain on a clean cutting board and put a glass or pie plate on top. Squash plantain an even 1/4-inch thick. (With a glass it’s possible to see the plantain as it flattens.) Transfer squashed plantain to sheet pan, and cover with damp towel or plastic wrap. Smashed plantains will keep up to 2 hours tightly wrapped.
Reheat oil over medium heat until hot, but not smoking. Dip each plantain into reserved salt water, drain lightly, and place immediately into the hot oil. Fry plantains in batches until golden and crunchy, about 2 minutes per side.
Prepare Mayo-Ketchup and/or Garlic-Oil: Mix mayonnaise with ketchup and place into a serving bowl. Mix oil with garlic, season with salt and place in another bowl.
To serve: Transfer hot tostones to paper towel-lined serving dish, season with a little salt, and serve immediately with mayo-ketchup and garlic-oil.
Plantain Chips: Peel plantains as for tostones. Thinly slice plantains lengthwise or crosswise on mandoline. Deep-fry until golden and crisp in oil heated to 355 to 360 degrees F. Drain on paper towel and season with salt while still warm.
Platanos Maduros (Sweet Fried Plantains)
The plantain slices should be tender and blurred around the edges. If they hold their shape easily and retain sharp edges, they’re too firm. Firm plantains end up chewy, starchy nuggets cooked this way.
Yields 3 to 4 servings
3 medium overripe plantains (about 1½ pounds), cut into 3/4-inch slices
Optional: 2 T. brown sugar
3/4 C. coconut oil
Toss plantains and optional brown sugar in a medium bowl. Season with salt and toss again.
Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the plantains in one layer and adjust heat so the oil bubbles gently. Fry, turning once, until the plantains are fully tender and deeply browned on both sides, 12 to 15 minutes.
Drain fried plantains on a plate (not paper towel), and serve hot or warm.
Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines."