To the untrained eye, a plantain could be easily mistaken for a banana. But woe betide the unsuspecting eater who slices one onto his corn flakes. Banana-scented and banana-shaped, the plantain (accent on the first syllable) is inedible in its raw state. But fry or boil it and it becomes an epicure's morsel.
Plantains are eaten at every stage of ripeness. When green ("platano verde" in Spanish), they are starchy and bland (like potatoes) and can be fried, boiled or mashed. Semi-ripe plantains (called "pinturados" -- "painted ones") are sweet and popular mashed or fried. Maduras (literally "ripe ones") are as dulcet as regular bananas and usually eaten fried. To taste a plantain at its sweetest, use it when the skin is completely black. Plantains can also be baked, like potatoes. Remember, all plantains must be cooked before you eat them.
When buying bananas, choose firm, unblemished fruits that are mostly yellow with a tinge of green. Let them ripen at room temperature until they are completely yellow and tiny brown "sugar spots" appear.
Plantains are more difficult to peel than bananas, especially when green. Cut the ends off the fruit, make three lengthwise slits in the skin, and soak in ice water for 10 minutes. (The ice water helps firm up the starch.) Slip your thumbs under the skin and gently pry it off the plantain. This process can be facilitated by cutting the plantains in three or four pieces.
Here are some recipes using ordinary bananas in unusual ways, or using the more exotic plantains. (In most cases, green bananas can be substituted for plantains.)
Mariquitas are enjoyed in the Caribbean and Central America the way potato chips are in the United States.
Serves six to eight.
2 green plantains or 3 green bananas
canola oil for frying
Peel the plantains as described above. Heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a large deep skillet.
Cut the plantains lengthwise into paper-thin strips, using a mandoline or grater. (Most graters have a slit side for cutting thin strips.) Practiced cooks cut the plantains right into the hot oil. You can also slice them onto a platter, then drop the strips one by one into the oil.
Fry the mariquitas for 1 to 2 minutes, or until crisp and golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve at once.
Tostadas are fried green bananas or plantains. They're fried twice: once in hot oil to cook them, the second time in very hot oil to crisp them.
1 1/2 pounds green bananas or green plantains
2 to 3 cups olive oil
1 teaspoon dried marjoram or 1 tablespoon fresh (finely chopped)
L 1 teaspoon dried dill or 1 tablespoon fresh (finely chopped)
1/2 teaspoon dried or fresh thyme (finely chopped)
garlic salt to taste
Peel the bananas and cut on the diagonal into 1/2 inch slices
Heat 1/2 inch oil to 300 degrees in a frying pan. Fry the bananas for 2 minutes per side or until soft. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Flatten each slice to half its height ( 1/4 inch) with a scallopine pounder or potato masher. Replenish oil as needed.
Just before serving, heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the tostadas for 1 minute per side or until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle the tostadas with the herbs and garlic salt and serve at once.
* These garlicy plantain fritters are a popular snack in Puerto Rico. Their spindly contours vaguely look like spiders. This recipe comes from Carmen Gonzales, owner-chef of the Miami restaurant Clowns.
Aranitos de Platano (Plantain 'Spiders') Serves four to six.
2 green plantains
4 cloves garlic
2 inches fresh ginger
salt and fresh black pepper
oil for deep frying
Peel the plantains as described above and coarsely grate or julienne. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Peel the ginger and cut into hair-thin slivers. Mix the grated plantain with the garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees. Using 2 spoons, form 1-inch balls of plantain mixture and drop them into the fat. Fry for 1-2 minutes, or until golden brown, turning with a skimmer or slotted spoon. Transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt and serve at once.
* This dish is a specialty of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, known as mofongo in Puerto Rico and fufu in Cuba. The traditional recipe calls for the plantains to be mashed with bacon or pork rind, bacon fat and mouth-numbing doses of garlic. I've made the dish healthier by replacing the bacon with pine nuts and the fat with olive oil. Traditionally, semi-ripe plantains are used, but I prefer the dish when made with sweet ripe plantains.
(Garlicky plantain puree) Serves four.
2 very ripe plantains or 3 semi-ripe bananas
2 cloves garlic
2 scallions, green part only
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups chicken stock or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and fresh black pepper
Peel the plantains into 1/2 -inch slices. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the scallion. Lightly toast the pine nuts under the broiler.