Plantains

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Plantains are those fascinating banana-looking fruit surrounded by a bit of mysticism. Are they really fruit or vegetable? Do we eat them raw or cooked? When should we eat them? They start out bright green and hard, move toward beautiful yellow, slowly get black specs and in the end turn completely black and soft. This change of life takes only a few days and plantains can be enjoyed at every stage of ripeness. They are the cousin of the common banana we’re all familiar with (plantains are sometimes called cooking bananas). The color of a plantain is directly proportional to the level of sugar in the fruit. I recently took a trip to Puerto Rico recently and re-found my love for plantains in many dishes and stages of ripeness. I had some great Mofongo (mofo-what?), tostsones and baked plantains. I’ll dive into the history and execution of these dishes as well as some interesting facts about the plantain. Bananas! (now I feel like a cool 14 year old…girl…mm..not so cool). Let’s continue down banana road.

The banana is mentioned for the first time in history in buddhist texts 600 years BC. Alexander the Great discovers the taste of the banana in the Indian valleys in 327 BC . The existence of an organized banana plantation could be found in China back in the year 200 AD. In 650 AD. Islamic conquerors brought the banana back to Palestine. The Arabic merchants finally spread the bananas all over Africa.

Only in 1502 the Portuguese start the first banana plantation in the Caribbean and in central America.

There are over 500 different types of bananas! That means if you ate a different kind of banana everyday, it would take almost a year and a half to eat every one.

Although generally regarded as a tree, this large tropical plant is really an herb. That means it does not have a woody trunk like a tree. The compacted, water-filled leaf stalk is composed of leaf sheaths that overlap each other and grow from an underground stem called a rhizome.

The banana plant can grow as high as 20 feet (or 6 meters) tall. That’s as big as a 2 story house. They are the world’s largest herb.

Bananas are not just green and yellow, some bananas are red. Bananas are almost fat free. One banana is about 99.5% fat free! An average banana contains about 90 calories.

Bananas are great source of potassium. Potassium helps build muscle power and keeps your body fluids in balance.

Banana trees can be purchased in plant nurseries. Keep indoors as houseplants. They like moisture and heat and therefore almost impossible to grow in southern California.

Plantains can be enjoyed at every stage of ripeness and are sweetest at the very black stage. The following guide will assist you in making the appropriate plantain selection.

Plantains cannot be eaten raw at any stage. They must be cooked (like potatoes). The texture and taste of this versatile fruit depends entirely on its ripeness stage.

  • Green plantains are starchy and have a taste more comparable to a potato. Green plantains are used in recipes similar to potato (fried) or other starchy vegetable. The pulp is ivory in color and firm.
  • Yellow plantains are between the green and black stage. The skin is usually a little spotted. Yellow fruit may be used in recipes that call for a flavor that is slightly sweet but with a firm texture.
  • Black plantains are the sweetest and are used in recipes requiring a ripe or plantain. The black stage can range from heavy black spotting to a fully black and very soft fruit. Fruit pulp is yellow-orange color and very soft.

Peeling a plantain:

Using a sharp knife cut off the top and bottom ends of the plantain and your fingers (just making sure you’re still reading). With the tip of the knife make one slit in the skin of the plantain from top to bottom. Use your thumb and fingers to work the peel away from the pulp of the fruit beginning at the slit. Less ripe plantains have tougher skins and are best peeled under cold water to avoid bruising.

Mofongo is so popular in NYC that they actually have restaurants that specialize exclusively in this dish.

Recipes:

Mofongo

Mashed green plantain

Sweet plantains in cranberry syrup

Green plantain pancakes

Green fried plantains (tostones)

Fried sweet plantains (maduros)

Cream of plantain soup

Baked sweet plantains

BBQ’d sweet plantains

3 thoughts on “Plantains

  1. Dr. Steve — you inspire me to try plantians — some new for me — sounds like it might even be quite nutritious. xxxooo Mom

  2. Steve, on our recent trip to Puerto Rico I noticed what appeared to be wooden mortar and pestils on sale along the side of the road. I wondered who would want them until I realized they must be mofongo bowls, which would certainly make more sense. I should have stopped and bought one, since I enjoyed my first mofongo while visiting last year, but didn’t. Now after reading your interesting article on plantains and mofongos, I would like to give it a try. Any idea where I could get one???

    Virginia
    (Steve’s Mom)

  3. What exactly do plantains end up tasting like — bananas? potatoes? Or something uniquely their own?

    Could you expand your Puerto Rican adventure to describe more about mofongo, with maybe a recipe or two?

    And finally, re: bananas growing in Southern California — many of you who traveled 101 along the Pacific Ocean between Ventura and Carpinteria will remember the anomaly of the banana plantation that flourished there for about 20 years because of a warm air current that made it possible. The bananas are no longer there — the growers lost their lease several years ago.

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