In an occasional series I’ve dubbed, “How The Hell Do I Cook This?” I’m going to write about food people have wanted to buy in the grocery store but we not sure how to prepare. Plantains are going to be the kick-off to this series.
Everyone has that one friend you dread going out to dinner with because she will invariably embarrass you by telling the waiter what she will not eat. She will not eat “undercooked” red meat, any fish that does not come out of a can, anything spicy, anything with too much garlic and under no circumstances will she eat liver so don’t try to slip any of it on her plate because she’ll know. After agreeing to go out to dinner with her for the third time, I started to wonder if I was a masochist or if the one yoga class I took in 2005 was starting to kick in and I was starting to achieve Buddha-like serenity. Since the last time I ate with her, I felt like throwing my fork at her, I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t achieved personal serenity.
A while back, I made the colossal mistake of taking her to dinner at a “Latin” restaurant instead of taking her to a safe place. We decided that I should order a bunch of plates for us to share since I had been to the restaurant before. After the waiter set the steaming plates of food in front of us, he ran back into the kitchen before my friend could harass him again. She suspiciously eyed the food on the table, but her greatest scrutiny was reserved for what she thought was stuffed bananas with chicken. To someone who was not used to eating plantains, I guess they did look like unusually large bananas, but as I explained to her, the dish was actually ripened plantains that were fried then stuffed with pulled chicken. I saw her heave a sigh of relief once she realized that I wasn’t going to force her to eat the unholy combination of bananas and chicken, but she still seemed dubious about eating plantains because she knew nothing about them. Of course her ignorance made me ecstatic. I love when the opportunity arises to talk about food that people are unfamiliar with because it combines my two greatest loves, lecturing people and food. I then launched into a 10 minute soliloquy about the unsung virtues of the proud plantain. I’ve decided to spare you my long sermon, but here is an abridged version of what my friend had to endure.
But before I start on my diatribe about plantains, I must digress with another diatribe. Plantain rhymes with the word stain and does not sound like plan-tihn. This is a huge pet peeve of mine and ranks right up there with people who insist on talking to me on the metro when I’m trying to read. By the way, if you’re guilty of this please stop immediately because those of us who read on public transportation hate that and only make conversation with you because we’re too polite to tell you to shut your pie-hole. Of course, if you are good-looking man, please feel to interrupt me all you want. Wow that was amazing, a digression within a digression; I am very impressed with myself. Ok, now back to the proper pronunciation of plantain. Trust me when I tell you that it should be pronounced my way. Why, you ask, do I think I’m right? Because I’ve been eating plantains since I was a baby so I know what I speak of.
Now that I have expressed my disdain for the improper pronunciation of plantain, I can tell you a little bit about the fruit. While most people make a distinction between plantains and bananas, there is really no botanical difference between the two. There is, however, a world of difference between how they are prepared and served because of the plantain’s lower sugar content and starchier nature. First, unlike the banana, the plantain is inedible in its raw stage so it must be cooked. But thankfully, there are many ways to prepare the plantain. It can be boiled, baked, grilled or fried when ripe and unripe. Its versatility probably explains why it’s a staple in many parts of West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. In my house, plantains (called koko when they are ripe) were always something I looked forward to eating.
It’s hard to describe what a plantain tastes like, but the best description that I can come up with is that they taste like a more refined version of a banana, which oddly, I do not like. I guess it’s because they do not have the cloying sweetness that bananas have when they get ripe. Some liken the taste of a ripe plantain to a butternut squash, but I think that the sweetness of the yellow plantain is more powerful than butternut squash. When plantains are green, however, they have an almost neutral flavor, so they make a pretty good substitute for potatoes when you’re looking for something different to serve as a side dish. The best part about plantains, though, is that even when the peel of the plantain is black, it can still be eaten. In Ghana, black plantains are used for a dish called tatale. It is a mixture of mashed plantains, grated onions, ginger, and flour that is then fried.
After listening to me blathering on about plantains, my friend took a bite of the plantain dish just to shut me up and to her surprise (and my surprise), she actually liked it. She liked the contrast of the sweetness of the ripe plantain with the tanginess of the pulled chicken. I told her to eat around the chicken, because plantains can definitely stand on their own and she loved them even more unadorned. In fact, she ended up eating almost the whole plate by herself. Normally, I would have been severely annoyed that she had hogged the food because I am a glutton, but I was so happy that my finicky friend enjoyed the plantains that I couldn’t be too mad. Besides, the next day I fried up a huge patch of ripened plantains and watched Lifetime movies on TiVo.
As you may have guessed, I was ecstatic about the conversion of my friend from a ridiculously finicky eater to only a fussy eater and took full credit for her partial conversion. I felt like L. Ron Hubbard must have felt like off his meds. I was so flush with this puny success that I started to think about using my powers of persuasion to start my own religion. I would only try to recruit ridiculously good-looking men and my first decree would be that the ridiculously good-looking soccer player Aitor Ocio would have to marry me but I could have boyfriends on the side. But my second decree, which would be of no less importance, would be that people would have to eat plantains at least once a week. I would also declare plantains a sacred food and start charging astronomical amounts for plantains supposedly grown in hallowed ground but secretly purchased at a grocery store. So before prices go up, think about going to the grocery store and buying plantains. You can buy them green, thinly slice them and deep fry them to make plantain chips. You can also buy them yellow, when they are ripe, and cut them into one inch cubes and deep fry them until they become a deep golden brown. Below is a recipe for another way to eat plantains. The dish is called kelewele and it is one of my favorite ways to prepare plantains. It is ripened plantains tossed with ginger and pepper then deep fried.
If you’re already well acquainted with plantains and you have recipes on how to prepare them, please send them to me because I‘m always looking for new plantain recipes.
2 medium-sized ripe plantains
1 small scotch bonnet pepper - You might want to remove the seeds if you think medium salsa is too hot
1 tablespoon fresh, peeled ginger root (use a spoon to get skin off ginger root)
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon salt
Palm oil or vegetable oil for deep frying
Peel then cut plantains into bite-sized cubes
Puree pepper, ginger, water and salt in a blender.
Toss plantains with ginger mixture
Heat oil until hot (about 325F)
Fry plantains until golden brown
Toss with more salt if desired
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