As New Jersey weather warms, bringing our fruits and vegetables into season, one delicious item available year-round is always worth a look.
In the Southern Hemisphere, a key part of dinner is the plantain, a cooking banana that is enjoyed as a main dish fried, baked, boiled, grilled or combined with other fruits and vegetables. Imported from Central America, the plantain is often ignored in the U.S. because people judge it as if it were a banana and perceive it as either too green, too black, too large or too hard.
Don’t let its looks deceive you. Unless a plantain is rock-hard, moldy or practically liquid, chances are it’s good.
For each stage of ripeness, plantains have different tastes and cooking requirements. When the peel is green-to-yellow, plantains are bland and starchy and can be cooked like potatoes. As the peel changes from yellow to black, the plantain gradually changes its character from vegetable to fruit, developing greater sweetness and a banana aroma, but holding its firm shape, even after cooking.
Unlike a banana, a black plantain is merely ripe. Take the greener plantains home and let them ripen. Kept at room temperature, they’ll slowly ripen to the stage you want.
More Fun Facts About Plantains
Though plantains and bananas are genetically similar, plantains contain more starch and less sugar, rendering them less flavorful than bananas when eaten raw. As a result, they’re usually cooked or otherwise processed before being eaten and are always cooked or fried when eaten green—at that stage, the pulp is hard and the peel is often so stiff that it has to be cut with a knife to be removed.
Because some of the starch in yellow plantains has been converted to sugar and the pulp is softer, mature yellow plantains can be peeled like typical bananas. When mature, yellow plantains tend to caramelize when fried, turning golden-brown.
In addition to being high in vitamins A, C, and B6, plantains are a rich source of potassium, which is necessary for regulating heart rate and blood pressure. The fiber in plantains helps lower cholesterol levels, contributes to a feeling of fullness and promotes digestive health.
Plantains Around the World
Since plantains fruit year-round, they are a reliable all-season crop, particularly in developing countries with inadequate food storage, preservation and transportation technologies. In Africa, plantains and bananas provide more than 25 percent of the carbohydrate requirements for over 70 million people.
In Central American and Caribbean countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Jamaica, plantains are either fried, boiled or made into plantain soup. In parts of India, steamed ripe plantains are a popular breakfast dish. In Ghana, boiled plantains are eaten with kontomire stew, cabbage stew or fante-fante (fish) stew. The boiled plantain can be mixed with groundnut paste, pepper, onion and palm oil to make eto, which is eaten with avocado. Ripe plantains can also be fried and eaten with black-eyed beans cooked in palm oil, another popular breakfast dish.
In Guatemala, ripe plantains are eaten boiled, fried or in a special combination: boiled, mashed, stuffed with sweetened black beans and deep-fried in sunflower or corn oil to create a dish called rellenitos de plátano, which is served as a dessert. In Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, plantains are fried and mashed to create mofongo, while tostones, or twice-fried green plantains, are a popular staple in South American countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Selection and Storage
Like bananas, plantains are imported year-round. You can usually find them at all stages of ripeness. Because they’re firmer than bananas, a ripe plantain is less likely to be bruised, but you don’t want it mushy. Avoid plantains that are cracked or moldy.
Plantains last a long time at room temperature, gradually ripening and changing color. When a plantain is black, it should still feel as firm as a firm banana. If it’s very hard, throw it out. Even when it’s ripe, a plantain keeps well. A plantain can be refrigerated or frozen; to freeze, peel and wrap tightly in plastic.
The greener the plantain, the harder it is to peel. For greener plantains, cut off both ends and score the skin lengthwise in several places to make peeling easier. Experience will teach you what degree of ripeness is best for your purposes, but generally green or greenish plantains will be very hard and starchy, with little banana flavor and no sweetness. They require a fairly long cooking time and, like potatoes, can be boiled or mashed.
They’re excellent sliced thin and fried like potato chips, or cut into chunks, boiled and added to salty or spicy soups and stews. Yellow-ripe plantains can be prepared in the same ways, but they’ll have a lovely creamy texture and a light banana scent when cooked. They’re much more tender than green plantains yet much firmer than bananas. You can rinse them, cut them into fairly thick cross-sections, boil until tender, then peel the chunks and serve as a side dish.
If you plan to add plantains to soups, stews or vegetable mixtures, peel them first. Half-ripe plantains are also excellent grilled. Cuban cooks peel the plantains, cut them diagonally, grill them slowly over a low fire with a little oil or melted butter, then turn and brush them with additional oil or butter until they’re tender and creamy inside.
Black-ripe plantains are superb cooked any way you would cook a ripe banana. They’re delicious sautéed and will cook for a longer time than bananas without falling apart, permitting full development of their flavor and aroma. They’ll also absorb the flavors of whatever seasonings you use.
One fun and simple way to enjoy plantains is to make them into chips; baked and coated with a drizzle of olive or avocado oil, the chips are healthy, filling and a great way to bring the tropics into your kitchen. Enjoy this tasty snack!
Easy Baked Plantain Chips
- 2 large plantains, peeled
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (or avocado oil)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Using a sharp knife or mandolin, slice the plantain thinly (approximately 1/8 of an inch per slice). Place the sliced plantains in a large bowl and drizzle with oil, using your hands or a spatula to thoroughly coat. Lay out the slices in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until golden brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and cool completely to crisp up more.
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and tv personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 28 years. For more information, visit producepete.com.
About Susan Bloom
A regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food, and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for over a decade.