Friday, October 2, 2009

I Go Bananas for Plantains

I think I mentioned I used to work at a small, elegant Pan-Latin American restaurant when I was in college. This introduced me to foods to which I had never given a second thought in the past. Some of my favorite things on the menu included: ropa vieja, matahambre (which was their beans and rice), empanadas, fried yuca, pinion, and churrasco. If you are ever in the Gainesville area, I highly suggest this place for lunch of dinner. I have rarely been to a restaurant where so many things on the menu were so delicious. I like to think of restaurants with such a strong menu as having a "deep bench"; the staples are there, but you can go beyond the usual suspects and still be just as satisfied (if not more so). As deep as the bench goes there, this recipe is a staple of Latin American cuisine: plantains. I have always thought of plantains as Puerto Rican bananas. My grandma makes a sort of pickled plantain dish for Christmas dinner every year, and I remember asking my mom what was in it when I was little. She told me they were plantains, and of course that required further explanation" "Puerto Rican bananas..try one." That was a mistake because as much as I love my grandma, I do not like pickled plantains.

I revisited this fruit only about 15 years later when I began to work at the restaurant. This time they were crispy, golden and fried and went undercover by the name, "tostones" on the menu. They also came in the sweet, fried variety with an almost caramelized / gooey outside; these were called "amarillos" (or some say "maduros"). Both varieties make the perfect side dishes for any Latin American meal. I like to eat them with beans and rice or ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish).

Plantains can be made two ways only as far as I am concerned at this point: fried sweet or fried the pickling for cucumbers.

Tostones (fried green): They are not sweet and taste more like yuca or almost potato-like. I am pretty sure this is the first time I have actually fried something (in deep oil), and I have to admit it was easier that I thought it would be (which could really be a bad thing if you ask my waistline). These fried plantains are not the tastiest things when eaten plain. Although I am sure someone more experienced would tell you that a perfectly fried plantain can be eaten on its own. To me, it is more about the texture and how they taste when dipped in sauces and eaten with other things.

Amarillos or Maduros (sweet fried): Most people prefer the sweet fried plantains. The plantains used for amarillos are past ripe, almost black on the outside. My friend Jessica from work who loves sweet plantains literally saves them for the end of a meal and eats them like a dessert. They go well with rice and beans as well. These were fried in butter (not oil) which may have given them a richer coating.


Deep Bench Tostones:

4 servings

4 plantains (they should be mostly green on the outside)
vegetable oil
kosher salt

Heat oil on high in a deep frying pan (oil should be about 1/4 inch deep)
Peel platains.
Cut across into 1 to 1 1/2 inch thick slices (should make about 8 slices for each plantain)
Place the plantain slices into the hot oil for 5 minutes, flipping once.

Remove plantains from the oil and place them on a dish lined with paper towels (to soak excess oil.
Continue to keep oil hot. If the oil is too low, you may need to add a little more to it.
Using a can or a flat plate (I used the bottom of a measuring cup), smash each plantain down until they are each 1/4 inch thick.
Place the smashed plantains back into the oil for about 1 minute on each side or until they are a deep golden color.
Toss the tostones with kosher salt right after removing them from hot oil so that the salt sticks.

For a dip for tostones, I whipped up my version of a "mojo" sauce they used to serve at the restaurant: equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise mixed with plenty of garlic powder and salt (pictured below)

For another dipping option, my amazing friend, Amanda, recommends the following:
Mix a ton of fresh pressed garlic with olive oil and let it sit for awhile or overnight. Fork it over the tostones or dip them into it. Garlicky awesome! WARNING: for garlic lovers only.

Ooey Gooey Amarillos

(a Tyler Florence recipe)

makes 2-3 servings

2 to 3 ripe black plantains (or almost black)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Peel the plantains.
Heat butter in a large skillet and place over medium low heat (using high heat may cause them to burn quickly due to the sugar content).
Fry the plantains in a single layer, until golden on the bottom then turn over with a spatula. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar and let cook a few more seconds, just to begin caramelizing the sugar.

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