I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them.
A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.
Plantains vs. Bananas
Unlike bananas, their ready-to-eat cousins, plantains need to be cooked before being eaten. Naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium, while they look like fat bananas, they are starchy when green and become sweeter as their thick bark-like peel turns black.
Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create side dishes and desserts.
Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways. Steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled.
The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed what I thought were bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skins. I thought the fruit was spoiled. In fact, those were plantains not bananas. I subsequently learned that when the peel turns from green to yellow and finally to black, the starches in the plantain have converted into sugars.
Patacones - a Costa Rican Treat
In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated how to prepare patacones.
Plantains are easy to make, I cook them all the time. The only difficulty is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in most U.S. cities, it is best to find markets serving the Spanish-speaking community. Those markets, usually mom-and-pop businesses, are also a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chiles, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.
Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways.
He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice for the Costa Rican dish called casado which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.
Villa Buena Onda, known locally as VBO, is an intimate destination with eight rooms. Feeling more like a private home than a hotel, a stay at VBO includes all three meals. Having a personal chef during the stay makes the experience even more luxurious. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.
Navarette studies at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past ten years.
What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Chef Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Chef Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked, plated in the most beautiful five-star way.
Aided by translator Céasar Allonso Carballo, Navarrete was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to prepare.
Cooking black plantains to serve as a dessert is the essence of simplicity. Peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and cut into 5-inch long sections. Fry on both sides until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes. The sweet plantains are an excellent way to end a meal.
Crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare, but not much more so.
Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda
Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.
In the VBO kitchen, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook patacones. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve a similar result using less oil with an easier clean up.
The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.
Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Rica's say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 green plantains, washed
8 cups corn or safflower oil in a deep fryer or 1 cup oil in a sauté pan
Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)
1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.
2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.
3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.
4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which take about 5 to 8 minutes to brown.
5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.
6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens. Work assembly-line fashion until all plantains are flattened.
7. Place the flattened plantains into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in the sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary to cook until lightly browned on all sides.
8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.
9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).
10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests and mix and match.