When I first came to Costa Rica in 1999, I saw what I now know to be plantains in the fruit and vegetable stand and I thought, “Wow! Those are the biggest bananas I have ever seen!” Even though I had been working as a sous chef in the Midwest of the US, plantains were nowhere to be found.
I wasn’t completely wrong, upon returning back home I started doing some research and plantains do belong to the banana family. The banana family is divided into 2 main categories: Dessert and Plantains. So, plantains actually ARE bananas, or “bananos”, as they are called in Costa Rica. Though cooking bananas and plantains is a matter of custom rather than a necessity, there are notable differences. Eating a raw banana is a sweet treat, but raw green plantains are not sweet at all and will set your teeth on edge if you try to eat them, although that could also be said for a green banana.
Ripe bananas are not generally cooked (exceptions being banana bread and Bananas Foster and a few other dishes), whereas ripe plantains are always cooked. You actually COULD eat a ripe plantain raw since their starches are converted to sugar in the ripening process similar to a banana but it is not recommended. And as you will see, there are much tastier ways to enjoy a maduro, or ripe plantain.
Plantains are a staple food in the tropical regions of the world, ranking as the tenth most important staple food in the world, and they can be a tasty, starchy addition to your diet. The nutritional value of plantains is similar to potatoes with 2 exceptions: plantains have 500 times as much Vitamin A and Beta-carotene. Additionally, the price of potatoes varies wildly in Costa Rica, whereas plantains are available and inexpensive all year round.
These fit perfectly in any breakfast, lunch, or dinner menu and are also a delicious snack. If you order Gallo Pinto for breakfast, there will be a couple of slices of sweet, ripe fried plantain on the side. The same is true for the ubiquitous lunch special, the casado–fried plantains always accompany your meat, rice, beans, and picadillo. Savory fried green plantains called patacones are often offered as appetizers or accompaniments on dinner menus.
Many Costa Ricans have a plantain tree on their property and it is common for a neighbor to offer you a few plantains or even a whole racimo, or bunch. At times you will be offered guineos or cuadrados, which are plantains that are shorter and fatter with a slightly different texture and not as sweet. You cannot eat a guineo raw–it has to be cooked, usually by boiling. It has a blander flavor than the larger, longer plantain.
Green or ripe plantains can also be boiled, baked, microwaved, or grilled, either peeled or unpeeled.
A ripe plantain is peeled like a banana before processing, but the pulp of green plantain is hard and the peel is stiff and cannot be removed by “peeling.” It has to be scored lengthwise with a knife and pried off. When removing the peel of green plantains, you will encounter a stickiness on the inside of the skin that does not wash off easily and leaves a brown stain. To avoid this, you can use gloves, or rub your hands with oil before working with plantains, or wash your hands with lime juice afterward.
Would you like to introduce plantains into your diet? Here I will tell you how to prepare plantains the two most common ways.
Let’s start with green plantains and make patacones. Patacones are twice-fried green plantain patties. To prepare them, cut a peeled green plantain in 1 1/2” long pieces and give the pieces a quick fry in oil just to soften them. Remove the pieces from the oil and smash them one by one with the bottom of a bottle or with a cutting board until the piece is about 1/2” thick. Fry the patties a second time until crispy. Season with salt and enjoy! Or you can top them with refried beans, crumbled queso fresco, salsa, guacamole, or really whatever you like! When the oil is fresh patacones are really quite good.
Strips of fried green plantains (plantain chips) are an excellent stand-in for potato chips and are sold anywhere snacks are.
Now for the ripe plantains, or maduros. When a banana goes from yellow to black, it is no longer any good. However, when a plantain gets black, it is perfect! A yellow plantain may be ready to prepare also–give it a squeeze and check for softness. After removing the skin, the ripe plantain is sliced and pan-fried in oil or butter until golden brown and caramelized. Put a dollop of sour cream (natilla) on each slice and enjoy. Buen provecho!
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