For centuries, plantains have been used as a staple food in tropical and subtropical regions from West Africa to Latin America. Their versatility lies in the fact that they can be eaten at any stage of maturity, and that yields are abundant in the right conditions.
The plantain (plátano in Spanish) is a type of banana. From the genus Musa, most edible bananas are cultivars derived from two species, M. acuminata and M. balbisiana. Of the major types of bananas grown worldwide, about 21% are plantains.
In plant classification, the plantain is actually an herb, not a tree. In fact, it is the biggest herb in the planet, reaching up to 50 feet high and producing bunches that can weigh up to 55 pounds. It grows best in humid, warm, tropical lowlands, where it takes nine to 12 months to mature.
Bananas and plantains are considered the most important fruits traded internationally.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they are worth more than $4 billion yearly in worldwide exports, making them the world s favorite fruit. In terms of gross value of production, bananas and plantains are the fourth biggest global food crop. Of the more than 1,000 species known, about 50 are cultivated worldwide, encompassing more than 25 million acres and yielding more than 100 million tons of fruit every year.
The biggest difference between a banana and a plantain is moisture content. The plantain averages about 65% moisture and the banana about 83%. Since hydrolysis, the process by which starches are converted to sugars, acts fastest in fruit of high moisture content, starches are converted to sugars faster in bananas than in plantains.
In unripe plantains, starch comprises more than 80% of the dry weight of the pulp. Sugars comprise only about 1.3% of total dry matter in unripe plantains, but this rises to about 17% in the ripe fruit.
Unripe plantain pulp contains a total of 3.5% dry matter as cellulose and hemicellulose and therefore constitutes a good source of dietary fiber. In relation to dry weight, the total protein value of plantains is about 3.5% in ripe pulp, slightly less in the unripe fruit and in bananas. Plantains are also a good source of potassium and vitamins A (carotene), B (thiamin, niacin and riboflavin and B6) and C (ascorbic acid).
With phenomenal culinary versatility, the plantain is used in the kitchen in a host of different ways, depending on ripeness. Green plantains are prepared in the same way as starchy foods such as potatoes, yams or yuca (cassava) and may be boiled, steamed, fried or baked for savory dishes. Their yellow or medium-ripe (when the sugars start to appear) counterparts can be combined with savory accents, creating an exotic approach to common dishes such as lasagna and sushi.
When the fruit turns black, the maximum level of ripeness has been achieved, resulting in astonishing dessert dishes.
As a longtime staple food in many countries, the plantain has been developed into an amazing array of culinary combinations for its three stages of ripeness. Gourmet markets offer a variety of specialties, such as plantain chips, both green and ripe, plantain beer from East Africa, and frozen green and ripe plantains ready to fry, bake or grill, making the fruit s future as a tropical delicacy look promising indeed.
Costa Rican, other Latin American and African cuisines showcase plantains in many forms, with an exten-sive array of dishes ranging from savory to sweet and everything in between.
In Costa Rica, plantains are particularly prevalent in the Caribbean province of Limón, where the fruit forms the base of many dishes, as well as serving as an accompaniment or garnish.
Green plantains are used for patacones (also called tostones), ceviche, chips, breads, soups and stews, while ripe ones are used mainly in sweet dishes. More and more, fusion chefs are giving the plantain the place it deserves in innovative cooking, using a combination of tradition and imagination to bring out the best in this truly incredible and once overlooked fruit.
Plantain Lasagna with Earthly Tomato Sauce
Earthly Beef and Fresh Tomato Sauce
2 cups ground beef or texturized soy beef
7 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup red pepper, finely chopped
1/4 cup celery, finely chopped
5 medium tomatoes, chopped, peeled and seeded
3/4 cup green beans, finely chopped
3/4 cup carrots, cut in small cubes
3 tbs fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tbs ground oregano
2 tbs tomato paste, dissolved in 1/2 cup water
3 tbs light soy sauce
1 tbs each of sugar, ground ginger and Chinese fivespice
powder (available in Asian markets)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Brown ground beef (or soy beef following manufacturer s
instructions) in a skillet. Drain well and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tbs oil and sauté onions, garlic, red pepper, green beans, celery and carrots for 10 minutes or until al dente.
3. Add beef, soy sauce, sugar, spices, cilantro, tomatoes and tomato paste and mix well.
4. Bring to a light boil. Add 1/2 cup water and simmer until the mixture thickens.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste. Adjust flavors, remove from heat and set aside.
Makes three cups of sauce.
3 medium-firm, ripe plantains, peeled and cut lengthwise into five long slices each Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup cream cheese
3 cups prepared Earthly Beef and Fresh Tomato Sauce Butter (to grease baking pan)
1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
2. In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the plantain slices, five at a time, in 2 tbs vegetable oil, for about two minutes on each side.
3. Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining two plantains. Set aside.
4. Grease a nine-inch glass baking pan with butter and cover the bottom with the first third of plantain slices, making sure the edges are even.
5. Add half of the tomato-beef sauce.
6. Top with the second third of the plantain slices to create another layer.
7. Dot with cream cheese, then spread it uniformly and add the remaining sauce.
8. Add the remaining third of the plantains and top with grated mozzarella cheese.
9. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the cheese is lightly browned.
Makes six servings.