Plantain: No ordinary banana

It is hard to go to too many restaurants in the Caribbean without seeing plantain on the menu, and why would you want to? Portuguese Franciscan friars are to thank for introducing this beloved and diverse fruit to the Caribbean and Americas from Africa. A member of the banana family – not surprising given its similar appearance – plantain appears as both a side dish or main dish ingredient on menus across the Caribbean, South America and Africa, where it is a reliable staple food due to its all-season growth. 

Nutrition  

In 100g of boiled plantain there are 112kcal, 28.5g carbohydrates, 0.2g fat and 0.8g protein. Like bananas, plantains are an excellent source of potassium, with 400mg per 100g, necessary for fluid balance, heart function and muscle contraction. Plantains are also a good source of magnesium, folate and vitamin B6 and carotene. 

How to use  

Unlike its banana cousin, plantain is typically eaten cooked due to its higher starch content, and either green or ripe varieties can be used to different effects. When green, plantain is bland and starchy, and once peeled can be sliced and fried or roasted. When ripe, the flesh becomes slightly sweet and its yellowish-white flesh can be fried, baked, boiled and added to stews. Very ripe black plantains are best used in sweet dishes and desserts due to the caramelization of its sugar, which occurs when cooked. Fried strips of plantain are regularly seen on menus island-wide and plantain chips, or the Cuban equivalent of mariquitas, adorn supermarket and gas station shelves.  

Plantain leaves can also be used as a wrap around certain dishes such as South American tamales, Puerto Rican pasteles or Ghanaian fante kenkey. In other countries the large, strong leaves are used as plates and also have religious significance in some Hindu ceremonies. 

In order to ripen plantains at home, store them at room temperature and away from direct sunlight. Turn them daily. 

Using plantain is second nature to many in the Caribbean, but for those who are just getting to grips with using it, there are many simple ways to incorporate them into meals. As a side dish, ripe plantain is usually sliced and fried, but if you wish to make a slightly healthier version, baking also works to caramelize the sugars. 

Baked plantain  

Preheat oven to 450F and coat a baking tray with cooking spray. Cut ends off plantains, peel and slice into ½ inch slices. Arrange in single layer and coat tops with cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes, turning occasionally until golden brown and tender.

Another idea is plantain tarts. This recipe from “Authentic Recipes of Jamaica” makes about 40 small tarts. 

Plantain tarts  

Pastry ingredients  

  • 2 cups flour 
  • 8oz vegetable shortening 
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg 
  • ¼ teaspoon salt 
  • 2 tablespoons ice water 

Filling ingredients  

  • 1 large very ripe plantain, mashed 
  • ½ cup sugar 
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 1 tablespoon raisins 

Method  

Make the pastry: Combine half the flour with the shortening in a bowl and cut in with a pastry blender until mixture resembles peas. Add remaining flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt, and cut again until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough ice water to hold the mixture together, form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour until firm. 

Make the filling: Combine mashed plantain, sugar and butter in saucepan. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes until thoroughly blended and the butter is melted. Stir in nutmeg, vanilla and raisins, and set aside to cool. 

Preheat oven to 450F. Roll pastry out onto lightly floured surface to a thickness of 3mm. Using a drinking glass, cut the pastry into 4-inch circles. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of the filling into the center of each. Fold pastry in half over the filling and seal by crimping the edges with a fork. 

Place the tarts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Prick the top of each with a fork to vent steam and bake for about 15 minutes until the pastry is light brown. 

Plantain-tarts

Plantain tarts are a popular dish in Jamaica.

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