Botanically, a plantain (PLAN-tihn) is a banana. But for the cook, it’s something else entirely. Plantains, also called plántanos or “cooking bananas,” never achieve a conventional banana’s sweetness. When green, they have a starchiness that rivals a potato. They’re easy to identify—plantains look like bananas on steroids, both longer and thicker than their conventional cousins.
Plantains are native to Southeast Asia, where they’re scarce today. They’re an important food in Africa, where they’re boiled and pounded to make the staple starch, foofoo. When Spanish missionaries introduced bananas and plantains to the Americas, they spread so quickly that later “experts” insisted they must have been cultivated by the Incas. Today, the plantain’s versatility is evident in Latin American cuisine, where mashed plantain is mixed with pork and cheese for croquette-like patties, and thin slices are turned into a snack similar to potato chips.
Plantains are high in potassium and vitamin C. Like regular bananas, they ripen from green to yellow and become somewhat sweeter as they ripen. Green plantains are stiff, and you may need a paring knife to coax off the peel; riper ones peel as easily as a banana. Avoid bruised plantains, but don’t worry about small black spots—they are a natural occurrence and don’t diminish quality.
An easy way to enjoy plantains is to prepare the popular Puerto Rican side dish, tostones—twice-fried plantains. Heat about a half-inch of vegetable oil in a frying pan. Cut peeled plantain into 3/4-inch slices. Fry in hot oil about 4 minutes per side, until golden. Remove slices to a cutting board and smash gently to flatten. (The bottom of a heavy glass works well.) Return slices to pan and fry until lightly browned and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Salt to taste.
—By Jo Marshall, Creator of Cookcabulary