Compared to the familiar yellow Cavendish banana, its cousin the plantain, or cooking banana, can be a little forbidding. Plantains are usually larger and fuller, with a thick, stiff peel. To the uninitiated, the color of the peel doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the fruit’s quality, as plantains are sold when they are hard and green, as well as soft and black. But those who take the time to get to know the plantain will be rewarded with a robust and versatile fruit that has been a part of Latin American, Caribbean, African, Indian, and Asian cuisines for centuries.
A member of the Musa family, plantains, like bananas, have been cultivated for thousands of years, beginning in their native southeast Asia. They are particularly valued in tropical climates, where they are easy to grow. In addition to being rich in vitamin C and potassium, plantains are also a good source of carbohydrates and vitamin A. In some cultures, they are even reputed to be a cure for colds, especially lung ailments.
The plantain’s character changes as the fruit matures. For instance, a ripe black plantain is too sweet for most soups, while a hard green one would make a bland fritter. To help the plantain novice, here is a brief guide to its ever changing moods:
Green: When the plantain is hard and green it can be treated like a potato, with comparable preparation and cooking time. Hard-green plantains have little banana flavor but a rich, starchy savor that’s perfect for soups and stews. Hard-green plantains can also be cut into chips and deep fried, as are tostones, a Cuban specialty.
Yellow: Ripe yellow plantains start taking on a light banana aroma and flavor when cooked, though they are still not as soft and sweet as Cavendish bananas. They can be treated as a potato and work well when boiled, mashed, or fried as fritters. Mix with apple, sweet potato, or root vegetables for an interesting puree. These plantains also can be grilled or slow-roasted; baste and turn often until the flesh is tender.
Black: At this stage plantains are at their ripest and sweetest. When cooked, plantains’ texture holds better than regular bananas, making them a better choice for hot, slow-cooked dishes with complex and spicy flavors.
Once you know the secret of their peel, plantains are easy to buy and store. Bought green, they will gradually ripen through every stage when left at room temperature. When buying black-ripe plantains, give them a squeeze. They should give like a banana; if they are hard, stay away. Like bananas, plantains can be frozen at any time and refrigeration halts their development. Since plantains keep well at room temperature, refrigerate only if they are in short supply.