Have You Met… Plantains

This post is part of the series Have you met… meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… plantains?

Plantains, known as platanos in Spanish, are often misunderstood in this part of the world. Though they belong to the same genus as bananas, Musa, they are not gigantic versions of our common lunchbox fruit. In fact, plantains are an entirely separate species. When their powers are combined, these look-alikes comprise the world’s largest fruit crop!

Cultivation and consumption of plantains have occurred throughout Southeast Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Africa for many centuries. These starchier cousins to the banana are often considered a staple food, both for their great taste and flexibility in a wide range of simple methods, and as a concentrated source of calories and quick energy if food becomes scarce.

To this day plantains are grown in these regions, as well as some of the warmer parts of the United States, like southern Florida. The current leader in plantain production? The tiny east-central African nation, Uganda.


What’s so great about them?

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that this super-sized fruit has super-sized nutrition. With virtually no cholesterol, sodium or fat, plantains have more vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium than bananas. Potassium is important for control of blood pressure and regular heart function. In addition to their roles in visual, immune and skin health, the antioxidant vitamins C and A help the body neutralize harmful free radicals and protect cells and blood vessels from damage and inflammation. One cup of cooked* plantain offers 28% of your daily needs each for vitamins C and A, and 20% of your potassium.

A concentrated source of starchy carbohydrates, plantains clock in at nearly 22 grams of sugar per cup. This also provides nearly 15% of your daily needs for dietary fiber. A study out of the UK published in 2010 suggested that the soluble fiber found in plantains may help treat Crohn’s disease, and research continues to explore potential treatment options.

Plantains are also good sources of the B vitamins, including 18% of your daily B6 and about 10% for folate – both of which are important to help lower levels of homocysteine in the body, an amino acid linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke when concentrations become too high. Folate is essential for women of childbearing age to help prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine in developing fetuses, and vitamin B6 may help alleviate symptoms of morning sickness during pregnancy.

In more moderate amounts, plantains provide magnesium (12% of your daily needs), and about 5% of the required iron, copper and phosphorous.

Note: If you are allergic or sensitive to latex, it may be best to avoid plantain. This fruit, like banana, kiwi, potato, chestnut, strawberry, peach and avocado, contain on allergen called chitinase that may cause a cross-reaction.

*All percentages provided are based on cooked plantains, since they’re typically not consumed raw.

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Where can I find them // What do I look for?

Because of their origins, plantains are easily sourced from Latin American and Asian markets, but are also becoming more prevalent at other specialty and larger chain supermarkets. Their availability is year-round.

Plantains can be anywhere from about 10 to 15 inches long, with two distinctly tapered ends, and three to four slightly flattened sides. The peels range from bright green to yellow to completely black. A green plantain is actually ripe, and will continue ripening and become sweeter, demonstrated by the peel’s color changes. Each of these stages is suited to particular types of cooking, which I’ll hit on in the next section, so be sure to check your recipe before shopping. Choose fruits that are firm with peels free from breaks and cuts.

Plantains are fine for several days at room temperature if kept uncovered and out of direct sunlight. They will continue to ripen here, and do best if flipped over daily. Plantains can also be stored — unpeeled as is, or peeled and wrapped tightly in plastic wrap — in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freezer up to 1 month. For extra insurance, place the plastic-wrapped peeled plantain into a resealable plastic bag or container. Both refrigerating and freezing will cease the ripening process.

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How do I use them?

Unlike bananas, plantains are generally consumed only after cooking due to the ratio of high starch to low sugar. This, however, provides a basic canvas for either bold or mild flavors, as well as use in a wide variety of cooking and baking preparations, ranging from savory to sweet. The high concentration of starchy carbohydrates makes plantains an excellent option for endurance athletes, and in tropical regions of the world a boiled mash is often offered as a nutrient-dense first food to infants.

When green (ripe), a plantain has a high starch content and the pale yellow flesh has mealy texture similar to a potato. At this stage, they’re more like vegetables than fruits, and applications should veer toward savory, focusing on longer-cooking methods like roasting, baking or braising, and slow grilling. A yellow plantain (riper still) is slightly softer and sweeter as the starch inside the fruit begins its natural conversion to simple sugars. These are suited to sautéing, boiling and mashing, cooking in soups and stews, but could also be used in those longer methods above. If allowed to sit long enough at room temperature, the peel blackens (overripe). The now bright yellow flesh inside is much sweeter, but still starchy, and is best for use in sweet mashes and baked goods, or for sautéing with sugar as a dessert.

Check out this helpful guide to the stages of plantain ripeness (with recipes for each) from Cooking Light Magazine.

The peel of a plantain is not as easily removed as that of a banana. You will need to use a sharp knife to top and tail the fruit, then slice into the peel along the angles, and pull it away in a few long strips. For measuring reference: 1 pound of peel-on plantains yields approximately 1 cup, peeled and mashed, or 1 1/2 cups, peeled and sliced.

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Here are a few ideas to get you started:

+ Fire up the grill, slice plantains lengthwise (peeled or unpeeled), brush with olive oil and toss them on the grates. Before serving, sprinkle lightly with salt and nutmeg OR salt and lime juice.

+ After peeling, slice thickly crosswise and sauté in coconut oil, or slice thinly like chips and bake in the oven.

+ Soup season is here — try crema de platano verde (creamy plantain soup).

+ These plantain boats with eggplant look fun!

Mofongo is essentially the Puerto Rican/Dominican version of mashed potatoes, using mashed fried green plantains and tons of garlic.

+ Head east to sample Cuban mojo-marinated pork chops with boiled and smashed plantains.

+ Or even further east for West African beef, plantain and okra stew.

+ Give a cooking nod to the world’s largest producer with Ugandan matoke – mashed steamed plantain, often served with goat or chicken.

+ This unique application smothers an oven-baked plantain with a sweet-spicy guava-poblano pepper sauce.

+ Sweet bourbon plantains to warm you on a cold evening.

+ Bake your grain- and gluten-free maple plantain cake with coconut caramel sauce, and eat it too!

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Still seen as an ethnic novelty by most, plantains are gradually getting a foot in the door. Now that you know more about them, hopefully you’ll let them through yours!

Start by choosing whether you’d like sweet or savory, find a recipe that matches, then tie on your apron and see why I chose to feature plantains. And be sure to check back here soon when I share a favorite, unique way to highlight this extraordinary ingredient: Spiked chorizo and black bean chilli with chipotle, roasted garlic and plantain.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… What are your feelings about plantain? Intimidated? In love?

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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