When I was a kid, my only exposure to plantains came when my dad thinly sliced and fried up a batch of green ones to make homemade plantain chips. They were rough-hewn: mostly crisp but still a little chewy, with oil-slicked exteriors that were like a magnet for salt.
These days, plantain chips—the mass-produced, evenly sliced, thoroughly crunchy ones—are everywhere. You can buy them at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, even Walmart. You can find them arranged between bags of Lay’s and Dorito’s in the vending machine in my office. They are the Lorde of snacks: They originated in the Southern Hemisphere, and now they are everywhere. All in all, the ubiquity of plantain chips is a coup for Musa × paradisiaca, the species to which many plantains and bananas belong. (Contrary to the emphatic belief of many plantain advocates, the distinction between bananas and plantains is mostly cultural, not genetic: Plantains are eaten cooked, bananas are eaten raw.) Starchy as potato chips, plantain chips are a pleasant introduction to plantains’ subtle but distinctively savory flavor.
But plantains can be so much more than crispy, salty snack food. The riper they get—like bananas, they continue to ripen after they’ve been picked—the moister, tenderer, and sweeter they are. They never become as sugary or creamy as bananas; they always retain a hint of that unique savoriness. But soft plantains can be caramelized in the delectable and memorable side dish called plátanos maduros, which literally just means “ripe plantains.” Even if you didn’t grow up eating plantains this way—or at all—there’s a decent chance you’ve had this dish in a Latin American or Caribbean restaurant. And, if you’re like me, you wondered, “How do they do that?”
The first answer part of the answer is this: They wait until the plantains are really, really ripe. Plantains, like bananas, start out very firm and ripe and slowly turn yellow and then brown. When you want to make plátanos maduros, you need to wait until they are fully brown. Wait even longer than you’d wait for bananas to overripen if you were making banana bread. There’s no shortcut to soft, sweet plantains—you have to let nature do most of the work. (Since plantains are rarely sold fully brown, this means you’ll need to buy yellow plantains on the early side and leave them in a paper bag for a few days.)
Plantains have a tougher skin than bananas, so you’ll have to take off the ends and make a lengthwise slit through the peel with a knife before you strip off the peel with your hands and slice the meat. If your plantain slices are mushy and blurred around the edges, good—that means they’re ripe enough. If they hold their shape easily and retain sharp edges, they’re too firm. (Firm plantains will end up chewy, starchy nuggets if cooked this way. They won’t be bad, exactly, but they won’t be plátanos maduros.)
The traditional cooking method for plátanos maduros is frying, but you’re not aiming to crisp them up the way you would with plantain chips. You want to brown them slowly over relatively low heat. I love coconut oil (which is solid at room temperature and is sold in jars) in this recipe, but peanut oil also works well. You’ll notice that I call for rolling the plantain slices in brown sugar before frying them. This is not a universal approach, but some cooks in Cuba and elsewhere prepare them this way to give them a more caramelized coating. You can omit the sugar if you don’t have a massive sweet tooth; the plantains themselves will be sweet enough to carry the dish by themselves. (To balance out their flavor, serve them with refried beans, good salsa, and a salty cheese like cotija.)
One last thing: Usually, when you fry things, you drain them on paper towels afterwards to remove excess oil. Do not do that here. The plantains will stick to the towels, and you’ll end up with tiny shreds of paper irrevocably adhered to your plantains, which is a serious bummer.
Sweet Fried Plantains
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Time: About 20 minutes
3 medium overripe plantains (about 1½ pounds), cut into ¾-inch slices
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¾ cup coconut or peanut oil
1. Put the plantains and brown sugar in a medium bowl, and season with salt. Toss to coat the plantains evenly with the sugar.
2. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the plantains and adjust the heat so the oil bubbles gently. Cook, turning once, until the plantains are fully tender and deeply browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain on a plate, and serve hot or warm.
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