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In Africa, South and Central America, where plantains show up on menus for every meal, plantains are sometimes called "potatoes of the air," reports the Kitchen Dictionary at Recipezaar.com. That nickname helps clarify their role in the diet of people who eat them: nutritious, carbohydrate-packed alternatives to rice and other starches. They provide good nutrition for people throughout the tropics. A cup of plantain supplies nearly half the body's needed vitamin C, more than a third of the vitamin A and 3 grams of fiber.
Plantains are close cousins to bananas, but they should be cooked before eating. Plantains start green, turn yellow as they ripen and turn black when they're fully ripe. They get sweeter as they ripen.
Choose green or yellow plantains for savory uses (like the Latin tostones and African fufu), black ones for dessert use. They should be firm and heavy for their size, suggests Turbana, the Colombian growers' co-op that imports most plantains sold here.
To speed plantains' ripening, store them in a paper bag at room temperature, where the ethylene gas they give off will also help other fruit ripen more quickly.
Sometimes plantains, especially green ones, are hard to peel. Cut off both ends, then slit the peel lengthwise along one or more ribs, trying not to cut the flesh under the peel. Some people believe that soaking for a couple of minutes in ice water helps the peel slip off more easily.
Tostones are fried plantain chips. Cut the plantain into 1-inch long chunks, and fry in oil until golden. Remove chunks from hot oil, stand them upright on a paper towel and flatten the chunk into a disk. Return flattened disks to hot oil to brown again. Salt and serve hot.
Fufu is sometimes made with plantains instead of the more usual yam. It is boiled plantains pounded (mashed or pureed) to smoothness, then sometimes shaped into golf ball-sized balls. Fufu is a traditional accompaniment to stews.