A banana is a banana. It's sweet, portable and healthy. Not much more.
A plantain, on the other hand, is a shape-shifter, its usage changing with every gradation from green to yellow to black.
Intrigued? Take another look at the giant fruits, usually poised and waiting for purchase right next to their one-trick cousins. Because despite the fact the banana is a staple in most shopping carts, its starchy cousin is the family's winner of the genetic lottery as far as the kitchen is concerned.
Young and green, it can be fried into chips. Old and black, it can be sliced and cooked into the ooey-gooey perfection that is maduros.
In fact, there are eight distinct stages to the cooking plantain, says Ron Jeffries, produce manager at Checker's Foods.
The basics go like this: When a plantain is young and green, it is more starch than sugar, making its texture firm and potato-like. As it lightens toward yellow, its sugar content goes up, and its texture lightens. It is fully ripe when it is all black, with very sweet, salmon-colored flesh. The flesh then is soft and more banana-like and able to be eaten not only raw, but also cooked in a similar manner to a banana, meaning it can be used in desserts and other sweet dishes, like the common Caribbean side dish, maduros.
"They're pretty much useful in all stages," Jeffries says. "So you can either take them green clear up to where they get black. It just depends on what you need them for."
Confusing, maybe, but the key is not to think of it as a big ol' banana, says Simon Bates, co-owner and chef at Esquina, who uses fried plantains in a number of applications at the Latin restaurant. That don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover attitude especially goes for peeling plantains, which can be a bit rough for someone accustomed to just using bananas. Bates suggests cutting off the ends and then, if need be, slicing the skin lengthwise with a knife to facilitate peeling. The extra work is worth it, though, he says, for a tropical treat at the dawn of grilling season.
"People look at them and think they're going to be just like a banana and they're totally different," he says. "The skin is really tough. Once you get past that and you know it's not a banana, I think you'll be fine."
What it is: Plantains are what are known as "cooking" bananas. Like the "eating" bananas common in most American households, plantains originated in Asia before taking root in tropical locations around the world, thanks to sailors who brought along on their travels. They are an important crop for many countries and popular in several different types of cuisine, from African, to Asian to the Caribbean.
Nutrition: One raw, medium plantain has 218 calories, 1 gram of fat, 4 grams of fiber, 27 grams of sugar, 40 percent of your daily vitamin A and 55 percent of your vitamin C, according to nutritiondata.com.
How to store: Store plantains at room temperature for four to five days, according to Aliza Green's "Field Guide to Produce."
Plantain ripeness scale
Want to try cooking up some plantains? Here's a guide to the fruit's applications, depending on its stage of ripeness, as described by Ron Jeffries, produce manager at Checkers Foods, 2300 La.:
- Green: Hard; potato substitute; suitable for frying.
- Light green: Hard; suitable for frying.
- Green-yellow: Firm; suitable for frying.
- Yellow with green tips: Firm but sweeter; can be fried, boiled or mashed.
- Yellow: Softer and slightly sweet; suitable for mashing or frying.
- Yellow-black: Soft and sweet; suitable for mashing or frying.
- Black-yellow: Soft, fully ripe and sweet; suitable for mashing, frying or eating out of hand.
- Black: Very soft, very ripe and very sweet; A "maduro"; suitable for mashing, frying or eating out of hand.
Chipotle Pork Tenderloin with Plantain and Orange Salsa
1/2 cup Italian dressing
1/4 cup chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, pureed
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 pork tenderloins (10 ounces each)
2 medium-ripe plantains, chopped
3 tablespoons oil
2 medium navel oranges, peeled, chopped
1/2 cup chopped green or red pepper
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Mix dressing, pepper puree and brown sugar. Remove 1/4 cup of the dressing mixture; cover and refrigerate for later use. Pour remaining dressing mixture over meat in shallow dish; cover. Refrigerate several hours or overnight to marinate.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove meat from marinade; discard marinade. Place meat in shallow baking dish. Bake 25 minutes or until instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees when tested in center of meat, brushing with the reserved 1/4 cup dressing mixture after 15 minutes. Cut into 1/2-inch thick slices before serving.
Cook plantains in oil in large skillet on medium heat 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Mix oranges, red peppers, onion and cilantro in large bowl. Add plantains; toss lightly. Serve with the meat.
- Recipe from kraftfoods.com.
Gingery Plantain, Yam and Apple Sauté
1 large yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup apple juice
1 large plantain, ripe but firm, quartered and thinly sliced
1 Braeburn apple, quartered and thinly sliced
1 small yam, quartered and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon grated unsweetened coconut
Combine yellow onion with lime juice; marinate in refrigerator for 1 hour. Drain onions and save lime juice.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes.
Add apple juice, plantain, apple, yam, ginger and garlic. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until vegetables and fruit are tender. Stir in brown sugar and reserved lime juice. Simmer another minute. Garnish with coconut and serve.
- Recipe from wholefoodsmarket.com.
1 large green plantain
Corn oil for frying
Peel plantain, cut into diagonal slices, 3/4 inch thick. Deep fry on both sides in hot oil (375 degrees) until tender, but not crusty. Remove and drain in paper towel.
Cover with wax paper, press down with palm of hand to flatten.
Deep fry again until crusty and golden on both sides. Drain on paper towel, season lightly with salt and serve hot.
- Recipe from goya.com.