THE PLANTAIN – NO PLAIN JANE
I don’t have many memories that don’t include my grandmother – Mama Mae. Weighing no more than 100 pounds, she was a force to be reckoned with and also one heck of a cook.
She was my champion – whether it was taking my side when my grandfather slicked me out of a game of checkers or keeping my mother from knocking me out (too many times to count) when my mouth was at its smartest. She always had my back!
Funny enough, the same slick voice that got me in trouble was the one Mama Mae called “lovely” for radio. She seemed to have the antidote to everything. Luckily, my sons experienced some summers with her, learning about their mother as a little girl while gaining cherished memories that they’ll have forever.
One of my fondest memories is from about seven years ago. I was visiting Ocho Rios in celebration of my birthday and decided to make the trek to Kingston – the capital of Jamaica – to spend the day with Mama Mae because at her then-age of 96 years, well, you just never know…
For four hours, I listened to her talk while we baked together.
Stories flowed from her mouth of the long summers that she stayed with my family. How she thought I would put her on a plane back to Kingston when she accidentally let my dog escape from the house; or how hurt I’d be when my cousin David would come for the summer because my daddy’s attention would inevitably be taken away from me. Ah, the trials and tribulations of childhood.
I could see love, her cheeks dotted with flour as she smiled and giggled at our old memories; while her hands steadily folded these stories of love into the dough that would form the base for one of our favorite dishes; baked Plantain Tarts.
Now, Mama Mae taught me how to cook and most of our favorite recipes included plantain … main dish, side dish, snack or desert – it didn’t matter.
Not familiar with plantain? Well, I’m not surprised. A plantain is often mistaken for a banana but bigger and harder to peel. It looks and smells like a banana, but if you ever bite into a raw plantain, you’ll know it’s not. Plantains cannot be eaten raw. They must be cooked for consumption.
And on top of that – a plantain is a fruit, but considered a vegetable. When green, they are bland and starchy, much like a potato. Medium ripe plantains are either yellow, or mostly yellow with black spots on them, and they are slightly sweet. When the skins have turned almost black, the plantains are fully ripe, aromatic and sweet.
Just like my grandmother, I like to buy a bunch of plantains while they are green. This way, I can enjoy them over several days, and appreciate each delicious stage of their ripeness.
I’d like to share some of my favorite recipes using plantain at various stages of ripeness.
Spicy Baked Plantain Chips
2 green plantains
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Remove plantain peel with a knife. Thinly slice using a mandoline, if possible.
In a bowl, toss plantain slices with olive oil, spices and salt. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet.
Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, turning slices after about 8 minutes. Watch closely after turning – they can burn quickly. Remove from oven and serve.
Chips are best eaten immediately, but they’ll keep for about a day.
Boiled Sweet Plantain
4 large yellow plantains (with black spots / streaks)
1 tablespoon coarse salt
olive oil for drizzling
First, rinse and scrub the plantains well.
Cut off the ends, then slice each plantain in half, crosswise.
Make a small nick in each plantain peel (this just makes it a bit easier to remove after it’s cooked).
Add the plantains and salt to a large pot of water and bring everything to a boil. As soon as the water starts to bubble, drizzle in some olive oil and allow the plantains to simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
You’ll notice that the peels will start to open up when they’re done.
You can keep the plantains in their little peel “jackets” until ready to serve.
Then remove them when you’re about to eat. Drizzle with more olive oil and salt and pepper if desired…
Jamaican Plantain Tarts
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup butter or vegetable shortening or combination
2-4 tbsp ice water
1 cup ripe plantain, peeled and cut up
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vanilla
pinch of salt
red food coloring (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 350ºF
To make pastry:
- Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. With fingers, work half the butter into the flour until completely incorporated.
- Add the remaining butter, leaving it in small chunks.
- Quickly stir in ice water to form a somewhat sticky ball.
- Knead together briefly, wrap in plastic, and press to make a flat disk about 1-inch thick.
- Refrigerate overnight or for at least an hour.
To make filling:
- Cut of the tip and stem of plantain and cut into two pieces crosswise. Do not peel.
- Boil the plantain in unsalted water until tender.
- Allow to cool slightly.
- Peel the plantains and crush with a fork or potato masher.
- Add the butter, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Taste and adjust if needed
- Allow filling to cool completely before filling tart.
Roll out dough about 1/8 inch thick, on lightly floured board.
Cut into 4 inch rounds or larger (should make 6)
Spoon cooled filling in the center of each 4 inch round, fold over and seal with crimper or the prongs of fork.
Place on a wax-paper lined baking sheet.
Brush tops with a little milk or egg wash and prick top with the fork. Sprinkle lightly with sugar
Bake at at 350ºF for 20-25 minutes or until pastry is lightly browned.
* Be sure to keep pastry chilled throughout the process for best results