If I had to pick one ingredient that shouts “Cuban cooking” to me, it would have to be the plantain. Cubans seem to have adopted this large banana-like fruit as their own, giving it a special place not only in their kitchens but also their lives. As noted in A Taste of Old Cuba, when a foreigner becomes fully integrated with Cuban culture and customs, he is aplatanado, which is to say that he has been “plantainized.”
But for all their pride of ownership, Cubans can’t claim plantains as their native plant. The fruit probably originated in India and landed in the Caribbean via the Spanish settlers. Plantains are cheap, versatile, and highly nutritious (they’re a good source of potassium, fiber, and vitamin C), so it’s no wonder they’ve become a major crop in this region, as well as throughout Latin and South America.
When it comes to cooking, plantains are really more of a vegetable than a fruit. They’re larger and firmer than their banana relative, and they’re not sweet: They must be cooked to become palatable. With their bland, starchy, somewhat potato-like flavor, plantains take well to many cooking methods. In Cuba, as well as in Miami and other Cuban communities, plantains are often sliced and deep-fried to make chips, or panfried to make tostones, a crisp smashed plantain appetizer or side dish that’s delicious plain or dipped in a garlicky lime sauce. Tostones are practically the Cuban national dish. Cubans also like to cube plantains and add them to stews, boil and purée them like mashed potatoes, or bake them with sugar and cinnamon for dessert.
Buying plantains. You’ll find plantains year-round at most Hispanic markets, and I’ve often spied them in supermarkets. If you don’t see them, ask the produce manager, who can usually order them.
A fascinating aspect of plantains is that, as they ripen, they seem to transform into a new ingredient. I usually buy six or seven very green, unripe plantains. I pan-fry half of them within a day or two for tostones, and I’ll let the rest ripen on my counter. After several days, they start turning yellow and speckled with black spots. At this point, they’re semiripe, ideal for boiling and mashing. I wait several more days until they’re fully ripe and their starches have turned to sugars to make baked sweet plantains. The plantains will be black and mushy, so fight your instinct to toss them out. Rest assured, this is the plantain’s sweetest moment and your cue to start baking.
To hasten ripening, put the plantains in a paper bag and leave them at room temperature. Don’t use a plastic bag, as the trapped humidity will cause the fruit to get moldy.
How to peel a green plantain
Ripe, black plantains can be peeled like a banana, but green ones have very firm, clingy flesh, and there’s a trick to peeling them. (The slightly sticky substance under the skin can irritate sensitive skin, so wear gloves if you like.) Start by trimming the ends. To make rounds, as for tostones, cut the plantain in half crosswise. With a sharp paring knife, score the skin along one or more of its ridges, being careful not to cut into the flesh, and then peel off the skin in sections.