By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
The plantain, called platoon macho in Mexico, had a long and colorful history before arriving on the country’s tropical shores, where it is now abundant. This cousin of the banana found its way from Asia to West Africa to Portugal, where Spanish missionary Friar Tomas de Berlanga transported it to Spain’s Canary Islands. By the 16th century, plantains were growing throughout Spanish territories in the New World, including Mexico.
Most commonly used in the coastal areas, plantains appear on menus throughout the republic, including restaurant meccas Mexico City and Guadalajara, in courses from appetizers to desserts, used in various stages of ripeness. They are fried, steamed, grilled, baked, mashed, and made into dough. Just about anything that can be made with corn masa, including tortillas, empanadas, and molotes, can be prepared with plantain dough.
A traditional ingredient in the cuisine of Veracruz, the plantain is also used extensively in the Yucatan and Chiapas, and in regional dishes of Puebla and Oaxaca, both of which claim the mole called manchamanteles, or “tablecloth stainer,” as their own.
Combining plantains with other fruit, chiles, and either chicken or pork, manchamanteles is served in homes and restaurants throughout Mexico, including Mexico City’s Fonda El Refugio, in business since 1954, and the capital’s Casa Merlos, which offers specialties of Puebla. Plantain is also combined with fruit and meat in the classic chiles en nogada.
Another regional dish featuring plantains is estofado de boda, or “wedding stew,” originating in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and prepared by Chef Oscar Carrizosa at Casa Crespo restaurant in Oaxaca. At that city’s Los Danzantes, this stew is used to fill the mogo mogo, or stuffed plantain dough. The mogo mogo at Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s Azul Condesa is filled with beef picadillo and topped with tomato sauce, crema and cheese, and originated in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz.
Tlacotalpan is in the Sotavento region, where the Afromestizo culture contributed plantain dishes such as macula, mashed plantains flavored with garlic, jalapeño chile and onions; fried plantains with crema and cheese; and plantain croquettes filled with mashed black beans.
A version of this is served in Mexico City’s El Bajio Restaurant, where Chef Carmen Titita Ramirez, from the northern highland area of Veracruz, lists them as empanadas de platoon. Guadalajara’s El Tequila, and La Teca in Oaxaca, serve black bean-stuffed plantain molotes topped with queso fresco and crema. At La Tequila, these are bathed in mole sauce before the garnish is added, and the restaurant’s pork in green mole comes with handmade plantain tortillas.
Plantain dough filled with beans is also a staple in Chiapas, where plantains are incorporated into sopa de pan, or “bread soup.” Plantains star in the Yucatecan soup, sopa de platoon, flavored with cumin and achiote, and in Oaxaca, a popular soup from the Tuxtepec region is made with lentils, plantains and pineapple.
In addition to moles, soups, stews, and filled masa offerings, plantains are a standard side dish with rice, such as the Mexican red rice with fried plantains served at El Bajio or the arroz con platoons fritos at la Casa de Frida in Merida. Fried plantains are the classic garnish for Moros y Cristianos, the black beans and rice popular in Veracruz and the coastal lowlands.
Plantains can also be pureed and served as a side, as they are at La Tequila, where the puree de platoon macho accompanies tamarind chipotle shrimp. Another presentation is the Caribbean salad at Las Hadas in Manzanillo. Here, fried plantains over lettuce are drizzled with a maracuya (passion fruit) dressing.
Desserts and snacks, too, feature this versatile ingredient. Fried plantains—a traditional sweet in Mexico—are served as a dessert drizzled with crema, ice cream or chocolate sauce in restaurants, and as a popular street snack liberally doused with sweetened condensed milk.
Preparation and Cooking Tips
Plantains, which resemble bananas and are botanically related, are much starchier than bananas and need to be cooked. They range in color from green, called verses, to very ripe and nearly black, called maduros. They should be selected according to how they will be cooked, since some recipes call for green plantains and others require the fully ripened fruit.
Look for plantains that are hard when green, and slightly soft, but not mushy, and mostly black, when ripe. Plantains should be stored at room temperature, at which they will ripen slowly. Once ripe, use them within a few days.
Green plantains are higher in starch than ripe ones and more difficult to cut. Start by cutting off the tips, then soaking the plantains in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Remove from the water and make two lengthwise incisions through the skin. Work the skin away from the flesh until it comes off in two long pieces. After peeling, cover them with cold water to prevent discoloration, blotting them thoroughly before frying.
For dishes calling for mashed plantains, cook them in boiling water before peeling and mashing. Plantains can be cut into “chips”and fried like potato chips, served as a botana with cocktails or with a dip as an appetizer. Try using a cream cheese or sour cream base and flavoring the dip with garlic and jalapeños.
For plantain croquettes, use whatever filling is on hand, such as mashed beans, cheese, or picadillo. Queso fresco and crema are traditional toppings, but plantain croquettes can also be fried unfilled and served with chocolate syrup, caramel sauce, whipped cream or ice cream.
Take advantage of the versatility of this Latin American staple, which has the ability to take on the flavors of the sweet or savory company it keeps.
Click for the following recipes: