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As you might guess, plantains are related to the banana and are really the same genus (musa) as a banana. The distinction is that plantains are eaten after cooking, whereas a banana can just be peeled and eaten raw.

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Get to know plantains, bananas' starchier, more versatile cousin

In the past few months, I've eaten more plantains than ever in my 58 years. I've had it pureed to creamy and served with grilled shrimp, pineapple and jalapenos and as a "boat" holding chopped peppers, onions and tomatoes topped with crumbles of queso fresco, then broiled. Instead of potato chips, we eat plantain chips dusted with sea salt. I've even had fried plantain patties, basically tostones, as a slider "bun."

I've not just eaten plantain, I've sipped it. Instead of Sauvignon Blanc, I drink plantain wine. And sorrel (hibiscus) and beet and blackberry wine. And sorrel ginger port. Also cacao wine. More on all that in the future because when I let people know I had plantain wine, friends let me know about all the other kinds of wine they've enjoyed, including tomato and eggplant, all of which has the "I wonder if I can make wine out of (insert fruit or vegetable here)" part of my brain working feverishly.

Back to the plantain. As you might guess, they're related to the banana and are really the same genus (musa) as a banana. The distinction is that plantains are eaten after cooking, whereas a banana can just be peeled and eaten raw. There are nuances to the taxonomy, but basically Musa paradisiaca are plantains and Musa sapientum are the sweet banana. Plantains are not sweet as bananas and they have a firmer texture and a starchy element, which makes them better for cooking. Eat them ripe or unripe, but definitely cooked when unripe. They do sweeten as they ripen.

Plantains are full of fiber and many vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B6 and C, as well as potassium. They're also high in carbs and are a good alternative to potatoes. The plantain is plentiful in Caribbean farmers markets and on restaurant menus. You can find it in your local supermarket, too. In Cuba, they make up the dish mofongo, plantains mashed with bacon, garlic and stock, and mixed with whatever else you'd like really. Here are a few dishes and snacks I've been making with plantains to try out.


Baked Plantain Chips
The plantain chips you might find in Caribbean countries are generally deep-fried, and when I get them in the little cellophane bag, they're a bit too greasy for my taste. We've taken to baking them. Buy unripe, green plantains. We use salt and pepper for seasoning, but you can really use so many more including chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, celery salt and for a sweet treat, cinnamon and sugar.

If you want to deep fry — and they are extra crispy when you do so — I recommend slicing them lengthwise and very thinly. It makes them great for dipping. Heat up an inch of a mix of vegetable oil and coconut oil in a heavy pot to 375 degrees. Cut the ends off the plantain and cut down the center to make two halves. Peel. Cut those halves lengthwise into very thin slices with a mandolin. Fry in batches so as not to overcrowd. Fry until golden, then remove and drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Go on to the next batch.

Ingredients
2 green plantains
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel, then slice the plantains as thinly as you can using a sharp knife or mandolin. Mix plantain slices, olive oil and salt and pepper in a bowl. Stir to coat.

Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet and place plantain slices in a single layer on the paper. Bake for 16 to 20 minutes, flipping slices halfway through. When they're brown around the edges, remove from the oven and serve warm or wait until they are room temperature, after soaking on a paper towel to remove any excess oil.


Tostones
Use these twice-fried plantain patties as a snack or as a vehicle for dips. They're a great side dish with grilled meats or top them as if they are bruschetta for a passed appetizer. I used garlic powder but these are also good if you use chili powder, turmeric powder, ginger or curry powder. Make the patties large enough and they're great burger buns.

Ingredients
3 green plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) garlic powder, or another seasoning of choice
Salt

Instructions
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the plantain slices and fry until they soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Press each piece between wax paper or with a saucer until they're 1/2 inch thick. Refry the pressed pieces until crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Drain and dust with seasoning powder of choice and salt.


Pastelón (Plantain Lasagna)
This easy casserole comes from Puerto Rico and uses plantains instead of noodles, which is great for those eating gluten-free. It calls for beef, as is traditional, but if you don't eat meat, use al dente sautéed vegetables instead. Use ripe plantains that are still firm. You can also boil the plantains, but make sure you maintain their firmness.

Ingredients
4 ripe plantains (about 3 to 3 1/4 pounds total)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef (preferably ground round) or ground turkey
1 teaspoon adobo seasoning blend
1 package Sazón flavoring blend
1 onion, minced
1 green bell pepper, minced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
6 pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced
1 teaspoon capers
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 cup prepared tomato sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Instructions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10- by 10-inch or 9- by 13-inch casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray or butter.

Cut off both ends from the plantains, then cut a slit down the back of the peel and remove the peel. Slice each plantain in half down the length and separate the two halves. Flip them onto their flat sides to create a stable base. Hold down the first half and slice carefully down the length into 1/4 inch slices or thinner if you can. Continue with all the plantains.

Heat the vegetable oil to 300 degrees in a large skillet. Place about four slices of plantains into the oil and fry for about 1 1/2 minutes on each side, until they've just browned slightly. Remove and drain on paper towel. Continue frying the remaining plantains.

Heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat in a second skillet and add the ground beef. Season with adobo and Sazón. Cook, breaking up the meat, then drain and place in a bowl. Return the skillet to the heat and add another tablespoon of oil. Cook the onions, pepper and cilantro until glossy. Add the olives, capers and oregano and cook for 3 more minutes. Return the ground beef into the vegetables and then add the tomato sauce. Stir, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat.

Place one layer of the plantains in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Add an inch of the beef mixture, then 1/2 cup of the cheese. Add another layer of plantains, then meat, then another 1/2 cup cheese, then the final plantain layer.

Whisk together the eggs and baking soda until frothy and pour over all the plantains in the dish. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes and then top with the remaining cheese. Bake again for five minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 20 minutes before slicing. Serve.


Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner, reviewer and Seacoast, New Hampshire resident, who now lives in Austin, Texas and Belize. She can be reached at Rachel.forrest@localmediagroupinc.com.

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