Plantains: a Costa Rican Delicacy
Commonly mistaken for an oversized banana, the plantain is one of Costa Rica’s unsung culinary heroes – a starchy treat that is both versatile and delicious. So what is this fruit and how do you eat it? Indigenous to India and Southeast Asia, the plantain is in the same botanical family as its smaller cousin, but is typically cooked before being eaten. Fried, boiled, baked or grilled, plantains – or platanos as they’re known locally – are a rich source of Vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber, and are served up a number of ways on Costa Rica’s tables.
Bananas vs. plantains
Unlike the banana, which is much sweeter and meant to be eaten raw, plantains are used more like a vegetable in most Latin American recipes. They are longer than bananas, have thicker peels, and thanks to their high starch content, are potato-like substitutes in terms of texture and taste. Green plantains are often turned into patacones – delightful fried fritters that make for a tasty appetizer. Ripe yellow plantains, called platanos maduros, are typical accompaniments to a Costa Rican lunch. Baked with brown sugar and hint of oil, ripe plantains are also caramelized to make a mouthwatering dessert. While a banana is ready to eat once the peel turns bright yellow, a plantain is not ripe enough for eating as is until the skin is almost black.
Cooked plantains – sweet or savory
A mainstay in both Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, plantains can be used in cooking at various stages of ripeness. Once cooked, green plantains are often mashed and combined with garlic, onion, herbs, meats and vegetables for a savory hash, which goes by varying names depending on where you travel. During the holidays, Ticos use broad plantain leaves to wrap Christmas tamales, and the fruit is available in grocery stores and farmers’ markets everywhere for about fifty cents each.
Recipe for Costa Rican patacones
- 4 green plantains
- Vegetable oil (safflower or canola)
- Salt to taste
- Refried beans (for dipping)
- Cut the ends off the plantains, remove the peel and slice into 1 1/2 wide circles. Soak the plantain slices in a bowl of slightly salted water for 30 minutes.
- Heat ¼ cup of vegetable oil in a skillet on medium heat until sizzling.
- Place plantains in the oil and fry until light golden brown – normally about 3 minutes for both sides. Remove from the oil and place on paper towels.
- Flatten the fried plantain circles by using the bottom of a glass or your hands. The slices should be flattened into small discs about 1/2 inch thick.
- Put the flattened discs back into the pan and fry again on medium heat until a deep golden brown. Remove and pat dry on a paper towel, and sprinkle generously with salt.
- Serve the patacones warm with refried beans for dipping.