A Cuban Grand Slam, Part I

Do you know what this is? No, it's not a banana, but definitely a close relative.  

An unripe plantain

It's a plantain. Typically found throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, especially prolific in Cuba, and even as far south as Africa, this amazingly versatile fruit can be eaten unripe or ripe. When it's unripe it's savory, and when it's ripe it's so sweet it almost oozes sugar.

When you walk into a Latin American or Cuban tiendas (stores), there are boxes of plantains at various stages of ripeness lined up just waiting for people to take them home and cook them. Unfortunately though, the box of ripe plantains is typically empty...so you buy an unripe or greenish-yellow plantain and the waiting begins.

After 5-6 days in the kitchen windowsill

Now it's getting better, but it's still not ready yet...
and it's been 10 days.

Nearly three weeks later and
yet still a few more days to go.

When it starts to get mushy, then it's ready...finally!

Because David lived in Florida for many years, spent umpteen weekends and holidays in the Keys and sailed all over the Bahamas and the Caribbean, he introduced me to this lovable and versatile fruit when we first met.

There's so many things you can do with a plantain from making mofongo, plantain chips and tostones when it's unripe to making grilled or sauteed plantains and amazingly sweet desserts when using a ripe plantain. When ripe, it's called platano maduro (ripe banana) and the flavor combines beautifully with many Cuban-style meat and fish dishes.

So welcome to our Cuban world. Other than Italian, it's probably one of our favorite ethnic foods, though it's not something we eat everyday, but rather just a few times a year since it's not all that healthy. There's just something about Cuban food that is so incredibly satisfying.

Most every Cuban dish features slow-roasted pork (such as a whole pig cooked in a caja china, lechon, masitas de puerco fritas), beef (ropa vieja, vaca frita) or fish and always, always, always beans and rice. Cuban food is not hot (spicy), but full of flavor and loaded with garlic, peppers and onions.

This is the first in a four-part series on Cuban food. When we're done, maybe you'll be inspired to create a Cuban meal for your family and friends. And, yes, so you'll know, I'm happy to bring coconut flan or rice pudding for dessert. Just say when.

Viva Cuba y buen provecho!

Fried Sweet Plantains (Platanos Maduros)

We've been making fried plantains for as long as I can remember. All you need is a plantain that's black and soft, a little butter and olive oil and a skillet. What you end up with is this incredibly sweet and crispy banana that is unlike anything you've ever had before. And I promise you'll want more.

Serves 2

1 ripe plantain, peeled and cut on the diagonal into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices
1 Tablespoon butter or Smart Balance
1/2 teaspoons olive oil
Cut one end off of the plantain and then slit the plantain lengthwise with a sharp paring knife and peel back the skin leaving the entire plantain whole.

Place on a cutting board and slice diagonally into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices trying to expose as much surface area as possible.

Over medium-high heat in a non-stick skillet, add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter melts and the combined oils are sizzling, add the pieces of sliced plantain.

Carefully place each slice in the pan making sure to not crowd the pan. Let cook for 2-3 minutes until completely caramelized and once they are brown flip them to the other side and let cook until caramelized, another 2 minutes.

Remove from the pan and serve with slow-roasted meat or grilled fish, black beans and rice.

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