In Cali, there's a restaurant called "El Arca" (The Ark) that specializes in plantains. That sounds a bit funny to say given that most Colombians eat plantains at least once a day, but they are generally eaten as a side to the main dish or as a snack instead of being the focus of a meal. The menu at El Arca is divided according to the three general stages of ripeness of plantains-- green, yellow/green, and yellow/black, a.k.a. verde, pintón, and maduro. Green plantains are turned into giant patacones piled with all the toppings your little heart could possibly desire, and the sweet yellow/black plantains are split and stuffed with cheese and other luscious melty things. And they have canastas de plátano pintón, fried plantain baskets made with the "in the middle" stage plantains, which are a little bit sweet but have still retained much of their starch. Stuffed with cheese and stewed vegetables or shredded meat, they are damn tasty-- and not very common, in Colombia at least, as this was the first time I had ever run across them.
Luckily, last December in Colombia Felipe's mother gave me a plantain press used to make the baskets and I kind of really love it, even if my (Colombian) friend Gabriel's reaction when I pulled it out was to rant about how Colombian "technology" is limited to wooden plantain presses, which, ok, fair enough (sort of), but my iPod is not helping me get fed anytime soon, and I don't think it's a mutually exclusive proposition anyway.
And other than medical stuff, when it comes to "technology", I'm not sure there's much I value more than knowing how to feed oneself well, which at the end of the day is not unrelated to medicine and which much of the U.S. is pretty incompetent at. Hell, I thought I knew how to cook when I left the U.S., and I couldn't even make decent rice (good oatmeal cookies, though).
I've veered way off topic, because what I mainly wanted to say is that if you are a fan of plantains, well, do I ever have a recipe for you. And even if you don't have a fancy-shmancy plantain press, you can make mini baskets using a citrus press-- just cut the plantains into smaller pieces before frying, and line the press with plastic wrap so the plaintain doesn't get stuck in the crevices. It's kind of a nice party trick, don't you think? And you can leave your iPod at home.
For the plantains:
4 yellow-green plantains (ask for plátanos pintones if you're at a latin market)
vegetable oil for frying
For the filling:
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil (sunflower or canola or the like)
1 lg. onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 lg. red pepper, deseeded and deveined, quartered and thinly sliced
3-4 scallions, chopped
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 c. cilantro leaves, chopped
8 oz. mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly
Line your press with plastic wrap or a clean plastic bag. Heat at least 3 in. of oil in a medium pot over medium-low heat. Peel plantains and then and cut in half horizontally. Fry them slowly (lower the heat if they begin to brown immediately, you need low heat so they will cook all the way through) until you can pierce them easily with a fork. Remove with a strainer and immediately place one plantain half in the press. Close the press gently, exerting slow force. If the plantain breaks roughly it may not have been cooked all the way through (don't worry about it, but it's good to know for the next batch). Remove the pressed plantain gently to a clean plate and immediately continue with the rest of the cooked plantains-- you have to press them while they're still hot. Once pressed, the plantains will keep a couple of hours at room temperature, or you can even freeze them to use later in the week (not much longer, though).
In a medium skillet over medium-low heat, heat the vegetable oil and onion together until the onion is translucent (add in a pinch of salt and stir), then add in the red pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then cover the skillet and let the onion and pepper stew together for another 10 minutes, stirring every now and then and adding a tablespoon of water or two if the bottom begins to burn. The peppers should be soft and sweet. Add in the scallions, turmeric and another pinch of salt. Cook another minute or two, cover the pan and turn off the heat.
Right before you're ready to eat, heat up the oil again until very hot, then fry the plantain baskets, one or two at a time (if you add too many the temperature of the oil will drop and they won't crisp up). Turn them once or twice so they brown evenly, then remove them with a strainer to a paper-lined plate and fill (and consume) immediately.
Stir the cilantro into the pepper mixture. Fold and roll a slice of cheese so that it fits into the bottom of a plantain basket, then cover it with the pepper mixture. Repeat with the rest of the baskets. Serve hot or warm.
Canastas de Plátano Pintón
4 plátanos pintones
aceite para freír
Para el guiso:
una cucharada de aceite
una cebolla grande, partida en quatro y cortada
un pimentón rojo grande
2 tallos de cebolla larga
1/2 cucharita de cúrcuma
1/2 taza de hojas de cilantro, picadas
225 g. (1/2 libra) de queso mozzarella