Savory Plantain Splits

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If you have been reading for awhile, or if you have taken some time to dig around here, you may know that one of my very first posts was a recipe for Tostones, fried plantains. I started Vegology to chronicle my adventures in the kitchen, particularly with ingredients and methods that were new to me. In the beginning, I was two years into vegetarianism and five years into my home cooking habit. I had started to be more adventurous in the kitchen and found new and exciting ingredients at the farmers’ market weekly. There were so many options that I had to consciously spread them out so that I wouldn’t bite off more new ingredients than I could chew each week. Now, three years later, I have to search a little harder to find ingredients that are brand new to me. There are still as many ingredients that I haven’t tried as there are stars in the sky, but I do have to look a little farther beyond my local farmers’ market to find them.

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Take, for example, jackfruit, which I discovered was an excellent stand-in for pulled pork last year. You can find a lot of things at a Virginia farmers’ market, but jackfruit is not one of them. Soba is another, and epazote yet another. So I have discovered a lot of my new-to-me ingredients over the last several months in specialty stores and grocers. However not every showstopper meal requires a trip to the end of the earth for exotic ingredients. When I am working with my same old kitchen staples, I try to reinvent the classics to get that jolt of adrenaline that I often do from novel food. Which leads me to the star of this show, the Cuban plantain split.

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Inspired by the elaborate and aesthetically appealing arrangement of the components of the classic ice cream shop creation, the banana split, I set out to make a savory version with starchy, green plantains instead of bananas. I often associate plantains with Cuban food, so I started brainstorming in that direction. I came up with my vegetarian paella to start. Then I recalled a Cuban dish that I made in my pre-vegetarian days, consisting of shredded meat, tomato sauce, spices, and green olives. Ropa vieja is like a Cuban sloppy joe, except that it’s so much better. Stuck at two scoops, I reached out to a foodie friend to come up with the third: slow simmered Cuban-inspired black beans.

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Topped with cilantro, avocado, a drizzle of hot sauce and a spritz of lime, this is a hearty vegan dish with complex flavors and a variety of textures. If you have an open mind, it is seriously fun to eat, and if you’re up to the challenge, it is easy to stuff yourself with this spicy comfort food. But let’s be real. This dish is a ridiculous time commitment.

Realistically, you’re going to get four separate recipes out of this post and you may never make them all at once like I did. To make them all together and assemble the plantain split masterpieces from scratch, it took me and another cook two hours in the kitchen, working together with no idle time. In the end, we agreed the result was worth it. But then again, I’m the kind of person who considers a night spent in the kitchen revamping the classics while chopping several pounds of produce and dancing to samba music to be a great time. If you are not that ambitious (or crazy?) each component takes less than an hour on its own and can be paired with a fresh salad for a quick, flavorful and filling meal.

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Cuban Plantain Splits

Prepare one batch of each: Split Plantains, Vegetarian Ropa Vieja, Cuban Black Beans, and Quick Vegetarian Paella. Arrange plantain halves along the long side of an oval shaped dish. Arrange one scoop of each of the other components, in a row between the plantain halves. Top with chopped fresh cilantro and fresh avocado. Serve with hot sauce if desired. Serves 4-6.

Split Plantains

Ingredients:

  • 4 large green (unripe) plantains
  • sea salt to taste
  • 2 cups vegetable oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. With a sharp small knife cut ends from each plantain and cut a lengthwise slit through skin. Cut plantains once lengthwise and once crosswise into quarters. Beginning at slit, pry skin from pieces.
  2. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet heat 1/2 inch oil over moderate heat until just hot enough to sizzle when a plantain piece is added. Fry plantains in batches, without crowding, until tender and just golden, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. With tongs transfer plantains as fried to paper towels to drain.
  3. Remove skillet from heat and reserve oil. With the bottom of a heavy saucepan or a wide solid metal spatula flatten plantains to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
  4. Into a bowl of warm salted water dip flattened plantains, 1 at a time, and drain them well on paper towels.
  5. Heat reserved oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and fry flattened plantains in batches, without crowding, until golden, about 3 minutes. With tongs transfer tostones as fried to paper towels to drain and season with salt if desired.

Vegetarian Ropa Vieja

Ingredients:

  • 2- 10 oz. cans jackfruit in water, drained
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 small green pepper, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1- 15 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1- 8 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/2 cup green olives with pimiento, sliced or halved
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add jackfruit and cook until browned, about six minutes. Remove from pan and shred jackfruit until the texture resembles that of pulled meat.
  2. Add onion, green pepper, and garlic to pan. Saute until translucent. Add ground cumin to pan and cook, while stirring, for 30 seconds.
  3. Add fire roasted tomatoes, tomato sauce, vinegar, and broth. Bring to simmer, then lower heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add olives, salt and pepper just before serving. Top with fresh cilantro.

Cuban Black Beans

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 small green bell pepper, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
    • OR 1 teaspoon dried oregano plus 1 teaspoon dried epazote
  • 2- 15 oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a large sauce sauce pan over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, garlic, and oregano, and epazote if using. Saute until translucent.
  2. Mash 1 cup of beans with fork, or blend in food processor, Add mashed beans, remaining whole beans, vegetable broth and vinegar to pan.
  3. Cook 15-20 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring often.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Quick Vegetarian Paella

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup medium grain white rice
  • 6 saffron threads
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup fresh vegetables, diced (I used zucchini, carrots, and peas)
  • 1- 6 oz. jar quartered, marinated artichoke hearts
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 4 oz. tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation:

  1. Prepare rice according to package directions to produce 3 cups prepared rice.
  2. Boil 1/2 cup water in a small sauce pan. Turn off burner. Add saffron threads, cover, and let stand 10 minutes. Strain water into a bowl and discard threads.
  3. Heat vegetable oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and saute until tender.
  4. Add vegetables, saffron water, artichoke hearts, vegetable broth, tomato sauce, and garlic to soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add rice and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

 

Plantains

I first tried plantains at the Caribbean lunch cart on 11th and Marshall Streets in downtown Richmond. It was cold and windy outside and the warm fried plantains had a greasy, crispy outside with a soft and sweet middle. They were just what I needed on a frigid day in mid-January on my short lunch break from work.

I encountered plantains again at Kuba Kuba in the Fan, in the form of tostones. These Cuban treats were served as a side, like chips or fries are served with sandwiches. The Cuban tostones were the inspiration for my own experiment with plantains at home. I picked them up at the local grocery store and couldn’t wait to figure out how to fix them.

Plantains look similar to bananas, however they are less sweet than bananas and often need to be cooked before you enjoy them. They are cooked various ways in different parts of the world, either at the point that they are underripe (green) or overripe. Overripe plantains are referred to as “maduros” and are sweeter than the starchy green plantains. Green plantains are double-fried and yield thick chips with crispy outsides and a mashed potato-like center. Maduros are softer and sweeter, and they are typically fried just once.

The double-fried method is popular in Cuban cuisine, in which plantains are a staple. The plantains are cut into thick slices , fried in oil, patted dry, and then smashed individually. In the second step of the frying process, the mashed plantains are dipped in salt water and then returned to the pan to fry until crisp. In Cuba and many other Latin American countries, tostones are fried and coated in salt, and then eaten like fries or chips. When cooked properly, they are a salty and slightly sweet treat.

I used a recipe from Epicurious to make my tostones, with a little advice and pictorial guidance from Three Guys from Miami. While the recipe was pretty involved, it was easy to follow and it yielded three to four batches of beautifully crisp and delicious tostones.

A word of advice: unless you want to season the plantains with your own beads of sweat, do not attempt tostones in a small kitchen on a 100-degree day in downtown Richmond. Double frying several batches of plantain chunks can get a little hot. It was not the most comfortable cooking situation, but perhaps the heat allowed me to get into a more authentic groove. I was feeling a bit closer to the equator at the end of this adventure than I did when we started!

Tostones (Epicurious.com)

Ingredients:

3 to 4 large unripe (green) plantains

sea salt to taste

2 cups vegetable or olive oil for frying

Preparation

With a sharp small knife cut ends from each plantain and cut a lengthwise slit through skin. Cut plantains crosswise into 1-inch-thick pieces and, beginning at slit, pry skin from pieces. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet heat 1/2 inch oil over moderate heat until just hot enough to sizzle when a plantain piece is added. Fry plantains in batches, without crowding, until tender and just golden, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. With tongs transfer plantains as fried to paper towels to drain.

Remove skillet from heat and reserve oil. With the bottom of a heavy saucepan or a wide solid metal spatula flatten plantains to 1/4 inch thick (about 3 inches in diameter). Into a bowl of warm salted water dip flattened plantains, 1 at a time, and drain them well on paper towels.

Heat reserved oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and fry flattened plantains in batches, without crowding, until golden, about 3 minutes. With tongs transfer tostones as fried to paper towels to drain and season with salt if desired. Serve tostones immediately.

For an even more authentic treat, serve tostones with an ice cold mojito. The perfect pairing for a hot summer day!