Behind the peel

Operators experiment with bananas and plantains to give texture and earthy flavor to dishes.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

While they have long been a staple in global cuisines, bananas and plantains are just now making a mark in non-commercial operations, especially where they can bring authenticity to ethnic offerings. Aatul Jain, operations manager and chef for Saint Clare’s Health System, in Denville, N.J., and a native of coastal India, says bananas and plantains were a huge part of his culinary upbringing.

“I like to make a dish called kofta,” Jain says. “It’s similar to a falafel or meatless meatball.” To make the dish, Jain boils and mashes plantains, which are then added to mixed vegetables or cheese. Meat also can be used. The balls are then braised in marinara sauce or curry. “Instead of making them dense like falafel, these retain moisture,” Jain says. “I serve them with rice or vegetables with some bread on the side. People usually can’t tell it doesn’t feature meat because cooked plantains have a very earthy flavor.”

Jain likes working with plantains because they are starchy, almost like yuca or potatoes, and says they can be a great binder without being overly dense. Another dish he makes with plantains is a Brazilian dish called bajan acaraje. For that dish, he takes mashed plantains, adds black-eyed peas and sautés that with cumin, coriander, chili, lemon juice,  chopped onions, tomatoes, diced carrots and finely chopped green beans. With that, he makes patties, which are served as an appetizer with aïoli.

A more traditional side dish Jain serves is tostones. For this dish, he takes raw plantains and deep-fries them until golden brown. After cooling, he flattens them with a mallet. Just before service,

The tostones are served with a garlic sauce, which is almost like green sofrito, made with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped parsley, cilantro, chopped garlic and chopped shallots.

“The key with plantains is to know how to work with them,” Jain says. “You don’t want to simply peel it raw because then it gets mealy and will overcook. The plantain cover is an important part of the fruit because it protects the plantain from getting overcooked and it helps it retain its texture. We usually steam it to start off. We make a tiny slit in the skin and then put the fruit in boiling water for a few minutes. Then the skin will just peel right off and you can mash it. At that point you can re-cook it however you’d like, be it sautéing or shaping it into a patty for frying or baking.”

At the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Executive Chef Frank Turchan’s team likes to incorporate plantains because they last longer than bananas. “They hold up much better, especially in stews and stirfry dishes. Plus, if you cook them long enough you can mash them up and use them as a hummuslike dip or spread,” Turchan says.

One stew the team created is a chicken and pork version that features plantains, garlic, oregano, cayenne, allspice, chicken thighs, pork cubes, tomatoes, yellow onions, green peppers, potatoes, sweet corn and cilantro. Turchan likes to trim off the plantain ends, cut vertical slits in the skins (being careful not to cut into the fruit) and then microwave them at 50% power. This helps the skins to peel off more easily. Another dish Turchan and his team make with plantains is mofongo, which is garlic mashed plantains. After slicing and peeling the plantains, Turchan fries them in hot oil until golden brown. He combines the plantains with sautéed garlic, cilantro and oregano and mashes it until all the ingredients are mixed well. Then he rolls them into balls and serves them with a chimichurri or garlic sauce.

Feeling saucy

For Josh Sheets, chef de cuisine at a Metz Culinary Management B&I account in Ohio, plantains and bananas make a good base for sauces and salsas. As part of his growing line of hot sauces, Sheets has made a habanero hot sauce that features both bananas and plantains.

“I roasted them until they were caramelized and to bring out that real sweet flavor and dark color,” Sheets says. “The sauce also features garlic, onion, carrot, apple cider vinegar and salt. I think it goes well with anything that has a tropical feel to it, be it items that also have fruit salsas or anything with a Caribbean flavor profile like jerk chicken or pork.”

Sheets also makes a grilled pineapple salsa that uses bananas as a base. He takes fresh orange and lime juice, garlic, habanero and cilantro and throws that in a blender with vinegar. He then adds a couple of ripe bananas. That mixture becomes the liquid flavoring of the salsa to go along with grilled pineapple and peppers. The salsa is used to top marinated shrimp al pastor tacos.

Sheets also likes serving plantains and bananas as a side dish. He’s made tostones and also fried green bananas and served those with a quesadilla or jerk chicken.

“I think what’s great about bananas and plantains is that they can be savoryas well as sweet,” Sheets says. “I think they can balance out a dish that is spicy or salty. They make the dish a little more complex.”