This new series, titled “Overlooked Ingredients” came from a passion of mine for utilizing often overlooked, obscure, inexpensive or “exotic” foods. I often find some of my favorite flavors end up being non-traditional food that most of us in the states don't eat on a regular basis simply because we either haven't heard of them or don't know how to incorporate them. No dig on us as Americans, as we are pretty awesome at blending a myriad of cultures and cuisines but when it comes down to daily living and eating, I think most of us get stuck in the salad, oatmeal, chicken breast, fried eggs, tuna sort of deal. Sure it's healthy but also pretty boring.
I had the pleasure of cooking some Vietnamese and French fusion cuisine during my time as a cook and this really kick-started my love of ethnic flavors. I also found, while perusing the Asian markets that their ingredients are often cheaper, more exciting, easy to incorporate and just plain old fun to use. Even your average soy sauce, Sriracha, spices and typical household ingredients like onions, garlic, potatoes and such are much cheaper at these ethnic markets. So you buy 5 things, three of them are great and two don't really work for you. But guess what? You probably only spent $10 on all of it. Plus, half the fun comes from trying new things and sometimes being a little unsure about an ingredient adds another level of excitement.
I'll go into greater detail on Thai and Vietnamese ingredients in other posts, but that was the basic background of my use of other cultures' ingredients in my daily diet.
One of my favorite chefs is Rick Bayless and as I try to do in all things I am influenced by, I want to give him props from the get-go for his awesome books, tv shows and online information. Bayless is a tireless student as well as teacher of Mexican cuisine and I have learned tons from him. He also is into Yoga, and even goes to some length in one of his books about how much he loves lifting weights. Suffice to say, he has health as well as taste in mind and that is right in line with my thinking.
While experimenting with a bunch of Mexican flavors and ingredients, I came to notice that most of it was centered around a few key ingredients:
Vegetables & Herbs - garlic, onions, cilantro, lime, avocado, tomatoes, tomatillos
Starches - rice, beans, potatoes
Fats- Olive oil and sometimes lard
Spices - lots of dried spices and herbs like cumin, cinnamon, oregano, parika, ancho and chipotle powders
Other Ingredients- apple cider vinegar, canned and dried peppers
You might notice right off the bat, that aside from the lard, these ingredients are quite healthy, low glycemic, low-ish fat and full of flavor. I experimented with most if not all of these in one iteration or the other and loved how you can really mix and match these ingredients to accommodate most dishes: sauces, rubs, marinades, stews etc all come from the same base of ingredients, just incorporated in different ways.
One ingredient I completely overlooked though, was plantains. It's not that I consciously decided not to use them or had some bias, I think I simply forgot they existed. (slams forehead). In a fortuitous event, I was going out to eat with my mom and brother. (if you follow my Instagram, you can see a picture of my brother out-running a train with a beer in his hand....classic). The restaurant we wanted to go to was not opening for hours and we decided to go right next door to a Cuban restaurant. The dish I chose happened to come with some fried plantains on the side and they were so good I made a mental note to pick some up the next time I was at the grocery store. They were sweet but starchy, tender but not mushy, and had the flavor reminiscent of banana which helped bridge the gap between familiar and unfamiliar territory.
Here's where I hesitate to go further....last time I really pushed a cheap and flavorful ingredient (blade steaks) they were featured in some notable food magazines that year and I watched the price climb from $2.50/lb to over $4/lb. Ugh. I am all for people getting out and trying new things but I swear the grocery and meat suppliers watch for trending foods and increase the price accordingly once they know people are hooked.
Oh well, here goes. Plantains are 3 for $1. Let me repeat that. Plantains are THREE for ONE DOLLAR. I've spent a lot of time and money making rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes and such for myself and while I love eating those foods, it was really nice to find something that was truly inexpensive and made a decent portion per unit.
A typical plantain is around 0.5 to 0.6 pounds. The nutrition data for plantains is as follows:
Per Medium Plantain:
Fat: 0.7 g
Carbohydrates: 57 g
Fiber: 4 g
Sugar: 27 g
Protein: 2.3 g
Plantains also contain per daily value: Potassium 25%, Vitamin A 40%, Vitamin C 45%, B-6 25% and Magnesium 16%.
Green plantains are primarily starch while ripe plantains convert about half of that to simple sugars, just like fruit. Remember that plantains are borderline huge so half a plantain is a good serving, coming out to a reasonable carbohydrate portion; about 30-35 grams.
Very similar to potatoes, how you cook them affects their glycemic index. Most of the touted healthy starches have similar glycemic indeces to plantains (41), like quinoa(53), brown rice(55), sweet and white potatoes(55), sprouted grain breads(40ish) and so on.
Baking the plantain as chips or in cubes will cook off a lot of the water and concentrate the starch, also converting some of the starch to sugar through the Maillard Reaction. This is also the reason why baked sweet potato fries are sweeter than boiled sweet potato. Thus(if you care), boiling or steaming plantains will net you a lower glycemic index, somewhere near 40 while baking them in chips, or out of the skin will be closer to 70, just like with sweet potatoes.
Since greener plantains are starchier, these are usually used in stews or sliced thin and baked at high temperatures for chips. Riper plantains are more often used in desserts or mashed to be mixed with other ingredients.
I chose well-spotted and fairly ripened plantains and decided to slow cook them in their skins, wrapped up in foil. This way they would steam, become tender and it was a breeze to make a bunch at once.
I simply cut off the stem at both ends, made a slit down the length of one side and then wrapped each whole plantain individually in foil. I baked two separate batches to test different temperatures and times. One batch was baked at 300 degrees for 1 hr and 15 mins and another batch at 400 degrees for about 45 mins. They came out similar except the shorter, hotter baking produced a more tender plantain.
Around the 45 minute mark, you can test the done-ness by opening the foil a bit and prodding a fork into the plantain; it should give like a ripe banana when cooked. Since this is a pretty basic way of cooking plantains, it leaves you wide open to flavoring options.
I chose to slice them diagonally on the bias, creating as much surface area as possible and then quickly sauteed the slices in a teaspoon of coconut oil with a dash of cinnamon and ancho chili powder. You can use regular chili powder or paprika as well as a mix of herbs like oregano, cilantro, scallions, onions and chives but I chose to stay basic. I've found that plantains hold up well to bold and spicy flavors like chili powders and the cinnamon helped bring out some of the natural sweetness.
Another simple and quick way to cook them is boiling. You do not need very ripe plantains for this; I chose slightly spotted ones in place of fully ripe. Trim the ends off the plantains and then cut them in half lengthwise and then cut each half into two shorter sections, leaving the peel on. Place these in cold water with about 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (to prevent discoloration) and salt to taste.
Bring the water to a simmer and allow to cook about 15 minutes, or until fork tender. These come out soft, sweet and I tossed them with some additional salt, apple cider vinegar, paprika and cinnamon in a salad before eating.
Since I made a bunch of these at once I had a lot of leftovers. The uneaten plantains went straight into the fridge in their foil, just opened a little to cool. To reheat, I sauteed as above in coconut oil but covered the saute pan at the same time with a lid. This helped steam them as they browned and prevented them from drying out. They come out great this way too.
I highly suggest taking a leap of faith and trying these out. At the price, you really can't go wrong. When in doubt you can cook them as you would potatoes; baked, fried, boiled, mashed, steamed or in stews. Just remember that for longer cooking, especially in liquid, you'll want to use greener plantains while slow baking and sauteing works well with ripe plantains.