When I lived in North America, bananas for me were simply a neatly packaged fruit, easy to grab on the way out the door, peel, eat, and toss. Maybe I’d smear some peanut butter on for a crunchy, protein-filled snack, blend them with strawberries for a quick breakfast smoothie, or if I was feeling decadent, I’d slice them and eat them with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. If I was lucky, grandma would take my brown bananas, on the verge of hitting the trash, and turn them into a sweet banana bread. For most North Americans, I think that’s about as much action as this tropical fruit ever sees.
But upon coming to South America 14 months ago, I’ve realized that the yellow banana I know is just one of many varieties, and that the multiple shapes, colors, and flavors of the bananas in the southern part of the Americas have potential far beyond what I’d ever realized in my Oregon kitchen. In a country like Ecuador, which has been producing bananas since 1700, and has grown to be the number one worldwide exporter, bananas are much more than just a mere fruit. They are a primary source of income and a staple food crop for many. And best of all, over the centuries, Ecuadorians have come up with a long list of creative recipes to utilize this abundant fruit.
The big sweet plátanos maduros are often lightly fried and eaten with menestra, a saucy bean dish, and grilled meat. The pink plátanos rojos make a lovely dessert when baked whole in the oven. Sometimes I find the amazingly sweet but tiny oritos in the grocery store, and the yellow bananos that are exported to my friends and family in the states are sold for 5 to 10 cents in just about all corner stores for a quick snack.
But it’s those plátanos verdes, also known as maqueños, that hold the most potential. They’re slightly starchier, firmer, and have less sugar content than other varieties, and require some form of cooking to make them edible. I’ve decided that they’re sort of like potatoes, in that their flavor is mild and the consistency allows them to be boiled, fried, mashed, or baked. On the coast, they’re often baked til they’re soft, then mashed and mixed with butter, salt, a bit of onion, and cheese (or chicharrón, fried bits of pork) , formed into a ball and fried, making the delicious bolónes de verde, which are usually eaten for breakfast with a bit of the spicy aji pepper sauce.
Green plantains can be added to soups, used as a type of dough in the cheese-filled empanadas de verde, or sliced thin, baked into chips, salted, and sold as chifles, which are a common topping for bowls of ceviche (that delicious cold citrusy shrimp or fish dish). You’d be hardpressed not to find at least one bag of these crunchy chifles in just about any store in Ecuador, no matter how small or remote the place.
But my personal favorite use of these of this versatile fruit is the patácon, which is basically a plátano verde, cut into rounds, smashed, and double-fried. The first place I tried patácones was in the Ecuadorian beach town of Canoa, accompanying my $4 filet of dorado, salad, rice, and beans. Patácones often appear in coastal meals with fish, and while they seem like a simple side dish, I learned the first time I tried to replicate them in my Quito kitchen that creating a perfectly round, golden-fried plantain is trickier than you might imagine. I’d either turn them into a crumbly mess or smash them too thin, creating overly crispy pucks when fried.
But recently, I had the pleasure of spending a Latin-family style weekend with my boyfriend and his large familia at their house in the Mindo cloudforest, complete with the whole gang: parents, aunts, uncles, little cousins, and even the abuelita. Out behind the house are several banana trees, and to my delight, I got to watch as the family made homemade patacones, using grandma’s time-tested recipe. It seemed all 3 generations of the family knew the tricks, but for me, there were a couple of things I’d forgotten when I’d tried to make them on my own. The family gave me a couple dozen little green plátanos to take home with me, which I used to create my very own patácones:
Though it sounds pretty self-explanatory, the green skin can be difficult to remove from the fruit. It releases a sticky sap when you cut the peel, so it’s best to wear plastic gloves to protect your hands from the sticky mess, then cut off the ends of the banana, and cut slices lenthwise to make it easier to remove the hard peel in pieces.
2. Cut the plátanos into rounds that are roughly 1½ to 2 inches in height.
3. Heat up oil in a frying pan.
While some type of vegetable oil is undoubtedly what’s usually used in Ecuador, I found that coconut oil lends well to the high-heat frying, and adds a nice flavor to the plantain.
Wait til the oil gets good and hot, then gently drop the plantain rounds into the oil, let them cook for a couple minutes, then flip them, to cook both cut edges. It’s okay if they’re not cooked all the way through at this stage.
Remove the plantains from the oil, turn off the heat, but reserve the oil. Once the plátanos have cooled a bit, put them between a plastic bag to prevent them from sticking, and one by one, smash them by placing a heavy cutting board on top of the bag, pressing down slowly with both hands. Careful not to make them too thin!
6. Fry again. Yup, that’s right.
Once they’ve been smooshed into delicate pucks, turn on the heat again, and give each side another light frying until they’ve turned golden and crispy.
While they’re usually seen next to fish or beans, they make great potato replacements, and are a delicious breakfast item with a fried egg and some salsa. For a snack, try patácones with a bit of salt, guacamole and hot sauce.
Have other favorite foods or recipes making creative uses of bananas or plantains? Post them here!