When the fabric of my family is someday finally rent, and generations of heirs and descendants wage decades of bitter war upon one another, and oaths become ancient curses until the family tree is left utterly in ruin, the issue won’t be money, or land, or politics, or even whether it is called “tuna fish” or “tuna salad” (it’s tuna fish)—the issue will be the appropriate ripeness of bananas.
Bananas are meant to be eaten when they are ripe. Not green—green is the first ever color a banana takes when it is growing on a tree. That is how you know it is unripe—it has not yet changed colors from its unripe state (green) to its ripe state (the color that comes after green). Therefore, ripeness in bananas is determined by how much green is on the banana. Any greenness? I’m afraid that banana is unripe. No greenness? Ripe. This should be very simple stuff. We eat plant foods when they are ripe, because that is when they are best to eat.
But nooooooooooo. My own mother, and my own wife, and several whole other members of my family, insist that bananas that are yellow—ripe bananas—are bad to eat, whereas bananas that are green—unripe bananas—are good to eat. Plainly, this is madness.
Here is how I know it’s madness: unripe bananas are less sweet than ripe bananas. You cannot turn your nose up at the sweetness of ripe bananas and then later in that same lifetime, without having recanted and repented for your bad banana takes, house a pint of ice cream in full view of your banana-foes. Sweetness is good. You like sweetness. Therefore, sweet bananas are better than bananas that taste like broccoli stems.
Because you like sweetness, and your quote-unquote “love” of green bananas is, in fact, sheer antagonism, you will not be able to say no to fried sweet plantains, as the so-called green banana “lovers” in my family are unable. And therein lies the dark truth: they buy and store green bananas in order to be annoying. Fried sweet plantains aren’t just mildly sweet, like ripe bananas. Fried sweet plantains are sticky with sugar, sugar that has been caramelized until it is, you know, caramel. Fried sweet plantains are made from bananas that are so ungreen they are very nearly black. They are as ripe and sweet as bananas can possibly be without dunking them in syrup. Which, incidentally, is the only way green bananas are remotely edible.
Dammit. Let’s make some goddamn fried sweet plantains, so that you, too, can finally be resolved that sweet bananas are where it’s at.
Here’s all that you’ll need: some plantains; some fry oil. That’s it. I mean even you can manage that.
Plantains are big, starchy bananas. In fact, if you type “plantain” into a Wikipedia search, you will be taken to the page for “cooking bananas.” This is because what we call “plantains” are really just bananas of a certain cultivar—larger and denser and starchier than the little Chiquita joints you buy at the grocery store and take home and eat with a jar of peanut butter in the dead of night. You could even say what makes a plantain a plantain is not that it is of a particular cultivar so much as it is that it was cooked in some way. I would be willing to bet real money that some number of the “plantains” I’ve eaten next to Peruvian chicken or smashed into mofongo have been just cooked regular-ass bananas. That’s fine. I have no complaints, because I like sweet bananas, because I am not insane.
Having said all that, most grocery stores—or, anyway, most of those grocery stores who stock bigger, starchier bananas for use in cooking—will separate cooking bananas from regular bananas, and will call them “plantains.” So, when you go looking for plantains, look first for a label that says “plantains.” The fruit next to that label should be significantly larger than your average bananas, with tough, thick, grey-ish green peel. For our purposes you will need, say, three of them.
Now. Maybe you are the sort of person who likes to eat green bananas. This is gross and wrong, but you are certainly allowed to be gross and wrong in this way, so long as you do it completely out of my sight and never mention it, ever. Even if you are a horrible green banana person, you will not want to peel and eat a green plantain. Plantains are much starchier and have much less sugar than regular bananas, so peeling and eating a plantain while it is still green—while its sugars are basically totally undeveloped—will be like eating a banana made out of cardboard pulp and corn starch. Not delicious! Even less delicious, in fact, than your disgusting green bananas.
True banana connoisseurs know the appropriate time to eat a banana is when the peel has lost all its green and has gained a dusting of tiny little brown freckles, or later, when the stem has turned brown, and the banana is downright dessert-like. This is because the fruit’s sugars develop as it ripens—as we have clearly established, your dense, abominable green banana is a banana that has not had a chance to become actually tasty and good to eat. Still, you should not peel and eat a plantain that has lost all its green and is flecked with tiny brown freckles. Because plantains have less sugar than regular bananas to begin with, you will still be biting into a bland, starchy, yam-like banana.
So why the hell did I buy these goddamn prehistoric bananas? Here’s the thing: because plantains are bigger and denser and starchier than regular bananas, their structure holds up better when cooked, which means you can use cooking to caramelize the plantains, which will make them far, far sweeter than your average regular banana, while also making them hot and lightly charred and sticky and oh God I want some plantains so bad.
Your plantains—the ones you just bought—are still pretty green. The thing to do, then, is to stuff them into a paper bag and sock them away someplace safe in your pantry or on top of your refrigerator or anywhere where you won’t forget them but also you can be reasonably sure they will not be found by mice or fruit flies or any other annoying pest. Your plantains are gonna live in this bag for day or two. Bananas—all plants, really—produce a hormone called ethylene. Science says ethylene aids and hastens the ripening of fruit (incidentally, this is why that one shriveled old lime at the bottom of your vegetable drawer is wilting all your fresh, newer produce, like Pepé Le Pew)—when you bag up your plantains, you are creating a little ethylene hot box, where ethylene emissions will hasten ripening, which will hasten ethylene production, which will hasten ripening, and so on, until your plantains are brown mush and your pantry is a toxic hazmat area.
So, package up your plantains in a paper bag and sock the bag someplace where you won’t forget about it. Check the plantains a couple times over the next 24 hours. Our finished product should be a steaming pile of dark, rich, sticky, caramelized and sweet plantains, and so we’re gonna really push the ripening, until those few plantains in that bag develop as much sugar content as possible without sagging and melting and becoming disgusting ooze. We’re gonna boldly go where no man would ever willingly choose to go with regular bananas.
Check those plantains. Still some green around the stem? Leave ‘em.
Check them again. Yellow and freckled? Perfect bananas. Leave ‘em.
Check again. Brown stem? Streaks of brown on the peel? Hmm, there might be some bruises on these bananas. Leave ‘em.
Check the plantains. Mottled? Like an overripe, deeply bruised banana, the kind you’d have to carve up with a paring knife to get at the edible parts? Dammit, I killed the bananas. Leave ‘em.
Check again. Pretty gnarly. Getting pretty brown, with an upsetting greasy look to the skin, aren’t they? Like the kind of banana you wouldn’t even feed to your good dog, right? If these were regular bananas, you’d be feeling deep shame right now. PERFECT. When your plantains are mottled and brown and look like the kind of bananas you’d generally just throw in the garbage, haul them out of the paper bag and onto your cutting board.
We’re going to cut into these plantains. You are picturing, at best, what you might expect were you to cut into Chiquita bananas as brown and greasy-looking as these plantains—a mushy grey blob with the texture of damp Cream of Wheat and the reek of durian fruit. At worst, you are hoping a burst of alien larvae doesn’t colonize your body before you are able to hurl yourself into a roaring phosphorus fire. Fear not! Beneath that waxy blackened peel is mostly just normal-ass banana content, but with a glowing golden hue, like the flesh of a banana picked from a hybrid banana-Mallorn tree in Lothlórien. It’s possible some of the flesh is bruised, but these bruises aren’t the icky brown wells of normal bananas—when these things bruise, the flesh stays bright gold and just takes on a shiny, wet look. It’s still perfectly edible and delicious, and, in fact, will firm up and become indistinguishable from the non-bruised flesh upon cooking. Quit hiding under your dining room table, is what I’m saying.
Before we get to the cutting, let’s heat up some fry oil. In a deep, heavy pot, get a couple inches of high heat oil going over medium heat. Use canola or sunflower or peanut oil, something with a high enough smoke point that it can be used in frying without turning your home into a goddamn jerky smoker, and you into jerky. This is not an especially precise cooking project: unlike, say, fried chicken, there will be no concerns over whether you have achieved a level of doneness that will keep you from shitting out your skeleton; and unlike, say, fried eggplant, there will be no breading that might burn to an acrid black char if the heat gets away from you. Mostly, the oil is there to quickly expose the plantains to intense heat, so the outside of the flesh will caramelize while the inside retains a little of that subtle banana-y vegetal flavor.
While the oil heats up, let’s prep the plantains. Use a sharp knife to slit the plantains open from stem to end, then open the slit and remove the peel. Don’t worry if your slit is deep enough to cut into the plantains, because next you’re gonna lay the plantains down on the cutting board and halve them lengthwise. Now cut the halved plantains into roughly three-inch chunks. There. Your prep work is now done. Except, wait, no it isn’t: put a couple layers of paper towel down on a wide dinner plate, and put the plate somewhere near the stove. There. Now your prep work is done.
We’ve got a few minutes before the oil is ready. This is very awkward. So, how about that dang weather? Man. Tell you what.
Okay. I decided to skip ahead. The oil is now ready. I know this because eventually the oil will be ready, and this section of the blog is meant to be read at that juncture, and not sooner. You know it’s ready because, of course, you did the little wooden spoon trick (stick a wooden spoon or chopstick into the hot oil and look for little bubbles rising off the wood; if you see little bubbles, take a small piece of plantain or a little chunk of bread and drop it into the oil; if the oil starts to boil vigorously around the food chunk, the oil is ready). Is the oil ready? I mean I’ve been waiting here for you, at this exact sentence, for quite some time. Let’s show a little hustle, pal.
Drop six or so plantain chunks into the hot oil. Because this is less precise than fried chicken or fried eggplant or apple fritters, it’s fine to take on the temperature swing that will come from a bunch of room-temperature plantains being dropped into shimmering hot oil. So long as the oil boils vigorously around the chunks of plantain, you’re good. If you’ve gotta bump the heat up to keep things moving, go for it. The plantains need probably three minutes or so in the oil, for them to turn a gorgeous dark reddish-brown mahogany color, all the way around. Use tongs or a fork or a slotted spoon to move the plantain chunks around in the oil so that they cook on all sides. When the plantain chunks are dark brown on all sides, use tongs or a fry basket or a slotted spoon to remove them from the oil and onto your paper towels. You’re going to repeat this process a couple times until all the plantain chunks are cooked and are piled on the paper towels, and the oil is off the heat.
That’s the whole deal, man. You bought some exotic fruit, you used simple steps and materials to bring the fruit to the desired advanced ripeness, then you prepped and cooked the fruit in a simple, unfussy way. Now all that’s left is the eating. Do it.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Fried sweet plantains. Good Lord. Sugary sweet, with just the right balance of that familiar, mild banana sourness; rich and starchy and dense with that sensational potassium heft; sticky from the caramelization, with just a waft of pleasing carbon char. They toe the line exactly—hell, they are the line—between dinner-sweet (like a beefsteak tomato) and dessert-sweet (like Bananas Foster). This is why the familiar condiments of carry-out Peruvian chicken joints*—that spicy, herby green sauce and that uber-rich mayonnaise-mustard mix—are so perfect: the green, playing opposite the sticky sweetness, yanks the plantains towards dinner; the yellow, stacked directly onto the sticky sweetness, rockets the plantains towards dessert. You could go back and forth indefinitely and die a happy person.
*If you’re interested, you can do a reasonable facsimile of the green by processing jalapeños, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, lime zest, a fat pinch of salt, and a blob of sour cream. And you can do a perfect rendition of the yellow by mixing mayonnaise, yellow mustard, garlic powder, and a dash of cumin.
These plantains don’t need a hunk of rotisserie chicken or a pile of steaming pork or a fucking mountain of arroz con pollo to take the lead, but you may find yourself wanting something hot and salty and savory to heap onto the plate beside them. That’s probably their highest calling, balancing some assertive meat dish so that you can sit in absolute rapture and two-fist great greasy handfuls of hot food, drizzled or dragged with this or that spicy condiment, going savory to sweet to savory to sweet until you finally pass out and are taken to the hospital with acute potassium poisoning. Okay, that will be too far. But the plantains are great, because they are like bananas, only sweeter. Don’t you dare say otherwise.