Sunday, March 2, 2008

Timing is Everything - Sopa de Plátano

Different fruits have different rates of ripening. This is not so much a newsflash as it is a thump on the head, my head, actually, to keep me focused when planning out a recipe. You may think a peach, hard as the stone buried in its center, will come to a sweet, juicy, yielding blush if you put it in a brown paper bag with enough of its own kind, expecting the collected hot gases to speed the pleasures of rivulets dripping down your chin. You may think that the bumped and shiny skin of an avocado is as impermeable as an armadillo, a simple case of waiting it out for that firm press of thumb to leave its imprint before you tear the brittle parchment from the unctuously sublime green flesh. You may think you know the ripening cycles of countless other sweetmeats plucked from branches, brambles and boughs long before they land, mostly off-season, at your greengrocer. You may, of course, be right. I, however, have never, ever had any luck whatsoever predicting the run on even a single, solitary cherry. It’s all a matter of hit and miss for me.

And there is no fruit that has given me more quarrel with its ripening than the banana. If I am like most other U.S. shoppers, it is the rare occasion when I will actually find a glowing yellow hand of long, curved fingers to be whisked away by my own hand, ready to be peeled and poised for a quick nosh as early as taking the register receipt from the check-out cashier. They are usually as green and mean as the face of the Wicked Witch of the West, useless as a quick-fix roadblock of complex carbs and potassium to keep you from that pint of ice cream that has warmed to the most seductive scooping texture. So I do what I always do, dump them into the fruit bowl and forget about them. Scott, on the other hand, knows exactly when they have arrived and starts doing the math so that he can eat one a day with his breakfast, until there are no more. After over two years of living together and not remembering exactly when I last ate a banana, I knew it was time to do a few calculations of my own.

When many Americans think of bananas, they are immediately referring to the dessert banana, the Cavendish variety, widely popular and bannered most often under the Chiquita brand. These fruit are not only a great out-of-hand treat, but they are the first choice for babies, invalids and those suffering from a bout of belly rumbles.

Recently, though, I decided to abandon my quest for a perfectly ripe banana and go green, totally green, with the common banana’s larger, sturdier relative. The plantain, with its bland, starchy flesh, is one of the staple crops in Latin, African and Asian cultures. As revered and depended upon as the potato, the plantain has the added advantage of full versatility as it can be prepared in any state of ripeness, from vivid green to yellow to black, becoming progressively sweeter the more its color changes. While many plantain recipes rely heavily on heavy frying, I found one, a Latin soup, that used far less oil and specified that the plantains be cooked when green. No more fussing and fretting for me. I snuggled two vividly verdant specimens in my shopping cart with the weekly hand of their Cavendish cousins. I would be brewing up my soup the next day.

Green plantains.

The ingredient list and preparation were easy enough, a simple stewing of plantain chunks in stock, then the addition of an aromatic sofrito, followed by a quick whiz in the blender. Done. Well, not so fast. I pulled the plantains out of the fruit bowl; they were going yellow. Already. Puzzled, I tossed them in the freezer for future use, and set out for another green pair a few days later. Sure enough, these plantains were also on a crash course in thumbing their thick fingers at me. How could this be? A northern winter’s climate is hardly hot and humid. Completely frustrated, yet determined, I dropped everything and headed to the store once again for replenishments.

As soon as I got them home, I made for the kitchen and got the saucepan going. I was working against the clock now; there would be no more of these bananas making a monkey out of me. Two hours later, while tipping my spoon into the savory soup pot, adjusting the seasoning, I felt a mild sense of accomplishment, but my overriding feeling was one of humility. When it comes to ripening fruit, I will always be a little green behind the ears.

Sopa de Plátano Verde – Adapted from the Las Culturas recipe


2 large green plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
[Make deep vertical cuts in the plantain skins with a sharp knife to facilitate peeling.]
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups of vegetable stock or water
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ cups canned tomatoes, diced
1/3 cup pickle relish, rinsed (for garnish)
Salt and pepper to taste


In a large bowl, mix the plantain pieces with the salt and set aside for 1 hour, then discard the extracted water, rinsing the salt off, if desired. In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, sauté the plantain pieces in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, turning until they are evenly, moderately browned. With a potato masher or wooden spoon, crush some of the plantain pieces into a coarse crumble. Add stock or water, then lower heat to simmer until plantain pieces are tender, about 45 minutes.

Prepare the sofrito. About 15 minutes before the plantain stock is ready, sauté the onion in a separate saucepan in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil until soft and translucent, about 7 minutes over medium-low heat. Turn off the heat and add the garlic, mixing it with the onion so that it cooks slightly with the stored heat of the saucepan. Stir in the tomatoes, then simmer the mixture over low heat for about 5 minutes.

Pour half of the plantain stock into a blender and whip until smooth. Return it to the rest of the stock. Transfer the sofrito into the blender and also whip it until smooth. Pour the sofrito into the plantain stock, stirring to mix. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish each bowl of soup with a tablespoon of relish. Serves 4. --

This post is being submitted to Zorra of Kochtopf, hosting Weekend Herb Blogging for Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, the creator of this very popular weekly food blogging event.

Been There, Done That ~

Latin Stew

Other People's Eats ~


Gretchen Noelle said...

Wonderful, wonderful! I often get bags full of 50+ kilos of plantains, green & yellow, so I am *always* needing new recipes! I have done so many different things that I am running out of ideas! Thanks!

Rosa said...

Wow, what an interesting soup! I love the way you've presented it in the square bowls.

Simona said...

What a fun post! I have problems with bananas too and I have solved them by having recipes that use ripe ones.
Speaking of the Cavendish, did you listen to this issue of Fresh Air?
It'a about a book called "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World". Very interesting.
Your soup sounds delicious.

Kalyn said...

Very interesting recipe. I've only eaten plantains once (In Miami!) and they were sauteed with some kind of spices sprinkled on. Very tasty. Your photos are wonderful.

Asha said...

Guess what Susan! I have one plantain dish in the fridge right at this moment!:D
I know lot of people confuse Plantains with raw green bananas, they are totally different. Great post!:)
Soup look yummy.

glamah16 said...

I grew up eating yellow plantains, but I have never had green ones.I loved your first paragraph! What a way with words.

Cynthia said...

The plantain is also one of the staple crops here in the Caribbean.

I love what you did with yours. I am always on the lookout for new things to do with them.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

loved your plantain sounds great:)

Sagari said...

soup looks deleciousss

zorra said...

I never tasted this banana, but you make me buy some! Thank you for your participation in WHB.

Asha said...

Susan, just found out last weekend! Amazon is selling Kewra water, used for cooking, for about $10 (25ml)!! I ordered one, looking forward to cook more with it!:))

Aparna said...

Plantain and soup! Very interesting and new to me.
In Kerala (India) where I live, plantains and bananas are the commonest fruits and come in many varieties. We also cook a lot with them. Green plantain are dehydrated, powdered and cooked to a gruel for children who have just been weaned.

Ricki said...

Susan...too bad I don't like cookec bananas! This looks very tasty though. LOVE the bowls!

sra said...

Lovely post, and I read Scott's too. Will come back later to relish them more!

KayKat said...

Ooo ... this is a favourite! I usually add a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg to mine.

I *love* that last pic - makes me want to stick my finger in the bowl :)

Vaishali said...

Susan, that's a lovely and funny post- I can never get it right with ripening fruits either. The soup looks delicious. Coincidentally, I too made a soup this past weekend where I tossed in a plantain along with other veggies I had on hand like potatoes, sweet potatoes and a parsnip. I roasted the veggies before pureeing them which really added to the flavor. Was feeling too lazy that evening to take pictures and blog about it, though :)

vegeyum said...

This is a remarkable story. I loved it a lot, so well crafted. I am with you on bananas. I am always so puzzled as to how to buy a piece of fruit that I can eat NOW. A peach. An apricot. To eat in the street. To take home and throw onto some cream or icecream, or even into the oven with a bit of liqueur and mascarpone. All these things have to be planned, a week ahead. Sigh.

Lucy said...

Plantains seem so exotic, so otherworldly, having never laid either hands or eyes on them, in the flesh, so to speak.

I thought myself alone in a complete lack of fruit-ripening skills! How wonderful to read your beautiful prose again - such a joyful post.

Susan said...

Hi, Gretchen! Good to see you. 50 kilo bags of plantains?!?! I wouldn’t be able to use them fast enough; they would turn black right before my eyes! (I do know they are good when black, too.)
Thanks, Rosa. The square bowls are fun.
Thank you, Simona. I recently found Koeppel’s book through Amazon while I was checking the sales stats for Scott’s book, but have not heard the NPR piece yet. While researching for this post, the book popped up again. It’s a fascinating story.
Thanks, Kalyn. Miami, of course!
Asha – Thanks! Yes, I can believe it. ; ) And they are, indeed, totally different fruit, though I have read that botanically they are classified as herbaceous.
Thank you, Coco. I’ve had the yellow ones, too; they were deeply fried in oil then sprinkled with salt. Delicious but fattening.
Cynthia – Thanks. I’ve had fried plantains with stewed, curried Jamaican chicken, but didn’t know they are used as often as in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Thank you, dear Nanditha.
Thanks, Sagari! It really was delicious.
Zorra – Plantains are nothing like the common banana of Europe, definitely worth a try if you ever happen upon them. Thanks for hosting WHB. I was glad to join in.
Hi, Asha. I got my bottle from my local Indian grocer. As always, their prices are incredibly good. I think it cost me $3 or so. It will probably last me for years.
Good to see you, Aparna! The gruel must be very easy on the digestion. In America, the most popular baby food is strained, jarred bananas.
Thanks, Ricki. Think of them as you would potatoes. They are nothing like our bananas raw or cooked.
Hi, Sra! Thanks. See you soon.
Thank you, KayKat. Cinnamon and nutmeg sounds really good. I use these spices with yams all the time.
Vaishali – Thank you. Roasting the vegetables is a great idea. When I starting writing this post, I wondered if it would resonate with others. Well, it has, and much more than I expected.
Hi, VegeYum. Thanks so much. Perhaps the only way to ensure fruit is ripe for the picking is to literally pick it yourself from your own garden trees and plants. Someday. I second that “sigh.”
Lucy -- Thanks. It was a real pleasure to write this post.

I would have thought you could find plantains in the far South Pacific given the lemons and other tropical produce you can grow their. This needs more investigating. Hmmmm.

Richa said... sure is impossible to get a just ripe banana at the super mrkt, u gotta' plan much in advance so they can ripen ;)
soup looks good!

Kevin said...

The soup looks good. I have never had plantains before. I have been meaning to try them I will have to get around to it!

Suganya said...

Plantain is one of those humble vegetables that shy away from the lime light. Steamed, sauteed or fried, it tastes great. Soup is so new to me.

Sylvia said...

I never tasted this banana as well a banana soup, but is a interesting recipe that I would try. Great post, Susan

Kelly-Jane said...

I tried plantain for the first time last year, and I liked it, but thought I could play around with it a little.

You have done that really well. great post, as always. Well done to Scott as well for his perfect pancakes =)

Roopa said...

A nice and different recipe , i will try this, we buy green plantains most of the time, so iam looking forward to this:)

Johanna said...

I have the same problem - it is so frustrating trying to time cooking around fruit and veg being perfectly ripe - gives me many headaches!

Shaun said...

Susan, lovie ~ I've only ever eaten plantains in the US and only in sweet dishes. I would never have thought to make a soup of this starchy fruit. It is interesting that the Latin American potato took off in Europe but the plantain didn't. Why do you suppose this is? I'm sure it is just as good and filling, however vexing the issues regarding ripeness.