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June 18, 2007

The Plantain Emerges from the Shadow of Brother Banana


Most of us with siblings understand family rivalries. No matter how close two siblings might be, there is always a certain simmering envy over attention. One always seems to come off as doted upon, while the other sits in the corner wondering if anyone had noticed him or her. As certain as this is among people, it also runs true in the kitchen.


Perhaps there is no more evident example of this than the relationship between the banana and the plantain. The two are nearly identical twins, yet each is treated very differently in the kitchen.


Almost everyone knows the banana, and there are some who absolutely fawn over it. It is sliced and set atop morning cereal. It is frozen and dipped in chocolate. It is split and topped with ice cream. Its skin is frequently used for a sight gag. There is even a children’s song extolling the virtues of a phone made to resemble one.


What do we have for the plantain, the banana’s starchier, more earthy brother? We have nothing. No sight gags, no children’s song, no puddings. It is that family’s wallflower, the harder-working sibling overlooked because it lacks the charisma and flash of the banana. Curse our image-driven ways!


But it would be wrong to feel too badly for the plantain. This has filled it with grit, and has prompted it to work harder. By comparison, the banana is lazy, given everything handed to it on a silver platter from a fawning public. Because so little is demanded of it, it fails to live up to its potential.


Because the plantain’s personality is drier and starchier than its more glamorous sibling, you will have to cook it. This will both soften it and bring out its natural sweetness.


There are a few schools of thought on how to approach the plantain. The most popular is to slice its skin lengthwise, cut it perpendicularly to that slice, and fry it to a golden brown in a mix of butter and brown sugar.


While that is certainly an acceptable, easy way to cook the thing, we can do something with the plantain that you rarely see done with fruit. You can cook it on the grill and turn it into dessert.


Most of us balk at the idea of grilled dessert. The grill and charcoal, we think, are for things like meat and things that accompany meat like vegetables, marinated mushrooms and even more meat. This, however, is where the plantain proves superior to its banana sibling.


When one approaches the issue of using the grill, the first question is how you plan to heat something – either directly or indirectly. Both methods work, and the choice is left to personal taste.


Either way, the process is so easy that if you have time you could train either a monkey, a five-year-old or some freak combination of the two to do it.


The first step is this – cut the plantain in two lengthwise. Here, resist the strong urge to arrange the plantain as yin and yang, and to announce casually to anyone around that you have achieved perfect balance. You will receive a universal response – wordless blinking.


Instead, sprinkle the plantain halves generously with brown sugar, and then place them on the grill.


Here, some words on the looming question of direct or indirect heat.


If you wish to use direct heat, simply place the plantain halves, skin side down, on the grill above the coals. As they cook all the way through, the skin will begin to separate from the meat and the sugar atop will begin to bubble and melt. Once it is softened all the way through, it is done.


If you wish to use indirect heat, place them someplace not directly over coals, open the grill’s vents and close the top. When the brown sugar on top melts and begins to bubble and the meat is softened all the way through, you’ll know they are done. If you are cooking other things on the grill by direct heat – say, some kind of meat – then you can achieve the same thing by making a tent out of tin foil by folding a piece over the top and under the plantain half. The effect will be the channel smoke onto the top of the plantain, where smokey flavor will combine the brown sugar for a finish that is both unexpected and filled with sugary grill goodness.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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