The Washington area isn't known for it's Cuban restaurants (that would be Miami). But at one time, back in my student days about a century ago, there was a great little Cuban place in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood here in the District of Columbia called The Omega.
The wait staff consisted of older Cuban gentlemen with thick accents, all smartly outfitted in white shirts and black pants and possibly even white aprons. We'd go there when we wanted a delicious meal for cheap. I think a chicken casserole thick with meat and onions and peas was something like $4.95 and with that you got the standard sides, consisting of a bowl of runny black beans and a generous scoop of rice.
But we always had to order a side of fried plantains, or platanos, because they were simply irresistible. I remember them being more on the sweet side than savory, lightly fried and somewhat delicate. What a taste, scooping up a sweet plantain while you still had black beans and rice in your mouth. You could never make something like that up, it had to come from the original cuisine.
In any case, that's the image I had in mind when I decided to make fried plantains in our "food appreciation" classes this week. We don't normally cook with hot oil (I don't even want to think about an accident). But how can you travel around the Caribbean without eating plantains? So this week we are in Puerto Rico on our virtual world food tour making fried plantains and a simple dipping sauce. We are taking unusual precautions around our pan of hot oil so that the kids don't even get close.
Our brief stop in Cuba last week reminded all of us how food binds the world together and sometimes requires us to think about many different issues, not just cooking but questions of culture, ethnicity, politics, history, ethics. I couldn't help pointing out that while Cuba lies only 90 miles off American shores, we have maintained for the last 50 years an economic and political blockade of that country simply because we don't like Fidel Castro or his form of government. We decry the Communist regime of Castro on the one hand, but meanwhile elevate another communist regime with a horrible human rights record--China--to the position of important trading partner and principal banker to the U.S.
"Hypocrisy...." I heard one of the kids mutter.
I went on to note that Puerto Rico, while a U.S. territory, has no voting rights in Congress and the residents do not pay federal income taxes. Meanwhile, we here in the District of Columbia, the seat of our national government, also do not have voting rights in Congress but we are required to pay federal income taxes. (Imagine all the people who'd be trying to move here if we didn't?)
"Why are you telling us these things?" another student asked.
It all led to a very lively discussion of how food can take us to unexpected places and teach us more than just how to eat.
But back to the food....
For the completely uninitiated, a plantain looks like a big banana but harder and much starchier. Only toward the very end stages of ripeness do plantains begin to soften and taste mildly like a banana. Otherwise they are often used more like a potato or other starchy vegetable. They are often sold in supermarkets if you live in an area with any sizable Hispanic population. Or look for them in Latin groceries. Sometimes they will be separated into two types--plantains that are still green, intended for savory dishes such as casseroles, and the riper ones that are better for eating on their own.
I'm not a plantain expert, but I'm told that in Puerto Rico they are commonly cooked according to a two-step process. First, remove the skin by using the tip of a pairing knife to make two or three slits lengthwise on the fruit. After removing the skin, cut the fruit crosswise or on an angle into fairly thick pieces, about 3/4 inch.
Meanwhile, use moderate heat to bring about 1/2 inch canola oil in a heavy skillet to around 360 degrees, or a point where a piece of plantain placed in the oil will create fairly vigorous bubbles but not burn. Arrange the plantain pieces in the oil and cook until they are browned on both sides, using a pair of forks to flip them over. Remove the pieces to a plate covered with paper towels to drain. Allow them to cool for a few minutes before whacking them with a meat tenderizer or other heavy object.
The intention is not to destroy the plantain pieces or turn them into chips, but simple to flatten them a little exposing some of the insides. You can do this between a couple pieces of waxed paper. Then return the plantain pieces to the hot oil and brown again. This second step will cook the plantain all the way through.
For a dipping sauce, mix 1/2 cup sour cream with 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 2 teaspoons lime juice. Add 1/2 teaspoon chili powder and mix well.
Enjoy picking up the plantain pieces with your fingers and dipping them into the sauce. You might need to make more. They are quite addictive.