By Sofia Wilt
Most of us lucky enough to call Hawaii home annually eat our weight in bananas (OK sure, I totally just made that statistic up, but you get the point — we eat a lot of bananas). Yet most of us pay little attention to the banana’s lesser known relative, the plantain. Frankly, plantains have always kind of mystified me, they look like a regular banana, but need to be cooked and I’ve had little experience with them in my haole East Coast food heritage. Many of the transplants to Hawaii from tropical places such as Samoa, Tonga, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico all have culinary traditions using the plantain. In a recent kitchen experiment I discovered how fantastic plantains can be.
All bananas including plantains are native to the South East Asia and belong to the Musaceae family. Early Hawaiians traveled with them in canoes to ensure this valuable food would be readily available when they began making a home in Hawaii. The plant played a significant part in ancient Hawaiian culture and was considered a food of the gods. Oddly in ancient Hawaii, it was bad luck to dream of bananas, although one questions how bananas showed up in dreamtime in the first place. Women were forbidden, or it was considered kapu, to eat nearly all varieties of plantains and bananas.
There are dozens of varieties of plantains, and each can be used in different ways. You can make them into breads, pasteles (a kind of tamale that uses plantains instead of corn masa), fry them and serve them alongside black beans and roasted pork, essentially they’re extremely versatile. A rule of thumb is the greener the less sweet and more firm, and the more yellow/brown the softer and sweeter the flavor. They’re an excellent source of fiber, Vitamins A, B6 & C and are mega rich in potassium as well as magnesium. Another noteworthy feature of plantains, in their unripe form is the Resistant Starch they provide. RS is a soluble fiber that passes through the small intestine undigested and delivers much needed food to friendly gut bacteria in the larger intestine. These bacteria outnumber our human cells by a ratio of 10:1, and are often underfed with their proper food. Unripe plantains are even sold as a powder supplement to nourish our gut flora, incidentally where the majority of our immune function dwells. Who doesn’t want improved immune function and digestive health?
In my ongoing quest for using locally available foods, in this case a starch from something other than a grain, I came across a recipe for a Cuban dish called Pinon, a sort of “lasagna” where instead of noodles, you use plantains. I made it twice in one week, it’s that good.
1 lb ground grass-fed Big Island Beef
5 just ripe plantains, sliced lengthwise into about ¼ inch planks
5 tomatoes, chopped and deseeded
oil, roughly ? cup, divided, ghee, coconut, or macnut oil
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped carrot
½ cup chopped celery
a red, yellow or green pepper, ideally roasted, peeled and chopped (optional)
1 Tbs. minced garlic
1 Tbs minced ginger
1 tsp dried thyme
chili pepper flakes, minced jalapeno, or some kind of heat if desired
couple small pinches nutmeg or cinnamon
several Tbs minced fresh herbs, parsley, cilantro, basil, whatever you prefer
a generous ½ cup red or white wine
1. Preheat the oven to 375. In your largest skillet heat oil to medium and fry plantains until golden each side, about 3-5 minutes per side. You may need to work in batches, don’t overcrowd the pan. Sprinkle with salt, remove and set aside on paper towels.
2. Using the same skillet heat about 3 Tbs oil and saute on medium heat onion, carrot & celery. Saute until onions are soft, roughly 7-10 minutes. Add beef, mashing it with a spoon until it’s fully broken apart. Add ginger and garlic. When meat is fully cooked, add wine and tomatoes, salt and pepper, thyme & chili pepper too. Cook for several more minutes until some of the liquid has evaporated out. Add your fresh herbs, roasted pepper if using, remove from heat. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
3. Beat the eggs in a bowl, add nutmeg and or cinnamon plus a pinch of salt and set aside.
4. In a deep loaf pan, one that would be suitable for a meatloaf, being assembling your Pinon. Grease the pan. Begin with a layer of plantains, followed by half of your meat mixture, followed by more plantains, then the remaining meat mixture. Place your last plantains on top and pour the egg mixture over.
5. Immediately place in the hot oven and bake uncovered for roughly 30-40 minutes. You only need to heat it through and allow the eggs to cook.
6. Allow it to cool for at least 15 minutes to set up before cutting into it so it doesn’t fall apart. Serve with a fresh salad and dinner is served. There are many versions, including some using cheese, which would also certainly be delicious. Be creative and go for it!
Sofia has lived on the Big Island for over 20 years and started out working as a park ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, worked for Hawaii County as a 911 dispatcher, has a degree from the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC, has worked as a personal chef for over 12 years and is basically a food/health/nutrition geek playing in her kitchen finding new yummy ways to stay healthy and well nourished.