Stuffed Plantains

Sometimes it just hits you. Not with the lomographic or vintage effect movies use, but real-color, bright, and emotional: a memory. If you are lucky, you can smell and taste it too. That happened to me recently, as I was driving by the neighborhood I grew up in. Our old house still stands out among the others: unpretentious, small, yet isolated and conspicuous, thanks to the garden. A beautiful garden my mother worked on for months. It started with tiny, flowerless plants, but over the years we’ve seen what mom really envisioned: a whimsical array of colors, textures and light. This effect is particularly evident in a 12-foot walkway that connects the front porch with the garage. Small terra-cotta tiles and worn, mossy cement make the cool walkway, while dark green bushes line both sides. Fine-leafed, skinny trees tower along the sides of the bushes, letting light play through as winds push and pull the branches. It was in one of these moments, long ago, that a wind buffeted my face with the smell of mouthwatering stuffed plantains coming from the kitchen window.

Stuffed plantains are the Puerto Rican equivalent of stuffed potato skins. They can be served stuffed as appetizers or empty as sides. Instead of cheese and/or sour cream studded with bacon, the fried plantain vessel is stuffed with pulled, often stewed meat. That means stuffed plantains are best served as soon as they’re made. Otherwise the bottom gets dense and soggy. Perfectly prepared, the vessel should be thick enough to carry some of the juices in the stuffing without immediately absorbing them. The overall size of the stuffed plantain should be such that one could eat it in two to three bites. One bite is not enough to enjoy the flavors and textures, but too many bites can make the process messy with stuffing going all over the place.

My rendition switches the hot’n runny filling for a fresh, crisp’n sweet-savory black bean salad. Colorful, vibrant, and fragrant of lemon-cilantro, these stuffed plantains appeal to the eye, as well as the nose.

Yields: 8 stuffed plantain mini cups + plenty of black bean salad for more goodness.

Tools and Equipment

Mixing bowls

Mortar and pestle (small, see images)

Knives

Cutting board

Frying pan/pot

Kitchen towels

Cooking thermometer (optional)

Ingredients

2 Large green plantains

Plenty Vegetable oil

Plenty Water

1 1/2 C Black beans, cooked and drained

1/3 C Corn, cooked and strained

1/3 C Green pepper, chopped

1/3 C Red pepper, chopped

1/3 C Yellow pepper, chopped

1/3 C Orange pepper, chopped

1/4 C Red onion, finely chopped

1/4 C Shallot, finely chopped

1/4 C Fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1 Tbsp Olive oil, fruity and flavorful

1 Tsp Lemon or lime juice

Salt to taste

Black pepper or pepper medley to taste

Black Bean Salad

  1. To prepare the black bean salad, combine all the veggies in a nonreactive bowl (avoid metal or weak plastics).
  2. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze in the lemon juice. Mix and taste. Season and mix again. If you are eating this right away, add enough salt to taste. If you are refrigerating for more than 4 hrs, add very little salt first and and a little more just before serving, this will prevent vegetables from exuding too much water. I like letting the flavors combine for at least 5 – 6 hrs, so I generally follow the latter.
  3. Seal tightly and store in the refrigerator, while making the plantain vessels.

Plantain mini cups

Fill a bowl with water and add salt as if for pasta. Stir.

  1. Cut the plantains into large 1 1/2 – 2 inch long rounds and add them into the water. Soak for 15 mins.
  2. Meanwhile, fill the frying pan/pot with sufficient oil, you want enough to cover the rounds.
  3. Place the thermometer near the middle of the distance between the surface of the oil and the bottom of the pan.
  4. Heat till the thermometer reaches about 250°F, you can test with a small piece of bread to ensure proper frying conditions. The bottom of the pan will be at a higher temperature and it should keep increasing, granted you don’t add to many pieces of plantains at a time.
  5. Pat-dry the plantain rounds and place them in the oil by batches. Fry for 6 – 8 mins. I suggest frying four at a time, but this really depends on the pan’s material, shape, and oil volume.
  6. After the first round of frying, place the rounds in a bowl lined with paper towel or some absorbent material. While the next batch is frying, use the mortar and pestle to form the semi spherical vessel. Be careful not to over-mash the plantains, to prevent them from loosing their integrity.
  7. Once the oil is free from the first round of frying the other plantains, transfer the vessels to the oil and fry for 4 mins maximum.
  8. Remove plantain mini cups from hot oil and let it dry over paper towel again.
  9. Stuff the plantains with the fresh salad, while they’re hot and crispy. Season to taste.

Sofrito: The base of Puerto Rican cuisine.

If you ever ask a Puerto Rican what is the staple food over here, the reply will most likely be “Rice, beans, and _______.” The last of which will be filled with the name of some animal protein that can vary immensely. Rice and beans, however, are always constant.

When we say rice, we mean white rice, unless we specify otherwise. When we say beans, we mean beans cooked in tomato sauce; but this sauce is special not because it requires rare ingredients or complex techniques, but because it has an extraordinarily flavorful and simple base: sofrito.

I guess most cultures have their own bases. The French came up with mirepoix and I’ve heard that people in the south of the US call their base creole. Every base is comprised by different ingredients that, I suppose, are not only easy to find, but also cheap in each region. In fact, I believe that the recipe for sofrito will most likely differ from family to family, or maybe from town to town. Whatever the case, sofrito is the foundation of most Puerto Rican, and perhaps even Caribbean, dishes. We use it to flavor virtually everything and anything savory. This base is so fundamental to Puerto Rican cuisine, my grandmother makes spaghetti sauce with it – and it is delicious.

This recipe was given to me by my grandfather, and though it is extremely simple, it is packed with flavor. It is something of a miracle, really, that this recipe of just three ingredients elevates “OK” beans to “YUM! What did you put in this?” beans.

Abuelo Ismael’s Quick Sofrito

This recipe yields about about 4-1/2 cups of sofrito, but it will vary with the size of the processed goods.

Tools and Equipment

Sharp knife

Cutting board

Clean towel

Clean jar or container

Strainer – optional

Ingredients

1 lb. Garlic heads = 5 – 8 garlic heads

2 lbs. Spanish onions = about 3 – 5 onions

1/4 lb. Cilantro (or cilantrillo) = about a handful

  1. Peel, separate, and cut the stem ends off the garlic, exposing the cloves. Peel the onions and cut off the root ends. Cut the cilantro stems near the root. Discard all the inedible ends.
  2. Wash all the ingredients thoroughly, but make sure to pat them dry, at least until all the excess water is removed. I like to leave them about an hour or two over a clean towel, just to make sure they’re dry and clean.
  3. Cut the cilantro into 3-inch long segments and place in a food processor. Layer the garlic cloves evenly over the cilantro in the food processor. Cut the onions into an appropriate size to fit the food processor and layer over the garlic. You might have to do this by batches. I was lucky enough to borrow my mom’s huge food processor, but my grandfather makes this by batch and it works just fine. Even better, because he does it ;-). If you do make it by batches, though, make sure to split the ingredients, such as to have approximately equal amounts per batch. You don’t want to stir this much after it’s done.
  4. Pulse in the food processor until the desired garlic and onion size is reached. The cilantro should be processed thoroughly, though.
  5. Transfer sofrito to the clean container and seal as tight as possible. This can hold up for two weeks. Though the flavor changes slightly as time progresses, this is not a bad change. You can certainly freeze it, but that will mellow the flavors down considerably. I like to keep mine in the fridge for two weeks maximum. The rest, I give out as a gift. Really.

Note: If there is a lot of liquid when you process the ingredients, get a fine-mesh strainer, like those used to sift flour, for example, to remove as much of the liquid as possible. Runny sofrito goes bad faster and does not cook as well as mildly-chunky-and-not-as-wet sofrito.

How to use it. With a little amount of oil, sauté as much sofrito as you believe necessary until the onions and garlic turn golden and the smell is irresistibly delicious. Proceed with your intended recipe as usual, but this time, you have a base layer of flavors to build on. =)

Any questions? Feel free to ask.

On Roasting Garlic. An awesome fundamental.

“Garlic.” After hearing the word, I’m immediately transported to a time when Emeril Lagasse would “add just a little” of the good stuff to hot pan. You could hear the garlic sizzle, but nothing could compare to the smell that must have emanated from there. No wonder he often spoke about how we, the viewers, should demand for “smellavision.” Speaking of smells, roasting garlic is one of those things that will have you, and your neighbors, crazy with the amazing aroma of deliciousness. Really.

I had never tried roasting garlic until very recently. It was so simple and delicious, I ate six garlic heads with toasts and had a lovely-garlic(y) breath afterwards. It also proved to be a taste-changing element in most of the recipes I used to make with raw garlic. For the better, of course. Since this is the first recipe I post, and because I have some stuff from lab to get done, I will omit the measurements. It is so intuitive and versatile, you don’t really need anything other than the time, the temperature and a couple of tips here and there.

First off, set the oven to 300°F and make sure you have a pan where you can accommodate the garlic. I bought these rather small garlic heads at the supermarket today, so I placed them in the pan just to see how many would fit.

Cut the top off the heads and season with generous amounts of salt and pepper. Douse with some extra virgin olive oil.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour at 300 °F. Once the time is done, remove the top foil and place the pan on the topmost rack of the oven. Increase the temperature to 375°F and roast for 20 minutes. Let it cool off for 15 – 20 minutes. WARNING: The aroma of roasted garlic will take over your entire kitchen area, and if your apartment/living space is as small as mine, then get ready to have the smell of garlic in your clothes, computers, oh, and cake, if you happen to have any around, like I did. Alas, not to worry. Leave a window open and the smell dissipates very quickly.

Squeeze out the garlic cloves into a clean container. I don’t know if it’s the lab rat in me, but using nitrile gloves felt perfect for this job. No mess, no fuss, just clean squeezing.

All I can say, is that roasted garlic is amazing. It works for families and for far-from-family-students, as they can be stored in the refrigerator for quite a long time. The flavors of roasted garlic blend so well, that they make anything and everything taste delicious, without the overpowering-OUCH raw garlic gives food. That’s why I think it can serve as part of a base for other ingredients/flavors to build upon. Like avocados, lime, and jalapeños, for example. Now, if I just had cherry tomatoes.