“Mata de plátano, a ti a ti te debo la mancha
que ni el jabón, ni la plancha,
quitan de encima de mi.
Desque jíbaro nací
al aire llevo el tesoro
de tu racimo de oro
y tu hoja verde y ancha;
llevare siempre la mancha
por secula seculorum”
– Luis Lloréns Torres, Puerto Rican poet
This short poem loosely translates to: “Plantain tree, I owe to you that stain that neither soap nor clothes iron can remove. Since I was born here (Puerto Rico), I treasure your golden bunch and your wide green leaves, and will always carry your stain.” The plantain stain is a metaphor for those traits that make Puerto Ricans unique and that we wear on our sleeves every day, wherever we may be.
It had been a while since I wrote a post on food from the island and I have a new bout of inspiration since I purchased Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico Sabor Criollo, the Spanish version of Puerto Rico True Flavors. I had been looking for a while for a contemporary PR cookbook, and this one combines traditional recipes with a more modern approach to making them. I think it is the book that best illustrates what Puerto Ricans eat on a daily basis, from the homey grandma fricasées, to the fritters and seafood salads from beachside shacks, to fonda/cafeteria fixtures. It doesn’t deny completely our irrational love for some processed foods (the book includes recipes for Velveeta/Spam sandwiches de mezcla and arroz con salchichas – rice with Vienna sausages) nor dwells on them too much. Chef Benet is one of our better known chefs internationally. He participated in the first season of Top Chef Masters, where he came thisclose to winning his episode’s elimination challenge on street food. I would have had the worst time choosing between a tripleta, PR’s hero-style sandwich or a Rick Bayless tongue taco.
The first recipe I knew I had to tackle from the book was the plantain soup. Plantains are those large fruits that resemble a banana but are much starchier when green/unripe. They are used in many savory dishes somewhat like a potato would be used and are very popular in Western Africa and other Caribbean countries. They are usually cooked by steaming, boiling, frying, or a combination of these methods. Nutritionally, plantains are high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and potassium – just like a ‘regular’ banana. The peel has to be removed with a knife – after cutting off the edges, run the knife through the plaintain’s peel until you reach the fruit and from there separate it from the fruit. Chef Benet also shows how to do it in this video on how to prepare tostones, the fried flattened plantain disks that are served as side dishes or appetizers.
(Adapted from Puerto Rico Sabor Criollo. The recipe is modified for four servings from the original eight)
- 2 large green plantains, peeled
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sofrito (or 1 large frozen cube)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
- 1/2 teaspoon salt; black pepper to taste
- chopped cilantro to garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large cast iron Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pan, over a medium-high flame. Add the sofrito and the garlic and cook for two minutes to remove the raw taste. Add the chicken stock and bring it to a boil. While the stock is in the burner, grate the plantains with a box grater using the larger holes. Once the stock is boiling, add the plantains, stir and reduce the hear to low. Simmer the soup for twenty five minutes, stirring occasionally. The plantains will release some of the starch and thicken up the soup.
After the twenty five minutes have elapsed, purée the soup either with an immersion or countertop blender (in batches if choosing the latter). Season the soup with the salt and pepper, stir in the chopped cilantro, and serve.