If you frequent Latin restaurants, you've likely been served a plate containing platanos maduros: a side dish of plantains, caramelized to a gloriously golden hue and served as a complement to your black beans and lush roasted pork. It's the simplest of dishes to prepare, if you're willing to wait until the plantains are fully ripe.
The Color Code
Plantains pass through the same three color stages as sweet bananas, their siblings. They're edible at each stage, but in different ways. Green plantains are starchy, like potatoes, and are cooked and eaten in much the same way. Yellow plantains are sweeter -- think sweet potatoes, or winter squash -- and are often eaten with stewed or slow-cooked meats. Fully ripe, blackened plantains are the ones to caramelize in your skillet.
A regular banana would be a squishy mess at this point, but plantains are just beginning to soften and develop the necessary concentration of natural sugars. Plantains at the supermarket are usually green or yellow, and you'll need to store them for a few days in a paper bag before they're ripe enough. Occasionally you'll get lucky and find some fully ripe specimens on the discount rack, or on full display in ethnic markets, so it's always worth a look.
Preparing the Plantains
Once the plantains have reached the right stage of ripeness, with at most just a few specks of yellow remaining, you're ready to begin.
Cut both ends from the plantain, and score the tough skin lengthwise with a sharp knife.
Pull off the skin, baring the plantain. It will be slightly soft and sticky on the outside, but still firm in the middle.
Cut the plantain diagonally into slices about 1/2-inch thick.
From this point, you can choose between two cooking techniques.
Heat your skillet over medium to medium-high heat.
Pour in enough oil to come about halfway up the plantain slices, then fill the pan loosely with a single layer of the sliced fruit.
Cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until the natural sugars in the plantains caramelize to a golden brown.
Lift out the plantains and drain them on brown paper -- paper towel will stick to them -- and repeat, if you have additional slices to cook.
For a deeper, sweeter caramel flavor, toss the plantains with sugar before you cook them.
Heat the skillet over low to moderate heat.
Add enough oil to come about halfway up the plantain slices, and fill the pan with them loosely.
Cook the plantains for 6 to 8 minutes per side at the lower heat, until the slices are soft and each side reaches a richly dark golden color.
Drain the slices on brown paper, and serve immediately while they're hot.
Dressing Them Up
Despite their sweetness, these caramelized plantains -- like candied yams -- are usually served as a side dish with savory entrees. It's perfectly appropriate and authentic to drizzle a bit of lime juice over them, or serve them with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish.
You can also treat the caramelized plantains as a dessert, serving them with ice cream or a rum sauce and warm spices.