I stood there in the grocery store reminiscing in the produce section; they stopped me in my tracks and dozens of memories began to flood my mind. The place was Costa Rica and the things that held my attention captive were plantains/platanos or maduros (the sweet version). The banana-looking thing that is lower in sugar than bananas. FYI: the darker, riper plantains are better for sweet dishes and the green variety is great for salty snacks.
The types of bananas in the grocery stores all over the US, we were told, are the ones Costa Ricans feed their pigs. They said they were not something they would enjoy eating. I thought that was interesting and will never forget that tidbit.
While we were there, 4 or 5 years ago, we dined on gallo pinto (rice and beans) with fresh, tropical fruit for breakfast. I’ve tried to make gallo pinto but it’s not the same because we no longer have Salsa Lizano, a sauce with subtly sweet and smoky flavors that is a must-have in Costa Rican cuisine. Black pepper, cumin and other spices are a few of the ingredients. I’ve heard that this condiment is in the United States but have never found it.
For lunch, more gallo pinto and dinner was chicken simmered in spices/sauces that I’ve never had before, yucca root (cassava) that tastes like a potato or fried plantains, and what was called a salad but looked more like coleslaw in a much better dressing made from lime juice and cilantro (my favorite “coleslaw” to this day), not mayo or sweet. When we went to the east coast, we dined on fresh fish with simple, flavor-enhancing ingredients and back in San Jose, we had tres leches cake- cake doused in 3 kinds of milk and something everyone should try.
Every day, all day, we could find some amazing coffee and chocolate. We saw the coca plant that contains alkaloids like cocaine, which makes for a strong stimulant. When chewed, it suppresses hunger, thirst and pain. This is used today in other industries but no worries, it won’t cause the euphoric drug effect. You might have guessed that Coca-Cola (yes, the drink) contains coca and was thus the uproar in days past about cocaine being an ingredient in the beverage. But we were told that is not the case, the coca leaf is still used today but is a cocaine-free extract instead of the fresh leaves of the old days.
Did you know Coca-Cola began for medicinal purposes and was inspired by a coca wine? I’m a Pepsi person-probably born with one in my hand- although I rarely have pop these days. Coke is too sweet for me and I can’t get past the cinnamon flavor.
The guide also showed us the cacao fruit and gave us cacao beans (bittersweet with a citrus hint) to suck on, which is the base for cocoa and chocolate. We watched the entire process in a small town along the Panama border. The “road” we followed, high above the river with a waterfall running down onto our vehicle, was terrifying and meeting up with another vehicle in the opposite direction would’ve meant death, pretty sure. Scary and exciting. This was a deep, rich, barely sweet chocolate that I am fond of (so fond that we nearly died) and the women who make these treats are well-known, talent from the area. I will never forget it.
I didn’t hesitate to pick up 2 green and 2 dark plantains for snacks over the weekend. I made a simple, spicy, salted snack version and a dessert similar to Bananas Foster, minus the flaming alcohol but still with ice cream. Enjoy-it’s easy and scrumptious.
Spicy Fried Plantains
Serves 2 to 4 as a snack with 2 green plantains
2 green plantains
½ tsp salt
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
In a large skillet, add the canola oil so that there’s an inch up the sides, over medium/high heat, until oil is very hot. Meanwhile, peel and cut the plantains into coins. In a bowl mix all the spices (salt included) and toss in the plantains to coat. Once oil is very hot, add the plantains, cook on each side until golden brown. Place on a paper plate to remove some of the oil. Serve immediately.
Sweet Plantains (Maduros) with Ice Cream and Sauce
2 ripe (dark) plantains
4 tbsp butter, melted
¼ cup brown sugar (Muscovado works well)
vanilla ice cream
I fried these before tossing them with the warm sauce but you can fry the plantains in the butter and sugar directly to eliminate a few steps. I like the salty/sweet combination from the following method. Heat a large skillet over medium/high heat with an inch of canola oil to first fry the coins Peel and cut the plantains into coins. When the oil is very hot, cook the plantains on each side until golden brown and remove to a paper towel to remove some of the oil. Quickly combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a bowl, toss the plantain coins in the sauce. Serve over ice cream immediately and drizzle the sauce over the top.