I grew up in Chicago and remember seeing plantain growing in yards and parkways along city streets. What always caught my eye were the slender seed stalks emerging from a nest of green leaves. I had no idea they were edible, but have harvested them frequently since then.
Both plantain leaves and the seedy stalks can be eaten, and they contain a surprising number of nutrients on a par with spinach and other leafy green vegetables like kale and collard greens. Plantains have healthy doses of vitamins K, A and C, in addition to iron and fiber.
Plantain leaves can be easily snipped from the plants with a pair of scissors. The leaf stems are actually a bit fibrous, so cut close to the base of the leaf. The leaves are best when harvested before the tall 4- to 6-inch seed stalk emerges. Much like dandelions, the leaves of plantain become a bit bitter once the seed stalks emerge.
The seed stalks also can be eaten, and there are a few ways of preparing both the leaves and the stalks.
A general rule of thumb for cooking plantain is to immerse the leaves or the stems in boiling water for 4 minutes, and then immediately immerse them into a bowl of ice water. This will shock the leaves or stems to stop the cooking process and fix their deep, green color. When plantains are overcooked they tend to disintegrate, so stay close to the 4-minute rule.
This initial boiling step will not only tenderize the plant but will help to dilute any bitterness in the more mature leaves. Once you have done this initial step you can go into a variety of directions with further preparation and recipes. It’s not absolutely necessary to do this blanching step. Young, tender leaves can be washed and tossed into a green salad, served with any dressing you prefer.
Here are three recipes:
1. Sautéing Plantain
I’ll often follow the blanching step in the boiling water with a quick sauté. I’ll drain the plantains and then drop a couple of tablespoons of butter or olive oil in the pan, and toss the plantains around over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. They make a great side dish, and you can top them with anything from pine nuts to bacon bits.
The seed stalks can be sautéed the same way, and when stacked on a plate have the appearance and a bit of the flavor profile of asparagus. The seeds also can be stripped from the stalks and used as a garnish on everything from salads to mashed potatoes.
2. Plantain Soup
In its simplest form, plantain soup includes strips of plantain leaves boiled in a broth for 4 minutes. I’ll usually add two cup of plantain leaves cut into julienne strips about a 1/4-inch wide and bring 4 cups of chicken broth or beef broth to a boil before adding the plantain leaves. You can add other ingredients to the broth, from noodles to vegetables or even chunks of chicken or strips of beef or venison. Add the noodles or meat or other vegetables to the pot first, and add the plantains to the broth 5 minutes later and cook for an additional 4 minutes.
3. Plantain ‘Goma Ae’
I lived and worked in Asia for two years and spent about 4 months living in Japan. It was there that I first encountered Goma Ae. It’s basically boiled spinach that is squeezed dry after boiling and then tossed in a mixture of sesame seed oil and soy sauce before being shaped into a cube about the size of an ice cube. It’s then sprinkled with a little more sauce and sesame seeds and served cold.
To make the plantain version of Goma Ae, take 2 cups of plantain leaves and boil them in water for 4 minutes. Shock the leaves in ice water and then squeeze out as much water as you can. Mix 2 tablespoons of sesame seed oil with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and toss the leaves in the sauce. Form the leaves into cubes with your fingers; you should get about 4 cubes in total from 2 cups of leaves. Drizzle any remaining sauce over each and sprinkle with sesame seeds. This is the plantain recipe I make most often, and it goes great with any meal. If you want more cubes just double or triple the recipe.
How do you eat plantain? Do you have any other advice? Share your tips in the section below: