Jun 21, 2014

"Sherman, my boy," as Mr. Peabody from the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" TV show might have intoned, "Please set the' Way Back Machine ' to the summer of 1973". We're going to a little restaurant on Duval Street in Key West called Cafe Expresso.

Credit Norman Van Aken

And my memory’s projector would rumble stutter and then start. Ohyes, she's coming into view quite clearly now and although I can remember her name, I do remember some structurally challenged stretch pants, a great gold-gilded-toothed smile and her nearly orange hair. She was a Bantu goddess of sorts but brought down to Earth to commune with us mere mortals for a spell.

I was helping some carpenter buddies of mine re-build some of the tottering, wooden houses on the island back in the early days of Key West's restoration... and it was numbing work, let me tell you. And man (!) could we eat back then. We needed big filing plates of food and we had little money to get the job done.

We'd go to 'Cafe Expresso' for lunch or dinners sometimes and she was there either way. Dishing out the rice, pork chops, breaded steaks, fish stews, various bean soups and, of course, those sweet, honey-hued, chewy-soft heavenly fried plantains.

Plantains were the very first exotic food that I tried when I moved to Key West that just nailed me. But what was truly remarkable was how they mad e the other things on my plate all so harmoniously delicious. Delicioso! It sounds so much more correct in the Latin emphatic style! In Spanish they are called Platanos .There are various types of plantains: platanos verdes ,or green plantains; platanos pintones, green plantains which arejust beginning to tum black and are often boiled;platanos maduros ,which are almost totally black and very ripe and sweet; platanos bu’’os ,which hail from Hawaii (where they are called hua moa) and are much fatter than the Latin varieties. Plantains differ from regular bananas in that they are always eaten cooked.

Conversely bananas are not a good substitute for plantains. They are extremely durable ship while still in their green phase.

Plantains are a major food in West and Central Africa, Central America, the Caribbean Islands and northern, coastal parts of South America. Their value as food is that they fruit all year round.

In West Africa plantains are primarily used to produce beer. I’m not sure I would like a beer made from plantains ... but once upon a time I didn't even think I'd like caramelized plantains and so I'm willing to give it a go.


Norman Van Aken, Copyright, 2012

My comfort food mainstay often begins with eggs. My first job in a kitchen was as an egg flipper in a diner in Illinois. Instead of ruining it for me it made me love them. And the first “breakthrough” ingredient that beckoned me down this Key West pathway of food was surely a caramelized plantain. Though this dish is basically vegetarian you might not think of it as such. It’s just tasty as hell. Start with caramelized plantains and everything is.

Serves: 4

For the Plantains:

·         2 very ripe plantains, peeled and cut diagonally into ¼ -½ inch rounds.

·         Canola oil, (or other oil for frying)

Season the plantains with salt & pepper. Put a sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, lay the plantains in and cook until quite dark (deeply golden or more). When done, set on a paper towel to drain.

For the Frittata:

·         4 ounces Queso Fresco, cut into 1” cubes

·         6 eggs, lightly beaten with a good pinch of kosher salt kosher salt

·         black pepper

·         1 1/2 Tablespoons olive oil (or other oil of your choice)

Wipe out the pan and lower the heat to medium. Add the olive oil. Allow it to heat up and then add the pieces of cheese. Fry them to golden brown on 2 sides, then pour in the egg mixture.

When the eggs have begun to set on the bottom, arrange the plantain pieces around on top of the egg mix spacing them evenly. You will need to lift the pan on an angle and allow the uncooked egg mixture to ‘escape’ to the bottom of the pan to get almost all of the liquid turned to cooked egg. It is easier than it might sound and kind of a nice challenge.

When the eggs have fully set on the bottom and will detach from the pan (about 4-5 minutes), take a heavy round plate that is larger than the circumference of the omelet pan and invert it over the pan. Working over a table quickly invert the pan 180 degrees onto the plate. Now slide the frittata back into the pan and continue cooking on the second side about one more minute.

Remove to the plate and allow to settle.

Serve either right away or at room temperature.

Ingredient Note: Increasingly plantains are found in many grocery stores. If you have a Latin/ Caribbean market near you, by all means go there. My friend Sandy Gutierrez and I love to stroll the markets and exchange cooking ideas. (She is an excellent cookbook author by the way). The markets are fun and open you up to all kinds of temptations. Plantains go through stages of ripening when left at room temperature. (If you need to hurry them along place them in a brown paper bag for a day or three). They can be served thinly sliced as ‘chips’ when very green. They are used much like potatoes when mottled between green and black. When black, they are known as maduros and are used for the caramelized babies we love so much. The skin of the plantains will be as black as licorice when they are used as here. We serve them with all manner of fish and meat as a favorite side dish. So use just that part of this recipe for the love and attention you deserve.