The culinary landscape of pre-conquest America lacked some of the foods taken for granted today.
There was no sugar. That was imported by Columbus on his second voyage. The delicious mango did not grow here. And the banana did not come to the Americas until the 16th century. Even the ubiquitous rice plant is a colonial import.
Despite being imported, these plants flourished here. And no Costa Rican meal is complete without rice. The plantain,called plátano, also makes up a flexible part of the diet.
The flexibility is in the use of green plantains as a starchy potato or rice substitute and the use of the mature fruit in ways to take advantage of its sweetness.
The plantain is larger than the typical table banana. Its uses differ depending on the maturity. The green plátano can be cooked like a potato, grated into flour or fried to make chips. The patacone, a double-fried disc of plantain traditionally is decorated with refried beans, mayonnaise and avocado dip.
Compared to the rest of the world, Costa Rica is fairly conservative in using the plátano. Asian cooks are far more creative.
For most, the mature, almost black-skinned plátano comes fried as one of the regulars in the luncheon casado. They are called maduros and give off their sweetness when fried in hot oil.
Nutritional content varies slightly depending on the maturity of the plantain. A green plantain, about 220 grams or about half a pound, is about 360 calories with no calories from fat. A ripe fruit is slightly less, about 340 calories. The 2 gram sugar content of the green fruit increases to about 10 grams in the mature plantain. Both are reported to be a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C.
The non-fat label is a bit misleading because many of the great plantain recipes call for deep frying.
A good source of recipes is the Turbana cooperative Web site. The company features dishes for all three plátano stages.
Among these are plantain pancakes, mashed green plantains, fried plantains and several desserts.
Those who love patacones should know that some gourmet stores sell a press to make uniform discs. Others sell a product to fabricate a small plátano shell into which condiments can be spooned.
At home, the once-fried quarters of plantain can be pressed with the bottom of a bottle or some other hard object. They need to be reduced to about a quarter inch before deep frying again.