My Puerto Rican grandmother stockpiled plantains in the pantry of our New York City apartment like preserves in a root cellar. While they were green and as starchy as potatoes, she’d double‑fry them for tostones or pound them into a mash with flavorful fats. As they transitioned to yellow, softening slightly and taking on a touch of sweetness, she’d grate them into soups or turn them into dumplings. But for me, the real prize came days or even weeks later, when their skins were mostly black and their flesh creamy and sweet: She’d fry up a batch of plátanos maduros fritos (fried ripe plantains) to make the meaty casserole called pastelón. Then she’d layer the caramelized slices with a swath of picadillo—ground beef simmered in sofrito and tomato sauce and studded with olives, capers, and pimentos—drizzle beaten egg over the top, and bake the casserole in the oven, where its flavors would meld.
More elaborate preparations featuring plantains layered with meat and other fillings exist across Latin America, but I can’t imagine any that would make me feel happier or more replete than pastelón. Every Puerto Rican family has their own version of the dish, whose name translates as “big pie.” Here is mine, based largely on my grandmother’s, but with tweaks to ensure that its savory-sweet flavors pop.
Latin Cooking’s Top Banana
In the United States, the dessert banana dominates supermarket shelves, but in the Caribbean Basin and Latin America, its starchier botanical cousin, the plantain, proliferates. The fruit is so integral to the cuisines of these areas, “we think of it as ours,” noted the Cuban-born chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla, author of the award-winning exploration of Latin cooking Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America (2012). In truth, the plantain is an import that originated in Asia; traveled to Africa; and then made its way to the Americas in the 1500s, where enslaved Africans helped spread it across the region. The reasons the fruit took hold are simple: The plantain not only grows readily in tropical climates but also has the rare quality of being edible at all stages of ripeness. And culinarily, its transformation from dense and starchy to plush and sweet offers unlimited possibility. This cooking banana can be used at discrete points in its ripening cycle or combined at different stages for a specific effect—to blend a firmer texture with a creamier one, say, or a nuttier taste with a fruitier one. “The sky’s the limit,” said Presilla. –Amanda Agee
Color is one way to determine ripeness, but assessing texture is also important, because overly cool temperatures can cause darkening but slow ripening.
Intensely green. Mildly nutty with no hint of sweetness. Should feel firm and full in their skins.
Yellowy green, with a few dark spots. Faintly sweet. Should yield slightly to the touch.
Heavily to entirely blackened. Fruity and sweet. Should be soft like a fully ripe avocado.
STORING AND RIPENING PLANTAINS
Stored at cool room temperature, green plantains won’t change color for at least a week. They become half-ripe after several more days and ripe to very ripe a week or so later. To accelerate ripening, place the plantains in a paper bag.
Plantain skins are tougher than those of other bananas, and they can be hard to remove, even after their outer layer has thinned with ripening. This method can help.
1. Cut off both ends of plantain. With tip of paring knife, make 1 cut lengthwise through skin, taking care not to cut through to fruit.
2. Pull away skin from side versus lengthwise. If plantain is green, you may need to use a spoon to help lift skin from fruit.
SLICING PLANTAINS FOR PASTELÓN
Halving the plantains into two shorter lengths makes it easier to slice thin planks for the casserole; shorter slabs are also easier to manipulate during frying.
1. Using large paring knife, cut plantain in half crosswise.
2. Slice plantain halves lengthwise into 3 pieces.
Fried Sweet Plantains and Piquant Picadillo
There is only one thing essential to pastelón: The fruit must be very ripe so that it has the requisite softness and sweetness to provide a counterpoint to the picadillo. Typically, the peeled plantains are each sliced along their length into planks, but I found it challenging to make even slices with such long cuts. Instead, I first halved the plantains crosswise and then sliced each half lengthwise into three thin slabs. When I slipped these stubbier pieces into a skillet with hot oil (3/4 cup did the trick—just enough to allow them to move freely), they were also easier to flip during cooking. Once the plantains darkened to a deep golden brown and crisped at the edges, I drained them on paper towels. A little salt and they were good to go.
On to the picadillo: I wanted a casserole that didn’t taste overly rich, so I opted for 90 percent lean ground beef. For the sofrito, I pulsed onion and garlic in a food processor with plenty of cilantro, its grassy-citrusy cousin culantro, and a musky Cubanelle pepper. But instead of sautéing this flavor base and then cooking the raw meat in it with tomato sauce, I browned the beef in the skillet first to amplify its meatiness and then further boosted its savory flavor by sprinkling it with a healthy dose of sazón, a heady Puerto Rican mix of salt, dried garlic, onion, black pepper, oregano, cumin, and achiote. I removed the browned beef from the pan, added my sofrito, and sautéed it for several minutes before stirring in tomato sauce (the canned kind is perfect) and simmering the mixture long enough for a flavorful fond to begin forming on the bottom and edges of the pan. I added the beef back to the skillet with a couple tablespoons of alcaparrado, a jarred combination of green olives, capers, and pimentos that gives the island’s version of picadillo its characteristic punch. Some cooks chop the mixture, but I love the tangy burst of biting into a meaty olive, so I left it whole. I cooked the picadillo until the sauce tightened and clung to the meat. A pour of white vinegar brought all the sweet, savory, and vibrant flavors into focus.
Putting Together the Pastelón
I fanned half the fried plantains across a baking dish and, after some experimentation, poured beaten eggs over just this bottom layer instead of the whole assembly, which gave the casserole a sturdier structure for lifting slices out of the pan. I smoothed on the picadillo, shingled the remaining plantains over the top, and debated the final question: cheese or no cheese? The most traditional versions, including my grandmother’s, eschew it, but I decided on a smattering of shredded Monterey Jack. After 20 minutes in the oven, it melted oozily over the velvety-soft plantains and tender bits of beef, making this already ridiculously good dish even more comforting and appealing.