We’re down to the last few weeks of winter. Rather than pine for the warmer weather that’s around the corner, why not take advantage of cooler temperatures to indulge in all that’s soothing and filling? Of all the Caribbean comfort foods, plantains are the most versatile. Even if you bring home too many, you’ll always find a use for them. Bought green to make tostones, they can easily become mofongo. Let them turn completely yellow, they can be steamed for a quick side dish of plátano sancochado. Forget them altogether until they’re almost completely black, they can still be fried up to make maduros.
With a few yellow plantains on hand at the perfect mid-point — sweetly ripe but still firm enough to be boiled — I decided to make a Puerto Rican pastelón de plátano maduro. Similar to a shepherd’s pie, the plantains are mashed together and layered with picadillo flavored with oregano, olives and capers, tomatoes and raisins then topped with cheese and baked. The lower layer absorbs the juices from picadillo while the cheese crust balances out the sweetness from the plantains.
Of course, there are a million variations on picadillo but two ingredients in particular, recao, a flat-leaf herb similar to cilantro, and ají dulce, a sweet pepper with a little heat that doesn’t bite, are worth seeking out. Widely available in Latin American markets, they give Puerto Rican sofrito its unique flavor and this dish a hint of warmth.
Pastelón de Plátano Maduro
1 pound lean ground beef
2 tablespoons annatto infused oil or canola oil*
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 ají dulce also known as ajicitos, chopped
1 medium white onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup peeled whole tomatoes, fresh or canned, crushed or roughly chopped
1/4 cup dry sherry
1-2 tablespoon raisins (optional)
1 whole bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 recao leaves (also known as culantro), finely chopped (cilantro can be substituted)
1/4 cup red roasted peppers, chopped
1/4 cup green olives, sliced
2 tablespoons capers
4-5 plantains, mostly yellow with some black spots, trimmed and cut in half
8 cups of water
2 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted plus more for greasing
1/2 cup queso blanco or parmesan, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13×9 inch baking dish and set aside.
To make the picadillo, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped green peppers, ajicitos and onions. Sauté until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the ground beef, breaking it up so there are no lumps. Stir in the tomatoes, sherry, bay leaf, salt, and pepper and raisins if using. Return to a low simmer, cover, and continue to cook an additional 15 minutes. Add the chopped recao, red peppers, olives and capers. Remove bay leaf, adjust seasoning to taste, and set aside.
Combine the water, salt and unpeeled plantains in a large pot. Bring to a high simmer, cover and continue to cook an additional 15 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. When cool enough to handle but still warm, peel, place in a large bowl and mash together. Stir in the melted butter to combine.
Add half the plantain mixture to the prepared baking pan and spread to form a smooth layer. Top with the prepared picadillo. Cover with remaining plantain mixture and sprinkle with shredded cheese.
Bake in preheated oven until it is warmed through and lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
*Notes: To make annatto oil, combine 1 cup of canola or olive oil and 1/4 cup of annatto seeds (also known as achiote) in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring often, until it turns bright orange, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow steep an additional 15-20 minutes. Drain and discard the seeds. The oil can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 months.
Still hungry? Find more recipes on Ana’s site – Hungry Sofia.