Baked plantains with queso are the Puerto Rican side dish Jacqueline Biscombe makes most when out-of-towners come for dinner. Plantains are as Boricua as it gets, she explains, and she takes pride serving this family recipe to welcome friends to her island.
”Plantains are a staple at dinner parties because we’re pretty sure most people are going to like them,” Jacqueline says. ”They’re a perfect side for meats and poultry and vegetarian dishes. They’re also great with omelettes.” In fact, they’re great with just about everything. ”Anything you can do with a potato, you can do with a plantain, with different results and taste, so it’s very nice.”
Jacqueline is one of my mother’s oldest and closest friends. They’ve known each other all their lives, growing up in the same Puerto Rico neighborhood, Condado. They went to the same elementary and high school and she stood in my mother’s wedding. Jacqueline is my unofficial madrina or godmother.
She is also a tremenda cook. With thoughtful research and deep respect for the island’s heritage, Jacqueline has planned dozens of official dinners for Puerto Rican academic and cultural events. My mom and their circle of friends admire her kitchen skills.
So when Jacqueline cooks: I pay attention. Why are plantains and Puerto Ricans so extra-connected?, I ask her. Lots of other Caribbean and Latin American places grow this fruit, too. ”The plantain is very tied to our culture,” says Jacqueline. ”We have the phrase here: We Puerto Ricans have la mancha del plátano: the plantain stain—which is hard to remove.” Handling plantains leaves an orangy brown residue on your hands and anything it touches: clothes, the kitchen counter—just like being born on the island leaves a mark on Puerto Ricans that can never be washed away.
Puerto Ricans’ Love Affair with Plantains
Jacqueline likes to serve plantains at her dinner parties because they are the taste of Puerto Rican itself. They’re comforting and filling. They’re earthy and authentic. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also so simple to make. “Everyone likes them. They’re so easy to cook, they come together fast. They’re handy to have around, and they go well with everything,” Jacqueline ticks off the muchas razones plantains are a Boricua staple. Plus, plantains are something most Puerto Rican homecooks make sure is stocked. ”They keep for a long time, and you can use them at all the different stages of ripening.”
This dish—baked plantains are somewhat new to me, I’m more of a maduros y tostones person—is Jacqueline’s favorite way to eat plantains. She got the recipe from her former husband’s mother. ”It’s very easy. You cut off the two tips. You make a slit across the peel, end to end, but not all the way through. After it’s cooked, you fill that open gap with grated cheese. Parmesan or cheddar. It’s very good with Edam cheese too, but since I usually have grated Parmesan, I use that. Add the cheese, and it’s done. The heat of the plantain will do the job of melting the cheese.”
Of all the viandas, or starchy tropical roots vegetables and tubers, that Puerto Ricans use in their cooking, this is Jacqueline’s favorite. ”I like breadfruit a great deal, but it’s not very accessible. The plantain is.” Which is why Jacqueline makes this dish all the time—whether or not she has dinner guests. At least twice a week, ”so about 100 times a year,” she smiles. ”Maybe a little more.”