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I grew up around a lot of green plantains. I didn’t even know they ripened, because a plantain in our house never lasted long enough to grow sweet and soft. We ate them while they were hearty, dense, and starchy. In South America plantains are often fried, but we always had them stewed or braised, in thick curries or light broths. This braise is inspired by the many I had growing up.
I start by prepping the plantains. Unripe, green plantains have a tough and thick skin that can’t be peeled like that of a banana. There are different techniques to get around it, but my preferred method for peeling plantains is to first trim them into smaller, more manageable pieces, then stand each section on its end and slice off the peel, in a process similar to cutting orange suprèmes. After peeling, I cut the plantains into quarter-inch planks and submerge them in a light brine of one teaspoon of salt per quart of water. This brine prevents the cut plantains from oxidizing, which not only ruins their visual allure but also muddies their flavor.
Then I move on to the herbed cashew milk. Cashews are my favorite nuts to cook with—they break down easily without soaking, and a little goes a long way to add richness and body. Their mild flavor works well with a variety of dishes, from savory to sweet. I don’t think of cashew milk simply as a vegan alternative to dairy, but also as a way to add creaminess to any dish while keeping its flavor and body light.
For this dish, I make an herb-spiked cashew milk by blending toasted cashews with scallion, cilantro, and water—but any mix of soft herbs can work. This is a great way to use up leftover herbs that are on their last legs. If you’re using a high-powered blender, the milk will become smooth and velvety without much effort. With a standard blender, it’s best to add the water gradually—start with just enough to make a smooth paste, then slowly incorporate the rest. A quick pass through a strainer will catch any rogue bits, but the long braising time will soften the nuts sufficiently, so you can also choose to skip this step if you like.
I then wilt sliced garlic in a saucepot, along with matchsticks of fresh ginger and turmeric, before adding ground cumin and black pepper. Giving the aromatics a chance to bloom in the oil before simmering them in the sauce releases fat-soluble flavor compounds that will perfume the entire dish.
I finally add the cashew milk, along with the prepped and drained plantains. The milk will initially look thin and watery, but cashew milk thickens significantly once cooked, and it'll simmer into a thick gravy. I simmer the plantains, covered, until they become tender, stirring every 10 minutes to ensure that the starchy cashew milk doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan. Once the plantains have cooked through, I finish the braise with a touch of sugar to round out the flavors, and a squeeze of fresh lime to brighten the dish.
Served with a side of rice, this dish makes a hearty and filling vegan entrée, but it’s also a great side for grilled fish or shrimp.