Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup

The comforting perfume of warm sweet plantain is hard to resist. Traditionally used in Latin and Caribbean kitchens, these starchy fruits are treated like potatoes and served boiled, baked or fried. Sweet plantain is by definition an overripe green plantain. Sweet and musky, the cooked fruit has an aroma that is sap-like and syrupy, with a banana note that reveals a hint of tart lemon. Tostones, twice fried plantains served with a mashed garlic condiment, are familiar fare in Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods in New York City. Adventurous preparations of plantain that combine sweet and savory tastes are the domain of home cooks and chefs. If fortune smiles upon you, you will know one or the other.

Chef Orlando León, who currently runs the kitchen at The Restaurant at The Benjamin, introduced Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup at his former haunt, Mosaico. Chefs from well-known restaurants all over the city frequented the café for take-out, hoping to fill their bellies while deciphering Chef León’s multiregional Latin cuisine. The Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup was part of many not-so-stealth missions and tickled León, who continued to turn out dishes that put restaurants like Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill to shame.

Chef León’s warm and hospitable demeanor endeared him to patrons who would occasionally find him serving food to customers from behind the counter. Though León revealed his recipe for Pumpkin Cajeta Cheesecake in The New York Daily News (November 15, 2000), the Columbian native’s recipe for Lentil and Sweet Plantain Soup stayed in the confines of Mosaico. There was one caveat; it was up for discussion if you were a customer who fell in love with it.

The recipe for the version of Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup presented on Glass Petal Smoke is the result of a series of discussions with Chef Orlando León that took place when he was at Mosaico. Measurements and spices were not disclosed by the chef and tweaking liberties were taken with regard to spices and the addition of a vegetarian protein booster called TVP®. Lovers of hot sauce rejoice; the combination of heat with savory and sweet is addictive, lending a harmonious contrast.

Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Inspired by Chef Orlando León

· 16 ounce bag of green lentils, rinsed
· 3 sweet yellow plantain (sliced into discs)
· 2 large carrots (diced)
· 2 large stalks of celery (diced)
· ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
· 1 medium Spanish onion (chopped)
· 1 tablespoon olive oil
· 4 cups of water
· 2 quarts nonfat, low-sodium chicken stock
· 2 teaspoons ground cumin
· 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
· ½ teaspoon oregano
· 3 teaspoons epazote
· 2 cups texturized vegetable protein (aka TVP)
· plain nonfat yogurt for garnish

· Heat olive oil on a low flame. Add onions and celery and sauté until onions are clear.
· Add all dry spices, except epazote. Mix thoroughly, coating celery and onions with the spices.
· Slowly pour chicken stock and water into the pot. Add carrots and sweet plantain, gently mixing all of the ingredients together. Cover the pot and heat on a low to medium flame. Allow contents to simmer until they reach a gentle boil.
· When the soup begins to boil add lentils and epazote, reducing heat to a low setting and covering once again.
· Stir soup every half hour until 1½ hours have passed.
· Add TVP and simmer for an additional 40 minutes over low heat.
· When finished, serve with a dollop of plain nonfat yogurt and fresh cilantro. Heat lovers can add hot sauce to taste.

When shopping for the sweet variety of plantain, yellow and brown are the colors to seek out. Green plantain is starchy, its flavor akin to a mixture of squash and potato in flavor. Semi-ripe yellow plantain is sweet and grows more sugary as it turns brown. Brown plantain is sweetest and softer than yellow plantain when cooked. All sweet plantain should be firm to the touch.

TVP® is texturized vegetable protein made from soy flour and is available at most health food stores. It adds protein, isoflavones and fiber to the soup and keeps carbohydrates in check. TVP® has a cereal-like aroma in the bag, but has no flavor. It is a popular ingredient in vegetarian dishes as it absorbs the flavor of sauces and has a texture that lies somewhere between a meat and an al dente grain.

The Restaurant at The Benjamin is located at 125 East 50th Street in New York City. 212-715-2500.

Mosaico was opened in 1997 and is now closed.

Chef Bernard Ibarra, of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, shares his recipe for Sweet Plantain and Raisin Soup with Saffron on the California Raisin website.

Photo of plantains comes from Gourmet Sleuth, which has additional recipes for the fruit.