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Simple Sides: Grilled Plantains & Sweet Potatoes

Image of Grilled Plantains & Sweet Potatoes
Children in this country consume an estimated 12 percent of their calories from fast food and 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car! The consequences are predictably unhealthy. Competing schedules in the day-to-day lives of a busy modern family make it difficult to share a home-cooked meal together, but not impossible. In fact, with a little planning, cooking together can become a fun family event and learning opportunity. This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with one uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe. The dishes will be centered on seasonal fresh produce items; the recipes will always contain tasks will allow even the youngest kitchen helper to contribute to the family meal. Parents should always read through each recipe carefully to judge the division of labor based on age and ability as well as to identify where can adult attention might be especially needed.
Image of recurring kids
Many of the recipes presented here will seem very basic, this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will provide the culinary foundation and confidence to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their experience and confidence in the kitchen develops. Melissa’s encourages parents to find the time to gather as a family unit at least once a” week for a dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. It’s a wonderful way to teach a child basic culinary skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever. “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing” – Julia Child.

It’s July, aka grilling season! So, I ordered one of Melissa’s Grilling Baskets to use as the primary ingredient source for this month’s recipe on my own BBQ. The fun part is not knowing what to expect as the fresh contents are always a collection of the finest quality fresh items selected from the day's harvests. A blind ingredient grilling challenge!
Image of Grilling Basket
The plantains in the basket inspired this tasty side dish recipe for the grill that does involve all members of the family since the initial cooking is done over an open flame, which an adult should accomplish before letting the kids take over the rest of the prep. The nice thing about this part of the procedure is that both the plantains and the sweet potatoes need little tending compared to whatever main protein is also sizzling on the same grill. Once cooked through and cooled, your kitchen helpers can do the rest.

Plantains are an interesting ingredient. Plantains are typically larger than bananas and have tougher and thicker skin. Bananas are only eaten when ripe and sweet either by themselves or in desserts; plantains are used when unripe and ripe, and are more often used in savory dishes. Bananas can be eaten raw or cooked, while plantains require cooking. Much like the tomato and unlike the banana, in most parts of the world they are eaten and cooked as if they were a vegetable. In bananas, more of the carbs come from sugars; in plantains, more of the carbs come from starch.

Most plantains at retail are sold solid green. Ripening can take up to 10 days; however, I took the traditional shortcut of sealing them tight in a paper bag with one apple—the fruit was almost fully ripened in three days. Ripe, meaning mostly yellow with some black spots. Actually, for dessert dishes, when a sweet plantain is required, the skin can be ripened to completely black skin and still have sweetly delicious, very edible fruit inside. This is a savory dish, so using yellow plantains is preferred; the two cooking stages in this recipe; first grilling and then pan-frying will also be a factor in developing a little sweetness along the way.

While Sweet Potatoes were not in the grill basket, the pairing with plantains can be found in many cuisines. The combination probably started in Africa with a traditional centuries-old plantain with cassava or yam mash. Using whole pieces of both is very common in both the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, cooked in plantain leaves. BTW, the phrase RED SWEET POTATO may be new to most consumers, who would automatically assume that I really meant “yams.” Actually, the word “yam” is a marketing moniker invented by retailers simply to distinguish the red variety of sweet potato from the varieties with a white interior. Botanically, ALL ARE SWEET POTATOES. In fact, if one ordered a “yam” in Africa or the Caribbean, a huge (5-10 pounds) tuber called a Yami will be served—eat up!

Once the two main components have been prepared, it is just a matter of pan-frying with the other supporting flavor. Of course, the supervising adult should oversee this process; however, as I have urged many times in this blog, there comes a time for a chair to be pulled up in front of the stovetop for the first time. Yep, it means your child is growing up and a milepost in a child’s culinary education, which will continue right into their own kitchens. Oddly, I still remember the first time I was permitted to climb up on a chair in front of the stove; I even remember the dish! It was a kind of graduation—especially in view of all my younger, envious siblings!

Grilled Plantains & Red Sweet Potatoes
Serves: 4-6
Image of Grilled Plantains & Red Sweet Potatoes

From Melissa’s Grilling Basket:
3 medium-ripe plantains (yellow)
2 tablespoons garlic, minced

Other Components:
3 red sweet potatoes
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, stems removed
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Hatch Pepper Seasoning
4 tablespoons lemon juice

What the supervising adult should do:
Image of grilled plantains and sweet potatoes
Cook the whole plantains and sweet potatoes (skins still on) over a medium-high grill for 20-30 minutes or until the interior feels soft but not quite fork tender. Remove from heat and cool before turning over the rest of the prep to your kitchen helpers.

What the kids can do:
Image of peeled and sliced red sweet potatoes and plantains
Peel sweet potatoes—the skin should come off easily by hand or peeler; then cut in half lengthwise and slice into bite-size pieces. Peel plantains, cut fruit in half lengthwise, then slice into half-moons, roughly the thickness of a pinky finger.
Image of combined plantains with red sweet potatoes
Melt butter and oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Pan-fry plantains and sweet potato for about 10 minutes; then blend in the thyme, garlic and Hatch Pepper Seasoning and continue to cook for a few more minutes as the aroma of the garlic & thyme increases as their unique flavors are released.
Image of served red sweet potatoes and plantains
Remove from heat, stir in the fresh lemon juice. Serve and enjoy!

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