I’ve just realized that Elton John is responsible for my knowing this recipe for a smoothly sublime sweet plantain soup with pineapple-orange salsa we served at a dinner party this past Friday night.
It was one October several years ago. Sir Elton had just started playing live in Las Vegas and LL and I decided to go. I kept the notes I scribbled bar napkins from our Border Grill lunch the day of the show. They say we sat outside in the shade on the taupe and cream slate patio at a square table fitted with a textured orange and red patterned tablecloth. From the bar, Pam sent over a complementary shot of El Tesoro; from the kitchen, Melody brought a silver filigree basket heaped with warm chips and a pewter tray holding three salsas. One was a thin green tomatillo sauce, as bright tasting as its color. One was sunny red, thick with tomatoes, and laced with garlic. The last one, my favorite, was smoky, spicy, and deep red, more of a chili sauce. We moved on to appetizers: ahi ceviche tossed with jicama, red onion, pineapple, and lime juice, served in an oversized martini glass rimmed with burgundy paprika. Then tiny tamales stuffed with corn and cheese, then silver dollar-sized tostadas colorfully topped with shredded chicken, bright green guacamole, and ruby red julienned beets. Bright orange squash blossoms stuffed with crunchy onions and corn and a tangy melted white cheese. Savory plantain empanadas slightly crunchy, slightly sweet, and oozing with cheese and peppers. LL went to take a quick call and I sat sketching the willow trees and pools that the patio overlooks and listening to funky Mexican pop music coming from indoors. He arrived back at the table at the same time as our entree – carne asada tacos, small corn tortillas filled with carmelized onion, pico de gallo, and beef so tender and tangy it fell apart in my mouth.
We were so inspired by our meal that we bought both cookbooks Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken had for sale at the restaurant, Cooking with Too Hot Tamales and City Cuisine. Chef Milliken was working that afternoon and graciously brought the books out to our table, inscribing both of them at our request to Kid One who was back at home with Grandma, “Best of luck. Have fun, most importantly – Provecho!”
Recently I’ve been experimenting with recipes in Too Hot Tamales. Each one I’ve tried so far has been REALLY good, each a tasty combination of smoky, tangy, heat, and sweet, and I’ve enjoyed learning to use unfamiliar (to me) ingredients like paprika, poblanos, and . . . plantains.
It’s the plantains I’ve gotten slightly obsessed with. Musa paradisiaca. Platanos machos. A starchy, less-sweet relative of the banana that is never eaten raw. A fruit that is unripe when you see them when green, given a shelf near the bananas, mangos, and kiwi at the local Safeway, and sweetest when the yellow skin starts looking black and ickily rotten. I ate my first plantain on my Jamaican honeymoon with ackee and callaloo and jerk chicken and it was one of the best things I’ve every eaten.
Too Hot Tamales incorporates plantains into many of its recipes. That sweet plantain soup kept catching my eye. Chefs Milliken and Feniger sell it well in the book, describing it as “a lovely soup” that’s “surprisingly easy to make for such a glamorous dish.” It actually is easy to make; you just brown plantain slices in butter, add sliced leeks, diced parsnips, a bunch of chicken stock. Cook until tender, puree the whole batch, then add cream. The recipe also calls for a garnish of pineapple, orange, ginger, serrano pepper, and lime salsa.
The first time I made it I skipped the cream and the salsa and served it to a bunch of kids playing at my house. They loved it – without the cream and garnish it’s an enticing pale yellow-orange color and is pleasantly sweet without seeming sugary.
I made it again last weekend for that dinner party. I thought our guests, who included an old friend who recently got in touch with me after way too many years, deserved lovely and glamorous food. Said Friend is vegetarian now, so in order to be inconspicuously accommodating, I substituted vegetable stock for the chicken stock it called for. Very simple. And delicious; I could have doubled the recipe and not had leftovers.
So thank you, Sir Elton. Were it not for you deciding to play Las Vegas, I might never have gotten to the Border Grill, never have purchased Too Hot Tamales, never have become slightly obsessed with plantains, and never made this lovely soup for dinner guests last Friday night. (Oh, and your show was great, too!)
Here’s a link to the recipe for you to try. I highly recommend!