Cold, blustery January is National Soup Month, and it’s no surprise. There’s nothing like a frigid day (or a rainy one, or a flu-ridden one) to make you crave a steaming bowl of hearty comfort. Humans have been making soup since 6,000 B.C., probably since the moment one of our crafty ancestors figured out how to boil water. And in Latin America, where starchy tubers that require long cooking times have been staples for centuries, simmering soups are steeped in tradition.
Today we’re giving National Soup Month a decidedly Latin twist by celebrating with one of our most classic, beloved soups, using one of our most classic, beloved ingredients—the plátano. Like many Latin ingredients, plantains came to America from the old world. Originally from Africa, the plantain was taken to Spain by Portuguese traders; a Dominican friar, named Tomas de Berlanga, then famously brought them to Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic) in the early 16th century. They quickly spread throughout the Americas, becoming such a part of the new criollo identity that the fruit actually became an adjective: to be an aplatanado was to be as native as a plantain.
A few pointers for the below recipe: I used a half-ripe plantain because I like the sweetness, but if you’re more of a savory type go for a green plantain. (Isn’t the fact that plátanos can be consumed either totally green or totally black or anywhere in between one of the things that makes them great?) Most important: once the ingredients are tender, don’t puree them in a blender or food processor because the soup will get too thick and gluey. Ideally, use an old-school food mill, which is a little more trouble but very much worth it. You can also try an immersion blender; just be careful not to over blend. Last, the fried plantain chips (called mariquitas in Cuba, chifles in Peru and Ecuador, platanutres in Puerto Rico) are key adding texture to the soup. Make some extras and you’ll have a delicious snack too.
Sopa de plátano (plantain soup)
3 slices of bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 large celery rib, chopped
1 leek, white parts chopped
1/2 tsp ground cumin
4 half-ripe plantains, 3 peeled and sliced into 1-inch rounds; 1 peeled and cut into 1/16th-inch slices using a mandolin or the slicing side of a box grater)
6 to 8 cups of chicken broth
1 1/2 cup canola oil, for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 of a lime
1. In a large caldero or pot, render the bacon over medium heat. Remove the cooked bacon pieces and set aside keeping the fat in the pot. Add the chopped onions, carrots, celery, leaks and the cumin and sauté until the vegetables are tender and the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.
2. Add 1-inch plantain rounds to the pot and stir to combine with the rest of the vegetables. Add enough broth to cover the vegetables by about an inch. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until the plantains are tender.
3. Meanwhile, heat the canola oil in 12-inch sauté or fry pan to 375 degrees. (If you don’t have a frying or candy thermometer, you can check to make sure the oil is hot enough by placing the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. When it immediately starts to sizzle, the oil is ready.) Add the thin plantain slices to the sauté pan a few at a time and move them gently with a slotted spoon to prevent them from sticking to one another. Fry in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding the pan. Fry until they’re golden on both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove them from the pan using a slotted spoon, and place them onto a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.
4. When the vegetables in the soup pot are tender, set aside to cool down for a few minutes. Working in batches, puree the mixture in a food mill or using an immersion blender. (Avoid using a food processor or blender, which can make the plantains gluey.) Pour the pureed soup into a clean pot and reheat, adding a little more stock or water stock if it’s too thick. Stir in the bacon pieces. Season with salt and pepper and add lime juice, to taste.
4. To serve, ladle into soup bowls and top with fried plantain slices. Makes 6 to 8 servings.