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February 15, 2006

Crazy about plantains


Just ordered the E-Z Peeler, Tostones E-Z Smasher, and cookbook from Edwin Rodriquez's website Caribbean Food Implements, which includes video demos. Read the story in the NYTimes (2/2/06), complete with video.

An inventor-entrepreneur's adventures in plantains

New York Times News Service

Six years ago I received a call from a man named Edwin Rodriguez, an unemployed janitor. He had invented a plantain peeler and wanted to know if I would like to see it. A few days later Rodriguez's prototype arrived in the mail. It was carved from wood and painted green and lemon yellow like a child's toy - and was otherwise the most phallic cooking tool I'd ever seen. I quickly tucked it into my desk drawer.

But when I tried it out in the privacy of my home kitchen, it worked ingeniously. There was a blade for trimming off the ends of the fruit and cutting seams into the peel without harming the inner plantain. And at one end was a spade-shaped wood piece designed to mimic a thumbnail - the implement that, in the absence of a plantain peeler like Rodriguez's, is normally is used to wedge under the peel and lift it in strips. Peeling a green plantain is not like peeling a banana. The skin sticks, and if you're not careful you can easily split the fruit's flesh; you need a sharp paring knife and good knife skills.

I called Rodriguez to tell him I was impressed by his invention and wanted to write about it.

"Where can you buy it?" I asked.
"Oh, but we don't have a manufacturer," he said. With regret, I explained that it would be hard to write about a product that readers couldn't experience for themselves, and encouraged him to call back once it was in production.

One morning this past October, a man called and exclaimed: "It's Edwin! I have my plantain peeler ready!"

"Um, who?" I said. "And what?"
"Remember? The plantain peeler - I made the plantain peeler!"

Two weeks later I went to East 108th Street to meet the inventor.

Rodriguez, dressed in a blue sweatshirt and a pressed oxford-cloth shirt, met me on the sidewalk of a rundown block; he was relaxed, like someone who is taking it easy after a successful career, not someone on the verge of starting up a company.

He escorted me to his E-Z Peeler office on the second floor of a nearby tenement, where he introduced me to his wife of 37 years, Alba. The immaculate office featured a packing area in the center stacked with the first shipment of 3,400 peelers and a kitchen in the back, where Rodriguez cooks lunch every day for himself and the three people who work with him. "It's too expensive to go out for lunch," he said. More important, as I discovered later, he is an excellent cook.

Without money or connections it had taken Rodriguez, 58, more than 12 years to move his E-Z Peeler from concept to manufacture. The process began in 1990 when Rodriguez, who had grown up in Puerto Rico, was laid off from Public School 117 in East Harlem, where he had been a janitor.

"I said, I have to go do something," he explained. "I thought, I can cook pork." So he built a grill out of an old oil barrel, bought charcoal and, during the warm months, began spit-roasting pigs in an empty lot in East Harlem, selling it to people in the neighborhood. In the winter months, he fiddled with designs for new kitchen tools. (His wife, who works at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, paid most of the bills.)

One day, a friend - "a beautiful lady with nice nails" - complained to him that peeling plantains at the restaurant where she worked was ruining her hands. It occurred to him that there was a natural market for a special tool in Hispanic restaurants and homes, where plantains are a pillar of the cuisine.

In 1993, Rodriguez started working on a prototype, carving it by hand from a piece of pine. Eventually he knocked on the first of many doors.

He showed up on the doorstep of El Plastics, a factory in the Bronx that made plastic displays. The engineer in charge took a liking to Rodriguez and decided to help him.

"They gave me time," he said, "and I could go into my little shop and make it better and take it back to them. And finally they say: 'OK, you're ready for a blueprint. No more freebies. You have to pay.' " He had saved a little money, and for $2,700 he got the blueprint.

In 1995, Rodriguez got a patent, and in 1999 he entered the Hammacher Schlemmer Search for Invention contest, in which the E-Z Peeler was a semifinalist.

Rodriguez also subscribed to Inventors' Digest and studied it as if it were the Bible. "It said one product is not enough," Rodriguez recalled. "So I said, 'O.K., a tostonera."

A tostonera is used to flatten once-fried plantain slices before they are fried a second time and become tostones. To get the design just right, he headed to the kitchen, flattening and frying, flattening and frying. And this led to his third product: a cookbook, which, naturally, he wrote and illustrated. The book, "Loco con los Platanos" ("Crazy for Plantains"), is filled with precise recipes and instructional photographs for dishes as varied as chicken and rice, salt cod salad and plantain soup.

One night, while Rodriguez was having a drink at a bar on East 108th Street, the Hammacher Schlemmer sequence ran on the History Channel. He struck up a conversation with the bar's owner, Tito Santiago, who thought so much of his invention that he decided to invest in Rodriguez's fledgling company and become his partner. Together they formed Caribbean Food Implements, which occupies the second floor of the building. Santiago has since closed the bar to make room for a demonstration space for the E-Z Peeler.

When the East Harlem Business Capital Corp. granted Rodriguez a loan of $10,000 (it eventually added $20,000 more), it was time to get the E-Z Peeler manufactured. He was determined to have it made in the United States - "so I could have that label 'Proudly made in the USA'" - but the costs were prohibitive.

Another nonprofit organization, the Senior Core of Retired Executives, put him in touch with a retired factory owner who is an expert on injection molding, the plastic-forming technique needed to manufacture the E-Z Peeler. "He said, 'Listen, take your project to China,' " Rodriguez explained.

He has since sold 350 sets of peelers, tostoneras (which can also be used to form plantain slices into cups, for stuffing) and books (which come in either Spanish or English).

The E-Z Peeler is $12.95 at Caribbean Food Implements, 181 East 108th Street (second floor), (212) 348-8181, or at www.lococonlosplatanos.com; a set with the tostonera, the book and an E-Z Peeler is $29.95 at Caribbean Food Implements or $34.95 online, including shipping.

Adapted from "Loco con los Platanos" by Edwin Rodriguez (Caribbean Food Implements)

Time: 1 hour
For the ajilimojili sauce:
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
5 Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and minced
18-ounce can Spanish-style tomato sauce
Juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sazon sin achiote (without annatto) seasoning (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon honey
Hot sauce (optional)
For the tostones:
4 cups vegetable oil, for frying
3 green plantains
For the shrimp:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds medium shrimp, shelled and deveined, each cut into 4 pieces

1. Prepare ajilimojili sauce: Place garlic, peppers and tomato sauce in a medium sieve set over a bowl, and mash with a spoon or ladle to push them through. Repeat twice more. (Alternatively, use a food processor to mince garlic and peppers, and blend with tomato sauce, but the traditional method provides a better texture.)

2. Transfer to a saucepan over low heat, and mix in the lemon juice, salt, sazon (if using), olive oil, butter and honey. If desired, season with hot sauce to taste. Simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to cool. Transfer to a sealed glass container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

3. Prepare tostones: Place oil in a high-rimmed skillet, and heat to 250 degrees. While oil heats, peel and cut plantains into 1-inch medallions. Fry medallions until lightly golden on all sides, 6-8 minutes. Remove from oil, and immediately flatten with a tostonera or a kitchen mallet until about 1/4 inch thick. Increase temperature of oil to 350 degrees, and fry a second time until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and sprinkle with salt to taste; keep warm.

4. Prepare shrimp: Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, and sauti 1 minute. Add shrimp and 1/3 cup ajilimojili sauce. (Reserve remaining sauce for another use.) Mix well, and simmer until shrimp are opaque, 6-8 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Serve shrimp with warm tostones.

Yield: 4 servings.

Posted by BKG at February 15, 2006 7:04 AM