Alan Tangren: The humble banana
Dear Alan: Any tips on choosing a good banana?
Alan: Bananas are such a common presence in grocery stores we don’t think much about them. But they are the most popular fruit in North America; available every day of the year. It may surprise you that bananas have become the most widely available organically grown fruit.
Cultivated bananas are hybrids of several wild species native to southern India and Southeast Asia. They are widely grown and eaten in tropical areas around the world; often planted and tended by small farmers for local consumption.
We don’t often see any of the varieties that are common in other parts of the world. The most popular dessert banana in Latin countries is the Manzano, or “apple” banana. It is short and stubby and very sweet. Other varieties of sweet bananas may have red skin as well.
A formerly widely grown variety, Gros Michel, proved to be susceptible to disease and had to be grown with increasing amounts of chemical intervention. It had thick skin and long, tapering fruits.
These days, most bananas we see are the Cavendish variety, which has slightly shorter, blunt-ended fruit. It has better resistance to diseases and insects, and the plants are less affected by wind damage. They have thinner skin and are more susceptible to bruising, so they have to be treated carefully.
And let’s not forget plantains, a starchy, potato-like banana relative and a staple in many tropical areas. Plantains are usually cooked before eating; steamed, fried or boiled.
Most bananas in our markets are imported by growers who have huge plantations in tropical areas, where they depend on chemicals to fight weeds, insects and diseases.
But there is an increasing number of smaller growers who are working with nature and each other to grow bananas organically, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America, for export to the U.S. and Europe.
In Costa Rica, farmers are inter-planting bananas with other tropical fruits, cacao trees and other food crops, simulating the diversity of the nearby rain forest and encouraging the work of beneficial insects.
In the Caribbean, growers are keeping the plants healthy by manually clearing out weeds and dead plants and improving the soil with compost.
The largest producers have taken notice of the success of these efforts and are cleaning up their act in response.
Bananas are picked and shipped when the skin is bright green. Over a period of weeks they gradually ripen as some of the starch changes to sugar. They are usually put out for sale while slightly green, when they are less susceptible to bruising.
Leaving them for several days at room temperature, uncovered, will finish the ripening job at home in several days. Fully ripe bananas will be completely yellow form stem to tip, with no green showing. This is the right stage for cooking. Wait a day or two longer for bananas that will be eaten out of hand, when brown flecks appear on the skin. They will be sweetest and have the best flavor.
At the market, avoid fruits with dark bruises already showing, or those that may have split skin, or mold showing at the stem end. Handle them gently at the store and when you get them home.
You may find apple bananas in specialty markets; short and stubby, about four inches long, with three distinct sides. Let them ripen until almost black, and they will reward you with flavor like a sweet apple. They are also very good for cooking.
Most bananas are probably eaten out of hand. They add sweetness and a nice texture to fruit salads as well.
For breakfast I like to add a few slices of banana to cereal. Or sprinkle over pancakes before they are turned. They can also be baked into waffles if you have a reliably non-stick waffle iron.
Banana cream pie was a childhood favorite of mine. Use a pre-baked shell and add banana slices to the bottom, cover with a layer of vanilla pudding or pastry cream and top with whipped cream. Let it all chill in the refrigerator for a bit before serving.
Plantains are larger and thicker than other bananas, and the ends are clearly tapered. The tough green peel will blacken as the fruit ripens, but plantains can be cooked at any stage, from green to brown to black. Ripe ones will be sweeter, but still very starchy.
Plantains are used pretty much like potatoes; peeled and cut up and boiled or added to stew. They can be steamed and mashed with butter or olive oil, or sliced and fried or deep-fried.
Plantains may be hard to peel, especially in the greenish yellow stage. Cut off both ends and cut the plantain in half through the middle. Score the skin lengthwise and pry away from the fruit.
Under-ripe plantains are often fried in a two-stage process, by slicing diagonally ½ inch thick and initially frying slowly in plenty of oil until just starting to turn brown. Remove from the oil and let them cool.
Place the slices between sheets of parchment and flatten each with the bottom of a heavy pot. Reheat the oil and finish cooking until deep golden brown. Drain and sprinkle with salt before serving warm.
Probably the most famous banana dessert. I’ve adapted this recipe from Martha Stewart.
1 pint vanilla ice cream
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dark-brown sugar
1/4 cup dark or gold rum
3 firm, ripe bananas, peeled; halved crosswise and then lengthwise
Set ice cream out to soften. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat butter and sugar over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until smooth and bubbly, four to six minutes. Add the rum carefully from a measuring cup; light and simmer until the flame subsides
Add bananas, and cook, gently swirling skillet, until bananas are just warmed through, one to two minutes. Scoop ice cream into bowls, and top with bananas and caramel sauce. Serve immediately.
Makes four servings.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Apricot lovers rejoice! We have arrived at the time of year when Blenheim apricots are in season.