Ingredients

Banana and plantain

General Description: Bananas (Musa paradisiacal and Musa sapientum) are long, thin tropical fruits with pliable skin and soft, creamy flesh. Bananas originated in Southeast Asia, where wild bananas were known as monkey bananas. They reached China, Africa, and the Pacific Islands about 2,000 years ago. The Arabs cultivated bananas but they remained unknown to Europeans until around 1400, when Portuguese sailors brought them from West Africa to the Canary Islands, where they are still an important crop. The Spanish brought banana roots to the New World in 1516 and they spread quickly throughout Latin America.

Modern bananas fall into two main categories: “sweet” or eating bananas, and cooking bananas, also called plantains. They grow in large bunches or “hands,” which are formed from the double rows of female flowers on each plant. Each flower spike produces 50 to 300 individual fruits or “fingers.”

Plantains start out starchy and hard and ripen to soft and sweet. In Spanish, green or starchy plantains are known as plátanos, partially ripe plantains are known as pintos (painted), and fully ripened black-spotted yellow plantains are known as maduros (mature). There are two groups of plantains, which probably have a common origin: the horn plantain and the French plantain.

There are hundreds of varieties of bananas, including the burro banana, which is 3 to 5 inches (8–13 cm) long with squared sides and a lemon flavor when ripe; the Cavendish banana, the most common in the U.S., with sweet smooth fruit and yellow skin; the Guinea Verde, a yellow Cavendish used as a starch much like plantains; the Ice Cream banana, with blue skin and a creamy texture; the Macabu banana, which turns black when fully ripe, with firm sweet pulp and a creamy texture; the Manzano, a short, chubby banana that is black when ripe and whose dry flesh has the flavors of strawberries, apples, and bananas; the Niño banana, a mild, sweet, finger-sized banana; and the red banana, 4 to 6 inches (10–15 cm) long with maroon to dark purple skin and sweet, sticky, orange-tinted flesh.

Season: Bananas and plantains are available year-round.

Purchase: Choose plump bananas with no green at their tips but flecked with tiny brown specks (a sign of ripeness). Choose plump, unshriveled plantains at any stage from green to black. When the plantain is ripe it will be dark brown or black, soft, and deep in color, with transparent rather than opaque flesh.

Avoid: Mushy or damaged bananas and damaged plantains will be unappetizing.

Storage: Store bananas at cool room temperature for 4 to 5 days, during which time they will continue to ripen. To hasten ripening, enclose bananas in a brown paper bag. Do not refrigerate, or they will turn black. Store plantains at room temperature for 4 to 5 days.

Preparation:

Bananas:

  1. Snap back the stem end and pull the peel away from the banana; a strip of the thick skin will come away easily. Pull off the remaining skin.
  2. Remove the dark nub at the bottom end.
  3. Cut away any mushy brown areas, if desired.

Note: Cut bananas just before using, because they discolor quickly. Dip in a mixture of lemon juice and water to prevent darkening.

Plantains: Peel as for bananas, above. If it is difficult to snap back the neck, slice off the stem and cut lengthwise slits in the skin through to the flesh to facilitate peeling.

Serving Suggestions: Mash ripe bananas or plantains and add to bread pudding, pancake batter, muffin batter, or banana bread. Deep-fry or broil Niño bananas and top with sour cream and caviar. Add sliced bananas to cereal or fruit salads. Purée bananas into smoothies with other tropical fruits. Toss cut lengths of starchy plantains with oil or butter and roast in a hot oven. Slice pintos diagonally into thick sections and pan-fry till golden brown, seasoning with spices such as sugar and cinnamon, or curry and lime.

Flavor Affinities: Bananas and ripe plantains: Allspice, butter, cinnamon, cloves, coconut, ice cream, rum, sugar. Starchy plantains: bacon, chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, curry, garlic, lime, pork cracklings, salsa, sour orange.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com