Did you know that the three most popular fruits in the United States are the apple, the orange, and banana? That is probably not a surprise. But did you know that the banana plant is not actually a fruit tree? The banana plant is technically classified as an herb, making it the largest fruit-bearing herb on the planet. That’s a lot of herb.
Another fun fact: cut a ripe, peeled banana in half crosswise, and squeeze one of the cut ends between your thumb and forefinger. It will break into three equal-sized portions, like three slices of a pie. I guess it’s the mathematician in me, but the geometry in this has always amazed me. It shouldn’t be overripe though—I can’t tell you how messy that turns out.
IMHO (In my humble opinion), bananas, as the commercial states, ARE indeed quite possibly the world’s most perfect food. Consider, as evidence, the following:
- They are easy to grow. In fact, once you have an established banana tree, they are quite hard to kill—even if you want to. I have the least green thumb I know of, but couldn’t seem to get rid of a 6 foot diameter banana tree in the middle of my back yard.
- They hold up well to the time and rigors of being shipped to people and places that do not grown them;
- They grow all year-long, making for a consistent food source;
- They come in their own packaging, making for convenient carry along snacks
- They are packed with nutrition—iron, vitamin C, and potassium to name a few. Two bananas provide enough sugar energy and vitamin B-6 to keep you going through a heavy workout; and they contain enough fiber to keep you, well, “going”
- They are versatile;
Yes, versatile. Although most people in the United States have tried only a few types of bananas, there are hundreds of varieties throughout the world. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors, and have different flavors and uses. Some of the most common varieties available in the United States are:
The type with which most Americans are familiar is the yellow Cavendish. This banana is about 10 inches long and 1 ½ inches in diameter. It is eaten when ripe and yellow, and is typically used for baking when it is overripe and has softened.
The mini-bananas and baby bananas are also available in most American regions. Although they may actually be comprised of several different varieties, they are marketed as either baby, or mini versions. The mini version is about 4 inches long, and the baby version is 2-3 inches long. Both taste more or less like their bigger cousin, the Cavendish, and are usually eaten out of hand.
Like the mini-bananas, the apple banana is about 4 or 5 inches long, and is eaten out of hand. Like the name implies, this banana has a slight apple flavor to it.
The burro banana is the short, fat cousin of the Cavendish. It is typically eaten out of hand, and has the same creamy banana flavor with hints of lemon. When green, they are used similarly to the way that plantains are.
Red Bananas are the underappreciated red-headed step-child on the American banana scene. The flesh is a pink, salmon-y color, and the flavor has raspberry undertones. They may be eaten ripe as a snack, but are also used in savory dishes in the same way that plantains are. As an added benefit, these bananas are richer in beta-carotene and vitamin C than the Cavendish.
The alternative banana that you have probably seen most often, is the Plantain, although you might not have realized it. Remember that abnormally large, green banana that you saw sitting next to the ripe bananas in the produce aisle? The one you thought was a freak of nature? Well, it wasn’t. The plantain is a mainstay of many diets, including the Caribbean, Latin and South American, Sub-Saharan African, and other sub-equatorial diets. Although it may be eaten out of hand when fully ripe, this banana has a lower sugar content than most other bananas, and is most commonly served cooked. A green plantain is very starchy, and not sweet, making it very much like a potato. In fact, many of the preparations of green plantain are very similar to that of potatoes—thin sliced and fried as chips, cooked and mashed with garlic, or cooked into stews for example.
Tostones (serves 4)
(Fried plantain patties—think of them as Latin/Caribbean hash brown patties)
- 2 large green plantains
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 3 teaspoons salt
- Oil for frying
- Caribbean Sparkle, optional (1 T salt, 1 t cumin, 1 t ground red pepper, mixed), to taste
Green plantain has a tough peel that is hard to remove—follow the instructions below and peel after cutting into rounds.
Place the crushed garlic and salt into a bowl with 2 cups of water. Stir to mix.
Run a knife down the length of each plantain, cutting through the peel, but not too deep into the fruit. Cut the plantain into 1” thick rounds.
Pour oil to a depth of ½ “ in a large skillet, and heat over medium high heat. Place the rounds in the skillet, and cook until golden on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn over and cook the other side until golden. Remove from oil to drain on wire rack or paper towel. Repeat until all rounds have been browned.
Place each round on a cutting board or plate, and using the back of a metal spatula or other hard flat surface, press each round into a flat disc, about ¼” thick. Dip into garlic water quickly, and allow excess water to drip back into bowl (to avoid spattering), and then place gently back into hot oil. Cook until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove from oil, and sprinkle with salt or Caribbean Sparkle, if desired. Serve as a side dish to your favorite Latin or Caribbean dishes, or as an appetizer.
Some people serve them with a dip, such as a lime crema or avocado dip, but I like them all by themselves. So crispy and delicious.
Caramel-Caramel Tarts With Walnut Short Crust
Makes 2 large tarts, or 8-10 small ones
For the Walnut Pate Brisee crust:
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup walnut halves or pieces
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 sticks butter, cold, cut into 1” chunks
- ½ cup water
Place flour, walnuts, salt and sugar in your food processor. Pulse a few times until the walnuts are chopped into pieces the size of peas. Add the butter, a few chunks at a time, pulsing after each addition. After all butter has been included, pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Using the feeder on your processor, pour a little bit of water at a time, pulsing several times, after each addition, until the mixture just comes together into a stiff dough. Chill mixture for 20 minutes.
Roll out on floured surface, and cut into rounds to fit your tart pans (large or small). Place gently into pans, and press into place, trimming and shaping as desired. Prick bottom of crusts with fork, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden. Cool completely before filling.
You may also use your favorite homemade custard recipe, but I am including this one for easy preparation.
- 1 4-oz package vanilla flavored instant pudding and pie filling
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 8-oz brick cream cheese, softened
In a mixer, beat pudding mix and milk until completely mixed. Beat in the cream cheese until smooth. Pour into baked tart shells. You may have some leftover—if you do, eat it with a spoon—nobody is watching!
Top with Caramelized Baby Bananas, below, and fresh whipped cream.
Caramelized Baby Bananas:
- 10-12 baby bananas, peeled, whole
- 1 stick butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cream
Heat butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add brown sugar and whisk until smooth. Add bananas, and cook gently for a few minutes, until mixture is very bubbly. Turn to coat well. Gently stir in cream. Cook for 2 more minutes, and remove from heat. Arrange bananas over tarts, and drizzle with caramel sauce.
Top with sweetened whipped cream, if desired.