Is there anything that opens the mind more than travel? That gives us a different perspective and perhaps reframes the way we think of even simple things? It's true for me, particularly when it comes to food. The way people eat, the place of the meal in their culture and, of course, what is on the plate, always pulls my focus.
Several years ago, I took a trip to Rwanda and had my head turned inside out on something I usually take for granted - bananas. Rwanda is a country that is heavily populated and the people have little money. But the land is rich. The equator runs through it, yet the country sits at an elevation so high it rises above the heat. It is fertile and temperate and lush. Rwandans take full advantage, planting every square inch. There is not a plot that remains fallow, a median that isn't put to use. I felt as if they were cultivating everything short of the cracks in the sidewalk and maybe even those.
Rwandans grow starchy things. Foods that fill the belly. There were lots of cassavas, plenty of corn and endless bananas of all colors and shapes. So many bananas I thought they must be sick of them. After all, how many bananas can one knock back? (Turns out the answer is about seven hundred pounds per person annually!) But that was my narrow thinking showing. In my world, and most likely yours, too, I eat only one kind of banana. The Cavendish variety is the banana in nearly every grocery store, fruit basket and ice cream split in the western world. It is sweet and sizable and makes up the vast majority of all bananas sold on the international market.
But in Rwanda, as in many banana growing regions, many different cultivars are grown. Few are for eating out of hand. Most are starchy and meant for cooking; they are grilled or fried but most often stewed. They are also turned, with great frequency, into the odd tasting but ever-popular banana beer.
Bananas, having no growing season, provide a rotating harvest that feeds (and slakes the thirst of) a population of subsistence farmers who rely on their crops to feed their families and, hopefully, provide a little extra to bring to market or barter or sell to a neighbor. Not only is the fruit eaten, but the leaves are used as plates and cooking vessels. The stalks are stripped to be used as chairs, tables, place mats, coasters, baskets and wall coverings. Bananas are essential.
We could learn a lot from Rwanda. In commercial banana production, the ratio of organic waste to product is two to one, meaning that for every pound of marketable fruit that is harvested, two pounds of leaves, stems and other parts of the plant. comes off the tree and are disposed of. Additionally, between eight to twenty percent of bananas are rejected for not meeting quality standards and are also discarded. Researchers are studying ways that these waste products can be turned into biofuels and other sources of energy for the communities in which they grow.
Americans eat more bananas per person than any other fruit. They are portable, available all year-round, come in their own wrapper and are extremely versatile. But we also waste more bananas than any other produce item. Although they are picked green, bananas are ripened by blasting them with ethylene gas before putting them on display. Once yellow, the race is on to enjoy your fruit before it liquefies.
Bananas decay rapidly, releasing ethylene gas, a naturally occurring hormone, as they do so. You can use this to your advantage to ripen other produce items such as avocados and tomatoes that often come home a little under-ripened: Just put the unripe items in a brown paper bag along with your bananas (the bananas do not have to be ripe to be effective). Check daily and remove once your produce reaches your desired level of ripeness.
Bananas take on a new life as they ripen, getting softer, sweeter and easier to mash and blend. There are so many ways to enjoy bananas even when they are past their snackable stage. Try some of these ideas to get the most out of them.
You can help your bananas last a little longer by storing them well.
Separate - Some eaters swear that separating the bananas so that they aren't snug up against each other is a help.
Limit - Try not to buy too many at a time. Keep in mind that the whole bunch will ripen simultaneously, so, while you may have six unripe bananas sitting on the counter for a few days, you will also have six very ripe bananas on your hands if you don't get your timing down.
Refrigerate - It's counterintuitive, but you can refrigerate bananas to retard their ripening. Once the fruit is as soft and sweet as you like it, pop them in the ice box. The skins will blacken but the fruit will stay at a constant ripeness for a few days.
Bunch of Bananas
If you find yourself with a lot of nicely ripened bananas that you know you will not get through before they take a turn for the worse, you can use them up quickly with these multiple-banana recipes.
Banana-sicles - Frozen bananas are a treat. You can make up a batch of these to serve poolside or to spoil the kids after school. Just peel your fruit and insert a popsicle stick lengthwise. Dip the bananas, one at a time, in melted chocolate, perhaps sprinkle with nuts or coconut, and freeze.
Dry - You can dry the bananas in a dehydrator or your oven. Chips or strips are both great. Dried bananas make a delicious snack and, chopped into pieces, a fine addition to homemade granola or your breakfast cereal.
Make it Savory - Grill a few bananas, sprinkle with lime juice and perhaps a dusting of chili powder and serve at your next cookout as a savory side to grilled foods. Dice bananas for banana salsa; the tangy citrus juice and spicy peppers again pair beautifully with bananas' sweet flavor and creamy texture.
Sometimes, even despite your best efforts, you wind up with very pulpy, mushy bananas. While fruit that is blackened throughout is best composted, don't be put off by black skins. If you peel it back and find a sweet yellow banana inside, you are in business. If you can't get to these recipes right away, you can pop your peeled bananas in a reusable container or bag and freeze until ready to use.
Daiquiris - Now it's a party! Add a few to this rum-based concoction for a taste of the tropics.
Banana Bread - Of course. And muffins and cupcakes, too.
"Ice Cream" - In quotes because it is far from the dairy based dessert you are used to. Simply add frozen bananas to a blender and puree until smooth. Honest.
Two ingredient pancakes - A mashed banana blended with an egg yields a batter than can be fried just like a pancake.
Traditional banana pancakes - Or you can just add mashed bananas to your regular pancake recipe.
Smoothies - The kiddie version of the daiquiri.
Pudding - The smooth texture of the fruit blends nicely into a smooth pudding.
Fruit leather - Bananas make great fruit leather, either alone or in combination with other fruits such as berries, apples or pears.
And lest we forget the peels, here are a few uses for them, too.
Do not smoke! - Despite the urban myth that this will get you high, smoking banana peels will give you a headache at best.
Polish shoes - Wipe the white side of the banana peel on the scuffs and buff with a clean cloth.
Itch relief - Rub peels on bug bites to take the itch away.
Compost - When all is said and done, the compost will make good worm food of your spent peels.
Makes about 3 cups
This is a lovely spread to have on your morning toast or spooned over ice cream. It tastes like Bananas Foster, the famed flambéed dessert, particularly if you add the rum. While it is a jam, I do not recommend canning. Bananas are not acidic enough and the lime juice doesn't add enough protection to make it shelf-stable. Store it in the fridge and enjoy it or share with your friends.
1 ½ cup brown sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup lime juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
3 pounds overripe bananas, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water, lime juice, cinnamon and salt. Bring to a simmer and stir to dissolve the sugar, about one to two minutes. Add the bananas and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until thickened, mashing and stirring frequently to break up the bananas and prevent them from scorching. Remove from heat. If using the rum, allow to cool slightly and then stir it into the mixture. Divide into jars, cool completely, cover and refrigerate for up to three weeks.
Sherri Brooks Vinton wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit www.sherribrooksvinton.com.