Local banana expert Frank Fleming predicted that this would be the year of the Lowcountry banana in his May blog at http://simpy-bananas.blogspot.com. And he was right. Banana trees all over Charleston are sprouting the fruit.
Buying a banana plant from him was an impulse purchase one Saturday morning at the Charleston Farmers Market. After a bit of success in our urban garden with Meyer lemons, figs, lemon-limes and olives, bananas seemed to be the next step.
Unhappy in its first place in the garden, it was moved a couple of years ago to the side of the house, next to the driveway, where it gets more sun. Suddenly it thrived. Technically an herb, it nearly overwhelms the whole house, cuddling up to the white columns, its massive leaves topping the height of our second-floor piazza.
This year, thanks to the balmy winter and monsoonish rain, four deep purple flowers dangle down, each on a separate stem of a separate stalk. Above each flower grow bunches of green bananas, with several tiers of bananas above them, reaching upward. Awed and excited, as with all the fruit that grows in our garden, we count them like Midas would gold. At first, we thought there would be a dozen bananas. Now we count a hundred.
We watched a number of videos on YouTube, some in English, many in Spanish, while waiting for Frank to return from a trip to Costa Rica. When he returned, we had a battery of questions, starting with what kind of banana. Since our flower is purple, it is edible.
First the flowers will get whacked off with a machete or, in our case, a neighbor’s saw. After the bananas fill out and mature further, it is important to prevent the weight of the bananas from pulling down the whole plant, so the stalks have to be tied back. In three months or up to six months, the entire grouping of bananas on each stem will ripen. By then, there will be four to six bunches on each plant. That’s the time to cut them down en masse and the stalk down to the ground. (Or, says Frank, before the first frost.)
Each stem of bananas will have to be hung upside down, which will necessitate adding meat hooks to the piazza to hold their weight. They will ripen over several weeks. Keeping some of them in a cool place will allow us to stagger the ripening.
The stems holding each one have to be wrapped in plastic bags so sap (latex) doesn’t drip on the window of the car. It seems the latex doesn’t come off easily. It doesn’t come off at all with Windex, but who cares? We have a hundred bananas.
More than the fruit
While waiting for the bananas, don’t ignore the rest of the plant — the blossom and the leaves.
The large green leaves can be used for wrapping and steaming anything from rice to fish. Use them as platforms on the grill to prevent sticking and to impart a smoky, sweet flavor to mild foods like fish or chicken. They also make a beautiful presentation if you are looking to impress your guests. Or, according to Fleming, create an easy cleanup — just use them as plates.
Then there is the beautiful large purple flower bud, called banana blossoms or banana hearts, and they are edible.
The purple outer layers of the flower should be peeled off and discarded or used for garnish. As you start to see the mini flower stems that appear between the outermost layers, discard these as well. They are called stick-fruit and are actually tiny baby bananas, but are bitter.
Once the petals start to turn white, you can peel them off and use them whole or slice them into strips. Some will chop through the entire flower at this point. Just make sure to immediately soak whatever cuts you make in a mixture of citrus and water, such as lemon juice, to avoid browning due to oxidation.
The interior petals of banana blossoms have been compared to leeks and artichoke hearts, which makes them wonderful additions to all varieties of salads. This is their most popular use. But, you can also use the petals in soups, curry dishes or as toppings on pizza. Or try lightly breading the petals and shallow-frying them.
So while you are waiting on those bananas to ripen, pick a part of the plant you have never cooked with and try something new. There are plenty of recipes available on the web. Or be patient, wait for your prized fruit to plump and go bananas! (I couldn’t resist.)
Steamed Shrimp in a Banana Leaf
Commercially available banana leaves are smaller and flatter than the banana leaves from the tree. You may need to use more if the leaves are too small. — Nathalie Dupree
1 pound shrimp
1 banana leaf
11/2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 kaffir lime leaves, torn up
1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
1 quarter-size slice of fresh ginger, finely grated or chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 stalks lemon grass, white part only
Shell and devein the shrimp. Place the banana leaf in a large heatproof bowl or in the sink and soak for 5 minutes with boiling water until softened. Drain and pat dry with a clean towel.
Heat a dry pan over moderate heat. Add the sesame seeds. Shake in the pan and cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Move immediately to a bowl to stop cooking. Add the oil to the pan followed by the kaffir lime leaves, coriander powder, ginger and garlic cloves and saute for 1–2 minutes until fragrant. Move to the bowl with the sesame seeds and add the shrimp, toss to coat and season with salt and pepper.
Spread the banana leaf out on a work surface. Cut the vein to lay flat. Smash the lemon grass stalks with a mallet and lay on top of the leaf. Spread shrimp mixture over lemon grass. Fold banana leaf into a packet and use wooden skewer or skewers to fasten the leaf together. Cook the parcel in a steamer or colander over simmering water for 8 to 10 minutes or until the shrimp filling is cooked. Discard the lemon grass. Serve inside the banana leaf for a nice presentation.
Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans was the birthplace of this classic dessert. I’ve devised a really quick and simple version that is made with ingredients that are always on hand. It really shines when served with vanilla ice cream; the warm butter-sugar melts the ice cream and makes pools of irresistible goodness. — Nathalie Dupree
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 bananas, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pint vanilla ice cream
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter and sugar together until the sugar dissolves. Add the bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg, reduce the heat and cook the bananas 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Stir in the cream and simmer 2 to 3 minutes until thickened. Put a scoop of ice cream in each dessert dish. Top with 2 banana halves and drizzle with the pan juices.
Makes 24 squares
Dark and delicious, this bread is just sweet enough for dessert, and really nice for an afternoon or evening snack. Use bananas that are too soft to eat; the skins should be well-spotted with brown and very soft. — Nathalie Dupree
5 to 6 overripe bananas (about 2½ cups mashed)
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup chopped pecans
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan.
In a mixing bowl, mash the bananas with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of your mixer. Add the brown sugar, sugar, eggs, butter and pecans and blend well. On a sheet of wax paper, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients to the banana mixture. Continue mixing until all the ingredients are well-blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until a knife inserted into the bread comes out clean.
Baked Tropical Fruit
Bananas Foster inspired this easy-to-prepare dessert, which is significantly lower in fat than the original recipe.
Even if the fruit is not perfectly ripe, it will be enhanced sufficiently by the caramelized brown sugar. A dollop of vanilla frozen yogurt is a nice addition to keep the calorie count low; otherwise, serve with ice cream or a bit of heavy cream. — Nathalie Dupree
1 pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 bananas, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated rind of 1 orange, no white attached
2 tablespoons rum, or 1 teaspoon rum extract
2 tablespoons orange juice
Preheat the broiler.
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, tossing to coat completely. Pour into a shallow broiler-proof dish, and broil 4 to 6 inches from the heat until the sugar and juices begin to caramelize, about 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot
or at room temperature.