All About Bananas

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Handling bananas isn't everyone's cup of tea, even within the produce business. As a matter of fact, for every 100 people working in produce, maybe two are in bananas. Very few people know how to gas, ripen and process bananas properly.

Bananas are harvested green. Unlike vine-ripened tomatoes, vine-ripened bananas don't taste very good. If bananas turn yellow on the plant the starch in the banana never turns to sugar and they become bland with a cottony texture.

After they are picked, boxed and put on ships, bananas are kept at 57 to 58 degrees at low humidity so that the ripening process is slowed to a crawl. The temperature is taken every hour during the voyage. Once at their destination, bananas can be ripened in their containers or, more often ripened in special warehouses.

When it is time to ripen the bananas, ripening rooms are heated to 65 to 67 degrees, depending on how fast the bananas are scheduled to ripen. At the same time liquid ethylene gas, a natural gas emitted from some ripening produce such as tomatoes and apples, is distributed throughout the sealed ripening rooms. This process allows the bananas to ripen evenly without effecting the color or texture of the fruit.

The ripening process takes from three to seven days, depending on how the temperature, humidity and amount of ethylene gas are controlled. When the bananas reach a temperature of 60 degrees, they are ready to ship to market. The time from harvest to your supermarket produce section takes between 14 to 20 days in the United States, 20 to 30 days in Europe.

HISTORY

Bananas are believed to have originated in Malaysia about 4,000 years ago. Then they spread to India, the Philippines and New Guinea. However, bananas may have been eaten long before recorded history. In fact, some horticulturists think bananas were the earth's first fruit.

Europeans first discovered bananas when Alexander the Great's armies invaded India in 327 BC. But bananas didn't begin their journey eastward until Arab traders carried them to Eastern Africa where slave and ivory traders took them to the west coast of Africa. In about 1482, the Portuguese found the fruit in Africa and carried it north to the Canary Islands, where some commercial crops are still grown today. A Spanish friar, Tomas de Berlanga, sailed to the Caribbean in 1516 with Spanish explorers, bringing with him the first root stocks of the banana to the Western Hemisphere.

Bananas arrived in the United States on clipper ships from Latin America in the early and mid 1800s. But the public as a whole didn't "officially" get introduced to the curved, yellow beauties until the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. Captain Lorenzo D. Baker and Minor C. Keith began the international banana trade in the early 1870's when they shipped bananas from the Caribbean to New Orleans, Boston, and New York. By 1899, they had merged their interests to form the United Fruit Company and had plantations in most of the producing areas of Central America and the Caribbean Islands. Today, the banana is No. 1 fruit in the United States.

Americans consume over 25 pounds of bananas every year.

WHERE GROWN

Bananas grow best in volcanic alluvial soil where the climate is warm and moist with average temperatures of 80 degrees and annual rainfall that can approach 100 inches - usually within 20 degrees on either side of the equator. Like money, bananas don't grow trees. They grow on plants that are giant herbs, members of the same family that includes lilies and orchids. These plants reach as high as 25 feet, producing a huge bud at the end of a strong thick stalk. The bud contains lots of purple leaves that hold flowers, called bracts and as the stalk gets longer the bracts roll back showing rows of small flowers which become small green bananas.

Bananas grow on these huge stalks in clusters called hands. Each stalk has seven to 12 hands. And each hand contains 12 to 14 bananas. (At the retail level, four to six bananas are called a cluster.) Each individual banana is called, not surprisingly, a finger. It takes nine to 12 months for a new plantation of bananas from bulb-like rhizomes to get started. Once started, however, subsequent crops take between 75 and 150 days before a banana crop is ready to harvest.

India is the world's leading banana producer with 6.2 million metric tons. But Americans never see Indian bananas because India consumes virtually all it produces. The same is true of Brazil, the second leading producer with 5.5 million metric tons.

Ecuador, the Philippines (which sends most of its bananas to Japan), Colombia and China (which consumes its entire crop) round out the major banana producing nations.The most important commercial banana-producing region for the U.S. supply is Latin America with Costa Rica the leading supplier. Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala and Mexico also supply bananas to the United States.

For plantains, the "vegetable bananas," Uganda, Colombia, Rwanda, and Zaire are the top four producers.

VARIETIES

Although there are some 1,000 varieties in the world today, the main commercial banana is the Cavendish or Giant Cavendish. For years prior to World War II the main export variety was the Gros Michel, a big yellow, flavorful banana with a thick skin that protected it during. But a disease called black sigatoka virtually wiped out the world's supply and it is no longer a factor in worldwide production.
The shorter, more blunt Cavendish is less brightly colored than the Gros Michel and bruises easily because of a thinner skin. But it's more disease resistant and has a deeper root system that makes it more resistant to wind storms. The Dwarf Cavendish, named for the shortness of the stem on which it grows, can tolerate a cooler climate than most bananas. In the trade, Dwarf Cavendish bananas are called Petites.

The standard size of shipping bananas is 7 to 71/2 inches, though they may go above eight inches. Petites have become popular in food service where larger bananas tend to take up too much room on cafeteria trays and because one good-sized banana is often too much for individuals at one sitting. Occasionally, baby bananas are sold as a special variety. In reality, they are Cavendish bananas that are picked from the bottom of the stalk.

Specialty bananas are a tiny portion of the millions of boxes of bananas that come into the United States each year, and then mostly seen only on the coasts. In addition, they're often expensive and spoil quickly.

The Burro banana from Mexico looks like a squarish, stubbier version of the Cavendish, which is why it is sometimes called the chunky banana. It is somewhat tangier than the Cavendish with a lemon-like flavor. When ripe, the yellow skin shows dark spots like the normal banana and the soft flesh will have a slight firmness toward the center.

The Manzano banana is also called the Apple banana because it has an apple-like flavor (as well as some hints of strawberry). Another name for this Mexican import is the Finger banana because of its plump finger size. The light golden color turns totally black when ripe.

The Red banana looks nothing like the Cavendish, though it grows on a similar bush. It is stubby, like the Burro, but round, not squarish. The dull red skin turns to a reddish-purple or maroon when fully ripe. The Red banana is sweeter than the Cavendish with a heartier flavor, though the texture of the pinkish-orange flesh is softer.

The Saba banana does double duty as a cooking and eating banana. Starchier than the Cavendish, it has a faint resemblance to the flavor of a sweet potato when cooked. It is shorter and thicker than the Cavendish and turns dark yellow when ripe.

With the tremendous increase in the Hispanic population in the United States, plantains are becoming more available at mainstream markets. Plantains are the starchy members of the banana family. They're similar in shape to bananas but larger with thicker skins. Plantains are often called "cooking bananas" or "Mexican potatoes" because they are prepared and served as a vegetable in Latin American cuisines, mostly fried, but also in used in soups, stews and desserts.

SEASONS

Bananas are a year-round fruit with some peaks in May and June.

SELECTION, STORAGE & HANDLING

Bananas go through a 10-color spectrum that produce professionals refer to when ordering or storing the fruit. At one end is No. 1, the bright green color of just-picked fruit. At the other are Numbers 9 and 10, brown bananas good only for banana cake. Most retail markets order No. 4, which is a greenish yellow. Number 5 is green tipped yellow. And No.7 shows some of the brown sugar specks that indicate ripeness.

The best time to buy bananas is at No. 5 when they are about 75% yellow with a small amount of green at both ends. They should be firm, plump and brightly colored without blemishes. Depressed, moist and dark areas on the skin usually mean the fruit inside is bruised. Occasional brown specks are an indication of ripeness. Bananas with a dull, gray cast to their color won't ripen properly.

Bananas should be stored at room temperature, ideally between 55 and 75 degrees. However, in the summertime bananas can ripen quickly at home unless the house is kept below 75 degrees. In wintertime, you might want to speed up the ripening process. In that case, put the bananas in a plastic or paper bag with an apple.

Once ripened, they'll keep a maximum of two days before decay begins. If you wish to keep bananas from ripening any further, store them in the refrigerator. Expect the skin to turn dark brown. The flesh will remain firm and white for a couple of days though the flavor may be affected somewhat.

When keeping bananas at room temperature, be sure they aren't stored too closely to other fruits. The ethylene gas released by bananas could alter the ripening of the other fruits. For the best flavor and aroma, eat the bananas when they are fully yellow with little brown specks, known as sugar specks. To avoid having the flesh turn brown once the banana is peeled, dip the fruit in a citrus juice such as orange, lemon or lime juice.

For red bananas, the riper the fruit the more purple its skin becomes A deep purple skin indicates a very soft flesh. Other varieties should be true to their color and unblemished.

As with bananas, plantains turn yellow and develop dark spots or specks - actually, more like streaks - as they ripen, though some dark spots even appear on green plantains. Plantains become black when totally ripe. However, even when jet black, they will not be as sweet as fully ripe bananas. Inside the plantain you will find an orange or peach-hued flesh (reminiscent of sweet potatoes) instead of the creamy white or pale yellow color of bananas. The ripened flesh may develop some dark spots similar to those of ripe bananas.

Sometimes though, a plantain will just refuse to ripen. It will start to turn black but never really yellow or get sweet. Because plantains take so long to ripen - at least a week and sometimes two - it's best to buy an extra one or two, just in case.

NUTRITION

A medium banana, 126 grams or about 4.5 ounces, contains about 120 calories, 32 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram each of fat and protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 15 % of the RDA for vitamin C and 2% for iron. Bananas have the highest ready-to-eat source of vitamin B6 you can get with 33% of the RDA. Bananas are also a decent source for folic acid and riboflavin (both 5 % of the RDA), magnesium (8 % of the RDA) and copper (6% of the RDA).

A banana has more potassium by weight (over 450 mg) than all fruits except avocados. Potassium helps to lower blood pressure, regulate the body's fluid balance and improves proper muscle function. Bananas and plantains are a remedy for upset stomachs and help strengthen stomach lining against excess acid and ulcers. The pectin in bananas may be helpful in fighting colon cancer as well as lowering blood cholesterol.

Plantains are comparable to bananas in most categories except the following: They have more than 20 times the amount of vitamin A, about 3 times the vitamin C, almost twice the potassium and double the amount of magnesium.

YIELD

Three medium bananas weight about one pound. One medium banana makes about 2/3 cup of sliced fruit. Two medium bananas make 1 cup of diced fruit. Three medium bananas make one cup of mashed fruit.

A plantain will yield about 1 to 1 1/4 cup of sliced fruit because it is usually larger than a regular banana.

 PREPARATION

Bananas that are fully yellow are best for cooking because they will hold their shape. Speckled bananas are best for eating out of hand or for topping cereal. Overripe bananas should be used for breads, muffins, and puddings or pureed in smoothies. Smoothies are even better with frozen bananas. Just toss a sliced one, still frozen, into a blender with some orange juice, and some strawberries if you like, and puree.

Frozen bananas can be fun, too. Freezing is a good way to store bananas that have ripened too quickly. Peel a ripe banana, wrap it tightly with plastic or freezer wrap, and freeze it. Later, you can put it on a wooden stick and give it to the kids for a low-fat snack, or dip it into melted chocolate or caramel and roll in nuts for delicious dessert.

And speaking of fun for kids, try bananas on the grill. Start with bananas that have few or no brown specks (but no green). Put them whole and unpeeled on the grill over medium heat and cook until black all over. They should be soft but not mushy. This will take about 5 to 7 minutes. Slit the banana lengthwise along the curved side. Peel off one side of the skin, then flip the fruit over and peel off the other. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts or almonds.
When making a fruit salad, add the bananas at the last minute so they won't turn brown. Or soak them in orange juice for an hour or so first. Cinnamon is probably the best seasoning for bananas. Orange flavorings whether in the form of juice or liqueur are also good with bananas as is rum. And next time you're doing an Indian curry, drop in some banana slices at the end.

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 PORK MEDALLIONS AND PLANTAINS
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This festive dish can be put together in a flash making it a good candidate for a weeknight meal. Try it with some Nectarine Chutney for an added kick.

1 pork tenderloin, about 12 ounces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 ripe plantain cut into 15 slices about 1/2-inch thick
1/3 cup rum or bourbon
1/3 cup defatted chicken stock

Cut pork tenderloin in three equal pieces, crosswise. Put pieces, one at a time, between two sheets of foil - cut side down. Pound to a thickness of 3/8 to 1/2 inch. Combine flour, salt and pepper in a shallow dish or pie plate.

Put butter in a skillet over medium heat. Dredge medallions in flour and shake off excess. Sauté pork 4 to 5 minutes on each side until slightly pink inside. (They should be gently firm when pressed with a finger.)

Remove pork and keep warm on a serving platter. Add plantains and cook until they start to caramelize on each side, 3 or 4 minutes total. Add rum and stock and raise heat, scraping any bits of meat on the bottom. Reduce liquid by half and pour liquid and plantains over pork medallions.

Serves 3.

Sam's Cooking Tip: Pork tenderloin should not be confused with much fattier pork cuts, even though pork is much leaner than its ever been. Pork tenderloins contain about the same amount of fat and calories as skinless white meat chicken.

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 BANANAS FOSTER
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This is our version of the classic dessert created at Brennan's restaurant in New Orleans.

1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Juice of 1 orange
A healthy pinch of cinnamon
2 ripe but firm bananas, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
2 tablespoons rum
2 scoops non-fat vanilla yogurt or ice cream

Put butter and sugar in a skillet over medium heat stirring with a wooden spoon until sugar starts to caramelize. Add orange juice, cinnamon and mix to smooth.

Add bananas, coat well and cook 1 minute. Add rum, flame and cook, swirling mixture until flames subside and mixture begins to thicken. Spoon over frozen yogurt or ice cream in a goblet or cut glass dessert dish.

Serves 2.

Sam's Cooking Tip: Flambéing isn't hard or dangerous as long as you follow a few simple rules: a)Use only the amount of alcohol called for in the dish, b)Don't wear loose clothing or have hair dangling, and c)Have a large cover close by to snuff out the flames if they get out of hand.

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 PLANTAIN AND LENTIL STEW
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This dish was inspired by a recipe by Diane Kennedy, the queen of Mexican cookery.

1 cup lentils
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large tomato, cored and chopped
1-1/2 cups pineapple cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 plantains, peeled and cut into 3/8-inch slices
1 teaspoon salt
Cooked rice

In a large saucepan, cook lentils in 2 quarts water about 45 minutes until just barely tender. Drain reserving liquid.

Wipe out saucepan and heat oil over moderate flame. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is soft, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add tomato and cook a few minutes. Add lentils, about 1 cup of lentil broth, the pineapple, plantains, and salt.

Cook about 20 minutes until the stew thickens slightly. Check for salt and serve over rice.

Serves 4.

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 BANANA ICE CREAM WITH BOURBON
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We first got the idea of making "ice cream" with frozen fruit from Jacques Pepin's "Cuisine Economique" (William Morrow & Co., 1992). Try it with other fruits as well.

4 ripe bananas, peeled
4 pitted prunes, chopped
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1-1/2 cups non-fat vanilla yogurt
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted (optional)

Freeze bananas for several hours or overnight. Put prunes and bourbon in a small shallow dish to soak until bananas are frozen, then drain well.

Cut bananas into 1/2-inch slices and put in a food processor with sugar. Pulse a few times. Add yogurt and pulse just until bananas are chopped and well integrated with yogurt. Don't puree entirely smooth, leave a little chunky. Pour into a bowl and fold in prunes. Eat immediately or freeze until ready to eat, topped with almonds if desired.

Serves 4.

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