THE SOFTER THE BANANA, the stronger its appeal for me.
This is not a shared view in my household. The minute the skin of the bananas on our kitchen counter starts to turn brown, our kids abandon the fruit. They prefer their bananas bright yellow, firm and boring.
Youth rarely appreciates noble rot. But that is what is happening under the skin. As a banana gets softer, it gets sweeter. Its sugar content rises from about 2 percent in the green stage of its life to 20 percent when it gets old and mushy.
When the bananas in our house start to go downhill, I'm there to take advantage of their slide.
For example, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, by itself a pretty toothsome morsel, takes on deeper flavor and more decadent texture when the banana in it has "gone bad."
Bananas with a little mush in them give a bowl of ice cream a certain sugary decomposition, which is much more appealing to the veteran dessert eater than the pulpy, puppy-love flavor delivered by younger bananas.
And of course to make memorable banana ice cream or banana bread, you have to allow the main ingredient time to decay. I equate bananas with dessert, which probably marks me as a conventional thinker. I have heard about avant-garde eaters who treat various types of bananas like potatoes, mashing them; who pair them with soft cheeses; who marry them to spicy Indian rice dishes.
All that sounds intriguing, but strikes me as an "advanced banana" lifestyle. I am into "basic banana." Instead of buying the compact, worldly banana, the plantain, I buy bunches of the basic, four-door banana, called the Cavendish. I bring the bananas home from the supermarket, put them on the kitchen counter and watch the kids forage. They feed until they find a flaw. They drop a soft banana like a hot potato.
That is when I take the fallen fruit into my clutches. Sometimes I will allow the older banana to influence some of the younger, greener ones. I will put the mature banana in a brown paper bag with the young ones. Nature takes its course. The ethylene gas given off by the decaying banana will ripen the callow youths, making them softer, and infinitely more appealing.
Here are two recipes for banana dishes. Most people who bake bananas, including the folks who drew up the first recipe, prefer using firm bananas. I prefer mushy. The second recipe, for banana bread, requires bananas that are past their visual prime.
Caramel baked bananas
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
4 ripe bananas
2 tablespoons evaporated milk
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In an 8-inch square cake pan or a 9-inch round pie pan, combine the butter, lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and 1/4 cup of the brown sugar. Place in oven until the butter melts, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir with fork to blend.
Peel the bananas, put them in the baking pan and turn them to coat evenly with the butter mixture. Sprinkle the bananas with the remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar. Bake uncovered until the sauce is bubbling and the bananas are tender when pierced, about 15 minutes.
Using a spatula, carefully transfer the bananas to a platter or individual plates. Add the evaporated milk to the baking pan and stir briskly with a fork or whisk until mixture is creamy and smooth. Pour over the bananas.
From "Williams-Sonoma Healthy Cooking" (Time-Life Books, 1997, $19.)
Makes 1 loaf
3 very ripe bananas
2 cups sifted flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)
Heat oven to 350 degrees, with the rack in the center position. Butter and flour a 6-cup loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.
Use a fork to mash the bananas in a large bowl. Add the eggs and mix well. Sift the flour, sugar, salt and baking soda over the bananas. Stir well and mix in the nuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool.
From "The Kitchen Survival Guide" by Lora Brody (William Morrow, 1992, $20).
Pub Date: 2/23/97