Yesterday I tackled a garden maintenance job that you only get in the Tropics: I had to cut down a banana tree. Don't freak out non-Tropics dwellers, that's just what you have to do. Bananas grow and spread via suckers, so just like their common tropical garden cousins, heliconias, you are doing them a favour by effectively 'dead-heading' them when they have developed their fruit. The 'tree' can then put its energy into putting up a new trunk, rather than continuing to support a bunch of green fruit that isn't going to get any bigger.
Bananas are so easy to chop down even I can do it with my dicky back. A relatively sharp pruning saw just cuts through the fibrous trunk like the proverbial butter. I'm getting to be such an old hand at it I managed to do it today without getting any of the impossibly sticky sap on my new dress, which I foolishly wore just for the occasion. I think I might have let this bunch go a bit too long, though. There are lots of little tell-tale brown spots and pin holes in the fruit that indicate that the bugs have got into them. But that's ok, there's a second trunk ready to chop down next weekend.
I don't know why I postpone chopping down bananas so much. Maybe it is that disgusting sap, or maybe it's because they are the chief privacy screen between me and my neighbour. But there are just so many great things to do with bananas once you've chopped them down, I'm always surprised I left it so long once I've done it. I now have recipes for using the fruit, leaf, bell (or 'flower'), and the trunk, so I thought I'd share some with you.
The most simple thing is of course to eat your delicious banana (after it has taken about three to five weeks to ripen, depending on the time of year) and feel proud as Punch that you grew it yourself. Yeeeah! Then you can get a bit fancy and use the leaves to wrap whole or fillets of fish in, and barbecue, grill or bake them. Pop some Asian herbs in with the fish, along with a splash of coconut milk, fish sauce and/or soy sauce. The trick is to soften the leaves first, either by blanching them in boiling water, or by passing them over the flame of a gas burner on the stove. This stops them splitting when you try to wrap the fish. Secure the banana leaf with a toothpick and away you go.
My hands down favourite way to eat bananas, though, is banana cake. In a former life, when I owned a café in Adelaide, I used to make banana bread, toast it and serve it with ricotta and honey. Pretty good, right? But maybe a bit passé these days ... Then a few years ago my friend Jess gave me a CWA cookbook (the Country Women's Association—an obsession I may share with you one day. I've linked to the Queensland chapter because their site has more info than the national one) and it had a banana cake recipe that, with a bit of tweaking, has become one of my all time favourite cakes. Because my home grown bananas are little Lady Fingers or Sugar bananas, or some such thing—at any rate not the usual large Cavendish variety you get in the supermarket—I slice extra bananas up lengthwise and decorate the top of the cake with them and then crumble palm sugar over the lot. Bah.Nah.Naaas!
CWA-inspired Banana Cake
250g butter, softened
¾ cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups self-raising flour (or 1 ½ cups plain flour + 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 large bananas, or 9 small bananas, cut in chunks (mash if you don’t have electric beaters)
250-300g sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large or 6 small bananas, extra for decoration
1 handful dark palm sugar, or brown sugar
Preheat oven to 180˚C. Grease and line a 24cm diameter cake tin. Cream butter and sugar with electric beaters. Add eggs one at a time. Sift flour, bicarb and salt together. Add flour mixture, bananas, sour cream, vanilla and cinnamon to the butter mixture and mix well until bananas are dispersed right through. Pour into cake tin and arrange sliced extra bananas decoratively on top—I do a little flower pattern, aaaw! Sprinkle palm sugar evenly over the top and bake for 40 mins or until firm to touch.
Original recipe from: Country Women's Association of Australia, Country Classics, 2nd edn, Penguin Group (Australia), Camberwell, Victoria, 2007, p. 142
My other hot-favourite banana recipe is Luke Nguyen's Banana Trunk and Chicken Curry. Obviously, banana trunk is not that easy to come by if you don't happen to have handy access to banana trees, but if you do, then definitely give this a go. I'm going to trial freezing the sliced up trunk this time (I might quickly blanch it first), as I have no plans to invite a small army around to eat a spicy jungle curry this week. I found my taste needed to add a squeeze of lime and a little bit of palm sugar at the end, but see how you go, you may also want to add a bit more banana trunk—you will have rather a lot of it. If you are in Australia, the following link also has a short video of Luke preparing the dish in a very ambient setting (clearly I should invest in some pigs to help me deal with the excess trunks). Luke is very charming and unpretentious as TV chefs go, so it's well worth watching. Unfortunately, I doubt the video link will work outside of Australia, but you can still get the recipe: http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/lukesmekong/recipes/detail/recipe/13878
And then, of course, there's the bell. To be honest though, I just never get around to doing anything with this other than photographing it. Lame! I do want to try this though: Barramundi with Banana Bell, Hmong Style
One day ...