Cooking in the Tropics: Bananas
What’s more tropical than a banana? Although the banana could be an icon for Central America, it is not native to the Americas. Bananas were introduced by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits here from West Africa in the 16th century. Wild bananas exist in extraordinary diversity throughout southern Asia, and cultivation has created even more varieties worldwide. In fact, United Brands maintains a collection of 470 cultivars and 100 species at their plantation in La Lima, Honduras.
Cuadrados, are the most common local variety of banana, well suited to Guanacaste. Shorter and fatter than the plantains cultivated for the market (hence squares or cuadrados), they grow quickly and require very little care. One plant produces just one stalk of bananas – when the fruit is ripe (or the tree topples from the weight of the fruit), the gardener cuts down the plant, allowing the roots to regenerate and produce a new plant almost immediately.
Cuadrados are a very important part of the Guanacastecan diet. The versatile fruit can be served breakfast, lunch or dinner. Cut the cuadrado diagonally into ½ inch slices and sauté in butter until the banana browns a bit, maduros (ripe cuadrados) are the quintessential side dish for black beans and rice. Add cuadrados, garlic, onions and Salsa Lizano to a pot of beans about 20 minutes before they are ready to serve to add texture and a great aroma to the dish.
One of my favorite desserts is a caramelized banana spring roll. Saute the cuadrado in butter, add some cinnamon and sugar, vanilla or a splash of rum. Remove from pan and let the cuadrados cool. Wrap them in a spring roll wrapper along with macadamia nuts and shredded coconut, sauté in butter until the wrapper browns and serve hot with ice cream and passion fruit caramel.
The leaves of the cuadrado make perfect packets for cooking food. Cut the hard center out of the leaf and divide each large leaf into two or three squares. (12” squares are ideal) Place some slices of cuadrado on the leaf, and place the fish filet on top (snapper or mahi-mahi filets are perfect for this, or try it with a boneless chicken breast or some jumbo shrimp). Add cracked pepper (or some jalapenos), onions & garlic and a little agua de pipa. (For a Mediterranean style fish, place sliced onion and garlic on top of the banana leaf, then a layer of sliced tomatoes, then a layer of spinach, and then the fish filet.) Fold both sides of the leaves over the fish, then fold both ends over to create a square “packet” – if the leaf packet doesn’t hold together or tears, wrap it in another leaf. Place the packet on a grill and cook for about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filet. Remove from the grill and let the fish rest for five minutes in the packet before opening.
You can also cook the fish stovetop in a cast iron skillet or other heavy pan. Heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil in the pan until it is smoking hot. Place the packet in the pan and cook as you would on the grill, letting the fish rest for 5 minutes before opening the packet.
Have a lot of cuadrados and don’t know what to do with them? – why not make vinegar! If you have visited a typical soda (small diner) in Costa Rica, chances are that you have seen a glass jar filled with vegetables on the table. This is “El Vinagre Chilera” or escabeche. To make the vinegar, a whole stalk of bananas is hung outside in the sun over a bucket until the bananas “cook”. In less than a week, the bucket should fill with sweet syrup. The syrup is then transferred to glass bottles and left in a cool place to ferment. Once the fermenting process is complete, chopped chili peppers, carrots, onions, sweet peppers, green beans, and cauliflower are pickled in the banana vinegar. There’s a little kick to the escabeche and a lot of flavor.
Banana blossoms are not normally used in Costa Rican cuisine, but banana flowers are found in salads throughout Southeast Asia. The beautiful purple-red outer leaves make the perfect natural salad bowl. Here is a basic recipe for the salad. Add cooked shrimp or chicken, or grated green mango or green papaya to make the salad a complete meal:
BANANA BLOSSOM SALAD
2 jalapenos, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 T sugar
1 T rice vinegar
3 T fresh lime juice
3 T fish sauce (vegetarians can substitute tamarind water for the fish sauce)
3 T vegetable oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
Combine the above ingredients in a bowl and let sit for at least ½ hour before adding to salad.
2 cups shaved banana blossom
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/4 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
A juice of one lime in a large bowl of cold water
Discard the outermost layer of leaves from the banana flower. Rest the pointed end of the blossom on the cutting board. Starting at the point, shave off paper thin slices of flower, cutting into the blossom on a diagonal until you hit the core. (Don’t use the core, cut around it.) Continue to turn the flower and shave off slices, placing the slices in the acidulated water as you go. (Discard the undeveloped bananas you will find interspersed among the petals.) Allow the shavings to soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain well and pat dry.
Combine the banana blossoms with the carrot, mint, coriander, and dressing.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.