When winter fruit options look bleak, there's always the humble banana. It was Mom's favorite healthy snack when I was a kid, and I ate lots of them. Now I depend on sunshiny bananas to help beat winter blues and deliver a healthy dose of potassium.
Bananas are harvested when they're still green, because the flavor diminishes if tree-ripened. Most common to American kitchens are yellow bananas, but purveyors of exotic tropical fruits have introduced red bananas to supermarkets in the past few years. They're sweeter and a little creamier than their yellow cousins.
Both yellow and red bananas ripen at room temperature. Despite the Chiquita lady's warning, I've found both kinds of bananas can be stored for two to three weeks in the refrigerator; the skin will blacken but the fruit is still fine. Once cut, sprinkle bananas with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
In low-fat cooking, bananas are famous for their ability to replace fat and deliver a light result. I use mashed bananas in muffins, quick breads and pancakes. If I don't want a banana flavor - just the lowered fat - I use no more than 1/2 cup mashed banana for every 1/3 cup fat replaced.
For banana flavor in baking, you'll get the most mileage from the really ripe ones, those that have mellowed to a deep yellow with brown flecks. I choose slightly green-tipped bananas for slicing into salads; I like their mildly tart flavor and the way they hold their shape. I puree overripe bananas with a few frozen strawberries, then freeze for a delicious fat-free "ice cream" my family loves.
In tropical recipes, bananas are often baked in their skins, giving them an almost burnt-sugar flavor. Using a sharp knife, simply pierce the skin of the banana on all sides. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees until the skin blackens completely. To remove the soft fruit, slit the skin with a knife and flip the banana out of its sheath onto a serving platter. Or try the following version:
Caribbean Fried Bananas
4 medium bananas, unpeeled
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 cup honey or sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 cup light rum
1/4 cup lime juice
Place bananas on large nonstick baking sheet. Pierce skin of each banana several times with tip of sharp knife.
Bake at 400 degrees until skins blacken completely, 15 to 20 minutes.
In 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat butter, honey and allspice until butter melts. Open skin of each banana with knife, then gently peel one side. Lay peeled side in skillet and remove remaining peel. Cook 5 minutes, spooning occasionally with cooking syrup. Add rum and ignite, shaking pan until flames subside. Remove from heat. Add lime juice. Serve each banana warm with several spoonfuls of syrup.