Saturday, August 18, 2012

New Orleans goes bananas

Local and tastier bananas on the way to New Orleans markets

Judy Walker, The Times-Picayune 
"I can't wait to eat local bananas," Stephanie Tortu said recently while shopping at the Saturday Crescent City Farmers Market. She should be able to in November next year. DiMarco and Robbie Robertson, center, talk with grower Heather Robertson, left, and Elisa Munoz talk about bananas at a Crescent City Farmers Market booth.
Although New Orleanians have grown bananas in their backyards for decades, there are no local ones at the farmers markets. Small ornamental backyard bananas are not edible, and the larger, edible types may not be sweet enough for anything but cooking. Besides, many homeowners just want to control the steady spread of banana plants, not eat the fruit.
But better bananas are on the way. The CCFM has gotten a grant to help local farmers grow about a half-dozen varieties that will be tastier and more acclimated to local conditions. Some of these will to find their way into backyards as well.
Richard McCarthy, executive director, said the market was given about $20,000 in a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. The money will pay half the cost of putting in the bananas "to reduce the risk for farmers who venture into the unknown: growing bananas for consumers who've long demanded them," he said.
Bringing local bananas to the market would be a win-win, McCarthy explained. Shoppers have asked for them since the markets opened years ago. And the crop ripens in the relatively fruit-free month of November, when summer fruits have finished their season and before winter citrus crops arrive.
"I think there's a growing interesting in different varieties," McCarthy said. He points to Heather Robertson as a daring grower. Robertson, with her husband, Dale, grows strawberries in Ponchatoula on 15 acres named Johndale's Farm. They have added blueberries and now, bananas. ("We have fruit salad," Robertson quipped.)
They put in 30 banana plants in late April in spots where they can't plant other crops, along a canal off the Tangiapahoa River that flows through their property. The variety they have planted are orinocos, a cooking banana. Johndale's grows several strawberry varieties, and she would like to have additional bananas varieties as well.
"We can see which ones work best for our climate," she said, "and bring them to market to let people see for themselves" which ones they prefer.
heather.robertson.JPGHeather Robertson of Johndale's Farm in Ponchatoula has added bananas to their strawberry and blueberry plants
Robertson appeared at a recent Saturday market to staff a booth about the project, which included a display of a banana bunch (from market director Emery Van Hook's back yard) as well as black and green plantains, finger bananas and bananas from the supermarket. Best of all were the banana paletas, or ice pops, from vendor Amanda's Frozen Fruit Bars in Folsom.
Robertson was unsure about the young bananas at first, she said, but they're beautiful now.
"We won't pick these this year; they're still too young yet. But I feel confident we'll pick them next November," she said. Banana trees must make it through a winter in order to flower and set fruit, the distinctive bunches that hang from the trees.
If freezes occur, Robertson said, they will cover or wrap the plants in the same agricultural cloth they use to cover strawberries.
Robertson got the young bananas from Glen Stokes at Stokes Tropicals in Jeanerette, and she and her husband have gotten lots of information from him about growing. Stokes and Lester L'Hoste, known for his certified organic citrus farm in Braithwaite, are consulting on the project. L'Hoste has researched bananas for decades, McCarthy said, and is the author of the book "Bananas You Can Grow."
Shoppers Jim Gabour and Faun Fenderson grow the orinocos variety in their Marigny back yard, along with papayas, guavas and Mexican limes. The oronocos have vanilla and lemon undertones, Gabour said. They make a salad of green ones peeled, boiled, then tossed with olive oil and dill.
For the past dozen or so years, Brian Zeringue has grown Blue Java, Raja Puri and other banana varieties at his home in Jeanerette.
"The Blue Java is delicious, the best banana I've ever eaten, with an apple or pear taste," Zeringue said. "Raja Puri is an Indian banana."
Although the farmers in the project will be growing them in grove-like conditions, Zeringue has advice for those who want to grow bananas in urban conditions: Don't plant them near your house.
"When bananas start to ripen, the raccoons and possums can smell them. They climbed up on my house to jump on the bananas, and were tearing up the soffit and fascia. So I cut the bananas down and hung them up on my patio" where the crittters destroyed hibiscus and other decorative plants trying to get at the bananas.
So Zeringue hung the banana bunch in his wash shed.
"They actually scratched a hole into the door of the wash shed," Zeringue said. "What an aggravation."
But, he says, "After you grow your own and eat them, a store-bought banana tastes like pap. It's well worth the trouble."
You will need a set of freezer pop molds to make this dessert from the Eating Well test kitchen. You can add chocolate chips or mini chocolate chips if you like.
Banana Pudding Pops
Makes 10
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups low-fat milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups diced bananas (about 2 large)
Whisk sugar, cornstarch and salt in a large saucepan. Add milk and whisk until combined. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking occasionally. Boil, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla.
Put about half the pudding in a food processor or blender and add bananas. Process until smooth. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Stir the mixture back into the remaining pudding.
Divide the mixture among freezer-pop molds. Insert the sticks and freeze until completely firm, about 6 hours. Dip the molds briefly in hot water before unmolding.
Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse in the French Quarter melds the two quintessential desserts of New Orleans.
Bananas Foster Bread Pudding
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 loaves French bread, each 12 inches long
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups light brown sugar
6 egg yolks
1-1/2 large bananas, diced
1/2 cup rum
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Fresh mint for garnish
Slice French bread and dry in a 200-degree oven for 20 minutes. Combine remaining pudding ingredients in a large bowl and blend well with a hand mixer. Thinly slice dried French bread and place in an 8- by 8-inch pan. Pour pudding into pan and mush all bread by hand so that the liquid is absorbed and the bread becomes very soggy. Be sure to flatten all of the lumps.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cover pan with foil and bake for 2-1/2 hours, or until a skewer inserted in the center of the pudding comes out dry. Remove foil and bake for an additional 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool.
Foster Sauce
2-1/4 cups unsalted butter
2-1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup golden rum
1 cup banana liqueur
4 bananas, sliced lengthwise and in half
Melt butter in a saucepot. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and mix well. Add the rum and ignite. Allow the flames to subside. Then, stir in the banana liqueur. Add fresh bananas and simmer over medium heat for about 2 minutes or until the sauce coats the spoon.
To Serve: Cut bread pudding into 3-1/2 inch squares. Top warm bread pudding with Foster sauce and garnish with mint leaves
This frozen yogurt recipe is from Cooking Light. Use less sugar or a sugar substitute if you wish, and/or substitute coconut milk for the milk.
Mango-Banana Frozen Yogurt
1 cup sliced ripe banana
3/4 cup chopped peeled mango
1/3 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1-1/2 cups 2% low-fat milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 (16-ounce) carton vanilla low-fat yogurt
Combine first 4 ingredients in a blender; process until smooth. Combine banana mixture and remaining ingredients in a large bowl; stir well with a whisk.
Pour mixture into the freezer can of an ice-cream freezer; freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Spoon into a freezer-safe container; cover and freeze (ripen) at least 1 hour.
Heather Robertson got this slightly different take on banana pudding from a cousin. All ingredients except the bananas come in low-fat versions (and bananas are naturally low in fat). You could substitute whipped cream for the Cool Whip if you wish.
Robertson said she always doubles the recipe "because there are a lot of us."
Cheryl's Banana Pudding
1 small (size) package instant vanilla pudding
1 (8-ounce) block cream cheese, softened
1 14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12-ounce) container non-dairy whipped topping
Vanilla wafers
Bananas, sliced
Make the vanilla pudding according to package directions. In a large bowl combine cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk and Cool Whip.
In a large serving container, layer vanilla wafers, bananas, pudding and the cream cheese mixture. Repeat layering until pan is full. Try to end up with the cream cheese mixture on top.
Banana pancakes are a New Orleans favorite. This recipe for them came from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten.
Banana Sour Cream Pancakes
Makes 12 pancakes
1-1/2 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
2 extra-large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Unsalted butter
2 ripe bananas, diced, plus extra for serving
Pure maple syrup
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the sour cream, milk, eggs, vanilla and lemon zest. Add wet ingredients to the dry ones, mixing only until combined.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat until it bubbles. Ladle the pancake batter into the pan to make 3 or 4 pancakes. Distribute a rounded tablespoon of bananas on each pancake. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until bubbles appear on top and the underside is nicely browned. Flip the pancakes and then cook for another minute until browned. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel, add more butter to the pan, and continue cooking pancakes until all the batter is used. Serve with sliced bananas, butter and maple syrup.
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