Grown in the warm, humid tropics, bananas are picked and shipped green; contrary to nature's norm, they are one fruit that develops better flavor when ripened off the bush. Banana bushes mature in about 15 months and produce one 50-pound bunch of bananas apiece. Each bunch includes several "hands" of a dozen or so bananas (fingers). There are hundreds of banana species but the yellow, arched Cavendish (or common) banana is America's favorite. Choose plump, evenly colored yellow bananas flecked with tiny brown specks (a sign of ripeness). Avoid those with blemishes, which usually indicate bruising. Bananas that are still greenish at the tips and along the ridges will need further ripening at home. To ripen, keep uncovered at room temperature (about 70°F). For speedy ripening, enclose bananas in a perforated brown paper bag. Ripe bananas can be stored in the refrigerator for several days. The peel will turn brown but the flesh will remain unchanged. Once exposed to air, a peeled banana will begin to darken. To avoid discoloration, brush with lemon juice or dip in acidulated water. Now available in some markets are the squat, squarish 3- to 5-inch-long Burro, with its tangy lemon-banana flavor; the Blue Java (or Ice Cream) banana, which has a blotchy, silver-blue skin and tastes of ice cream; the Guinea Verde, which — like the plaintain — is more starchy than sweet; the chunky, 6-inch-long red banana, which turns bronzy brown when ripe; the baby, dwarf or finger banana, which is 3 to 4 inches long and sweeter than the Cavendish; the strawberry-apple-flavored Manzano (which turns black when ready to eat); the diminutive Mysore from India; and the Orinoco with its trace of strawberry flavor. The plantain (also called plátano), a very large, firm variety, is also referred to as a "cooking banana" and is extremely popular in Latin American countries as well as parts of Africa, Asia and India. Its skin ranges in color from green to yellow to brownish black, its flesh from cream to salmon-colored. Whereas the sweet banana is eaten ripe, the plantain is typically cooked when green. It has a mild, almost squashlike flavor and is used very much as a potato would be, in a vegetable side dish. If it's allowed to ripen, the plantain has a slightly sweet flavor and a soft, spongy texture when cooked. Bananas are high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fats; they're also rich in potassium and vitamin C.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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