God was thinking the day He made the banana. To me, it’s the perfect fruit: no seed, peeling is easy, you don’t even need a knife, they’re sweet without being cloying and you can find them everywhere. You ever met anyone who objects to banana?
I lost my mind the other night at the Hawaii state book awards and bought “The New World of Bananas in Hawai’i: Then and Now” by Angela Kay Kepler and Francis G. Rust (Pali-o-Waipi’o Press, $70!!!!). They won an Awards of Excellence and they a charming couple if ever there was; she’s this deceptively fragile butterly of a woman who probably can carry a 6-foot banana tree stalk across their sprawling Maui acres by herself; muscle under gorgeous bone structure. He’s a handsome man with character in his face and humor in his sparkling eyes, but a shy manner.
Anyway, the book ($70, my dears), reports on dozens and dozens of banana varieties grown here in the Pacific and in Hawai’i. When I was young, I remember elders who could readily identify different types of bananas and knew just how to use them; some of my oldest cookbooks specify — Chinese banana or apple banana or monkey finger or mai hapai. My dear late friend Maili Yardley shared lots of banana lore in her newspaper columns over the years. Today, bananas? Go supermarket, brah. Get da kine, Chiquita.
Here in Hawai’i, we love our apple bananas, which are smaller and a bit more tart than the conventional ones; they’ve moved from farmers’ market fare to grocery stores. And some people use cooking bananas that are not the Caribbean-style plantains but similar (Puerto Ricans treasure them for pasteles, which are like tamales, but with banana instead of masa and a spicy meat filling; you can buy them on the side of the road when you go out Windward side).
Anyway, this book is so dense with information you could read it for a year (or use it to hold down that pesky curling corner of the rug). But what pleased me, as I parsed it for information, was to see than more than 20 varieties of bananas are still grown in Hawai’i today, and you can find them if you look.
And I was wrong, as usual: Some bananas DO have seeds. The authors point out several main types: Obligates (which can range from avocado-looking things) to long thin things for cooking; squat thick green types mainly for cooking; all-purpose types which go from the long thin Chinese to the fig-shaped Pitogo; and thosebest eaten raw, again in an dizzying variety of shapes. They’re not all yellow; many are green and some are red or orange. Some flower so beautifully that you’d be tempted to pick them and put them in the house (and never get a banana).
When I was a girl, my lonely joy (I was then an only child), was to wander “up the river” — Kepaniwai Stream in ‘Iao Valley — and tell myself stories and imagine things (there’s a novel coming on all this, but I’ll probably be dead before I finish it) and jump from rock to rock. And I used to love to find the bright red cupped bracts covering the flower buds and use them as cups to drink water. Hawaiians had lived in that valley; there’s still a stone compound visible on a small peninsula in the river bend where it’s worth the mosquitoes just to stand in the silence and imagine the workers tending their taro.
Today, the stream is all but dried up, the water channeled off for Maui’s overpopulated needs, and the water contains ciguatera, a disease caused by urinating rodents, so you dare not drink it. Also, it smells hauna (stink, bad, off). Auwe! (The soul-satisfying Hawaiian wail of dismay and loss and mourning, ow-WAAAAAY!)
But, bananas, my dears. I’ve been making banana butter. If there’s an easier hostess gift out there, I haven’t found it. (Did I tell you this before? I feel like Merlin in ‘The Once And Future King,” who is living backward in time and can’t ever remember if he’s told someone something or not? “Have I told you this before? Because if I haven’t, I’m going to.”)
Throw 4-5 bananas in the food processor (3 cups mashed; I just break ’em up with my hands). Add 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice. Puree until smooth. Throw that in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar (I am using turbinado, raw sugar). Add 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring very often, for 15 minutes.
Banana butter. Makes about 1 jar. You’ll find it in my next book, “Celebrations, Island Style” coming out in the fall.
The other day, I used the same recipe with chico, a small, round, seeded, bark-skinned fruit whose sap is the latex they use for gum (get it? Chiclets.). It tastes like pear had an affair with brown sugar. Worked beautifully, so I think you could do this with ripe peeled pears. I’m sure you could do it with apples, but you have to peel and core them and puree the heck out of them. With more delicate fruit, such as chico and pear, I reduce the seasoning to try and let some of the fruit character come through. In doubling the recipe, I don’t double the sugar and seasoning; I use 2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 t or 1 3/4 t pumpkin pie seasoning. Next test will be with Chinese five spice instead of pumpkin pie spice.
This only makes one jar but the beauty is, if you need a hostess gift fast, you might just have all the ingredients in your kitchen and I’m not kidding, you’ll be done in half an hour. If your palate has been weaned off sugar, you can reduce the sugar by one-third but no more; you need it in order for the butter to get jammy. You might have to cook off more of the liquid to attain that thickish jammy texture. It’s still runny, a butter texture not a highly jelled jam texture. But last night, when I made a batch for my girlfriend who has been visiting (and who has, I fear, become addicted; yet another wild-eyed food addict on my conscience), I tried the chilled sauce test: Put a spoon on a chilled sauce; if water doesn’t immediately begin to separate out, you have the jammy thing going on.
With special regards to Kepler and Rust, who are teaching me so much, and Rosey, who has sat through about five tests of this butter recipe, offering excellent feedback.