Thanks to a visit from some neighbors, I learned about a brand-new, exotic dish! 

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Listen while you read to “Peacock Hill”, a piece Chi composed in 2009 inspired by the free-roaming herd of peacocks that used to live up the street from us in Chinatown.  Unfortunately a few of them were murdered and others stolen in September 2011, leaving only one young male.  This was a real tragedy, since those peacocks made this neighborhood extra special.
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Late October, 2011

I came home from work last Monday to find Chi in an agitated state.  Nothing unusual about that, especially since March 11.  This time it had something to do with our banana trees I had planted out front shortly after we moved in that have recently begun to bloom and produce fruit.  There is one dwarf Cuban (or is it Jamaican?) Red and one Rajapuri, an Indian variety.  Both are in bloom.
Dwarf Cuban Red banana plant

Dwarf Cuban Red banana plant

Rajapuri banana plant in bloom

Rajapuri banana plant

Chi tried his best to explain to me what had occurred that afternoon, and I tried my best to make some sense out of it.  Apparently a couple of the neighbors had come over while Chi was out front, probably getting the mail, and were pointing at the banana flowers and emphatically motioning to cut them off.  Not many of our neighbors speak English (including Chi), and I’m not sure if these particular neighbors speak Chinese or a Southeast Asian language (Thai, Khmer, Lao, etc.) or regional dialect, but suffice it to say, communication can be challenging.

Chi wasn’t sure whether it was for the sake of the developing bananas that the terminal bud on the end of the banana stalk should be removed, or if it is good to eat, and exhorted me to research the matter and take action at once lest the neighbors come back and cut off the buds themselves, wreaking God-only-knows-what mayhem on my garden in the process.  I often get ambushed by situations like this before I have even finished getting in the door coming home from the day job….

close-up of Cuban Red banana stalk

close-up of Cuban Red banana stalk

Well, I got him to understand that given the gathering dusk, it was unlikely that the marauding neighbors would come back and loot the banana trees tonight, and to let me research the matter and come up with a plan of action.  For background, we have issues with this type of thing, i.e., neighbors helping themselves to the stuff I grow.  It’s not so bad with the guava tree that came with the house and is a mature tree that produces loads more guavas than we could ever possibly eat during guava season, and in fact, the only problem I have with that is them traipsing through the garden trampling on my other plants and compacting the dirt that I have spent hundreds of sweaty, back breaking hours trying to dig into a light, fluffy condition.  I have lost most of my Alpine strawberry plants to these bi-ped incursions, and my chives are looking very battered these days.  It’s even more annoying still when they take fruit from my two-year-old citrus trees I put in that are barely starting to produce, leaving practically none for us.   I have plans to build a fence this weekend.

damage to my garden from neighbors coming in and helping themselves to my stuff

ripening mandarin oranges on a young dwarf Owari satsuma tree

ripening mandarin oranges on a young dwarf Owari satsuma tree

Back to the banana flowers.  In the process of doing research to try and figure out how to know when the varieties of bananas I have are done, and how to properly harvest and ripen them, I ran across a few accounts of growers’ opinion being split down the middle over whether to cut off the terminal bud containing male flowers that do not develop into bananas.

I had to dig deeper to find out about the edibility of the banana blossoms.  After a fairly extensive search, I found a few recipes covering a wide geographic range: Thailand/SE Asia, tropical China/Taiwan, India, Philippines and Indonesia.  Researching the recipes was difficult since I don’t know the names of any dishes made with banana blossoms, and in fact, didn’t even realize that they were edible in the first place!  This research also yielded some arcane factoids, such as banana flowers being full of vitamins, high in fiber and iron, and especially good for lactating women.

While searching for recipes, I had come across references that banana blossoms can be steamed and eaten like artichokes, but haven’t yet been able to dig up an actual recipe.  I wondered, “do you just steam them and serve them with melted butter to dip the leaves in?”  We were having a friend over for dinner Friday night, and as much as I loved the idea of serving an exotic dish with a spectacular presentation, since we only have two banana flowers to work with right now, I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining one and have the main dish for a dinner party turn out abominably due to an experiment gone awry, so I decided to try a more common recipe.  I settled on a simple one from the Philippines.

When I came home from the day job on Friday, I rounded up Chi, put on my gloves, and got out the ladder and my big pruning shears to go cut the flower from the Rajapuri tree that was hanging conspicuously over the sidewalk, hoping the neighbors hadn’t beat me to it.  It was still there, so I cut it off, and Chi caught it as it fell.  My research indicated that you’re supposed to leave a solid 12 inches of stalk at the end in case it starts to dry out or rot, so the ripening bananas won’t be affected.  Now it was time for a new and exotic culinary adventure!

In all of the recipes I looked at, you have to prepare the banana flower by peeling off the tough outer petals (just like an artichoke), and then chop it up and either rub it well with salt and lemon juice or soak it for at least an hour in salted acidulated water.  All the recipes I consulted were for some sort of curry-type dish.  There are also recipes for banana flower soup and salad too, so perhaps I’ll investigate those in the fullness of time, as I expect the second of my Rajapuri banana plants will bloom in the fairly near future, and we still have the flower on the Cuban Red.

Rajapuri banana blossom

Rajapuri banana blossom

The Indians recommend putting coconut oil on your hands when preparing banana flowers due to the sticky sap that stains everything black, while the white folks seem to prefer wearing gloves, possibly because coconut oil is so bloody expensive here?  Especially if you buy the pure, organic African red coconut oil from Whole Foods, so I opted for the gloves, but again I digress…..

You’re supposed to start by cutting the top off to facilitate removing the tough outer petals

It’s nice to keep a few of the male flowers between the petioles to garnish the finished dish with, but they should be treated the same as the rest of the flower

Removing the tough outer petioles from the banana flower. They make lovely serving dishes!

then you chop it up

All the recipes I looked at said to chop it finely like cabbage

Then you put it all in a pan with salted lemon-water and let it sit for at least an hour to leach out the bitter juices.

I got the banana flower prepped without incident, got the table set with a spread of appetizers before our dinner guest arrived, and after a wonderful time snacking and catching up, began making the pièce de résistance.  Both of them!  I had also grown a beautiful Japanese chirimen squash, and found a simple and delicious-sounding French recipe to try with it.

baby Japanese chirimen squash

baby Japanese chirimen squash

Japanese chirimen squash

Is it ready yet??

Appetizers, Panache-style!

stuffed chirimen squash ready to go in the oven!

finished banana flower curry

By the time the banana flower dish was ready, we were all so full from the ample and diverse appetizers and so drunk that I doubt any of us particularly noticed how it tasted, or the squash either, for that matter.  It wasn’t a disaster though, and the tremendous fun was worth the wretched hangover the next day.

Dinner’s finally ready!

Chi consoles Jaco, who was miffed that there was nothing at all of interest to the Panache Cats since we did a vegetarian meal this time.

There was a fair bit of both dishes left over, so a few days later I decided to try the banana flower again, reviving it with the rest of the can of coconut milk I had originally used half of to cook it the first time, and adding a sprinkling of muscovedo sugar from Mauritius.  It wasn’t all that spectacular, but now I have a basic reference on this vegetable, and can improvise a bit with the next one.  The chirimen dish was similarly underwhelming, and I suspect that I harvested the squash before it was fully ripe.  I would truly love to grow my own coconuts and extract the milk myself, but that’s entirely too time consuming and labor intensive!  I wonder if any of the markets in Thai Town a bow-shot west of us on Hollywood Blvd. sell fresh coconut milk?

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