- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Bananas are many people’s favorite fruit, and they transform easily in a scrumptious sweet. There are many types of bananas, including baby or ladyfinger bananas and red bananas.

The most striking are large plantains, which are often labeled at Latin markets with the sexy name macho bananas. Even their botanical name — Musa paradisiaca — points to perfection.

According to “Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book” (Atheneum), paradisiaca is a “reference to the Arabs, who claimed that the banana was the tree of paradise, or tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.”

Plantains are used in all stages of ripeness. Green plantains taste starchy and can be simmered in meat soups or fried to make potato-chip-like snacks. Ripe ones are sweet and are used in desserts as well as savory dishes.

For maximum sweetness, plantains should be ripened more than common bananas, until the skin has plenty of black splotches. Some people think they must be eaten cooked, yet I enjoy very ripe plantains raw. Still, sauteing intensifies their sweetness, as well as the orange-yellow hue.

Although we associate bananas with Latin America and the Caribbean, bananas originated in the Eastern Hemisphere, probably in Southeast Asia. The first records of their cultivation are from India, which is still one of the world’s largest growers.

Cooks from tropical lands use them in seemingly countless ways. When I ate them at a Sri Lankan restaurant, where they were cooked with chilies in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves, they tasted like potatoes.

Recently, I enjoyed savory, sweet plantain empanadas with a delicate bean filling at a Central American bakery in Los Angeles. I love the sweet, fried plantain slices that accompany meals at Cuban and Brazilian restaurants. Similar slices are popular among visitors to the food booths at Los Angeles’ Thai Temple.

In North America, we generally focus on bananas as dessert. We’re all familiar with banana splits and chocolate-dipped bananas, but there are many more ways to pair these two delectable ingredients.

For an easy treat that is ideal for the cold weather, I prefer a warm dessert modeled after a popular Parisian street snack: crepes filled with chocolate. For my banana variation, I use packaged crepes so I can assemble the dessert rapidly. With a creamy dark chocolate sauce complementing the sweet banana, it’s a heavenly match.

Banana crepes Belle Helene

Pears Belle Helene, a classic dessert matching fruit with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, inspired me to make these banana-filled crepes, but you can also make a tasty plantain version (see variation that follows). Note that packaged crepes are larger (about 9 inches) than those made at home in a standard crepe pan.

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

¼ cup whipping cream, plus ½ cup chilled whipping cream

3 large bananas, divided

2 tablespoons rum

8 small homemade crepes (recipe follows) or 4 to 6 packaged crepes, room temperature

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla

Combine chocolate and ¼ cup whipping cream in a small bowl over nearly simmering water. Leave until melted, stirring occasionally. Cut 2 bananas in small dice to make 2 cups. Stir chocolate until smooth. Remove from pan of water; stir in rum. Gently stir in diced bananas.

Spoon 3 tablespoons filling (for homemade crepes) or 5 tablespoons (for packaged crepes) onto less attractive side of each crepe. Spread gently to within ½ inch of edge.

Roll up crepes like cigars. Arrange, seam-side down, in buttered large shallow baking dish in 1 layer. Brush crepes with melted butter. Bake for 7 minutes in 400-degree oven or until hot. Meanwhile, whip ½ cup chilled cream in a chilled bowl until soft peaks form.

Add sugar and vanilla, and whip briefly. Slice remaining banana. Serve crepes hot, topped with whipped cream and banana slices. Makes 4 servings.

Variation: To make crepes with plantains, peel and slice 2 plantains. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet, or cover with nonstick cooking spray. Heat skillet, add plantains and saute over medium-low heat for 2 minutes per side or until golden brown. Dice enough plantains to make 2 cups filling. Use remaining slices for garnish.

HOMEMADE CREPES:

3 eggs

1¼ cups milk, or more, if necessary

¾ cup flour

¾ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons butter

Oil

In blender, combine eggs, milk, flour and salt. Blend batter on high speed 1 minute or until smooth. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Gradually whisk into batter. If batter is thicker than whipping cream, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time.

Heat nonstick crepe pan or skillet with 6-inch base over medium-high heat. Sprinkle with few drops of water. When pan is hot enough, water should sizzle immediately. Brush pan lightly with oil.

Turn off heat, and add 2 tablespoons batter to one edge of pan, swirling pan quickly until base is covered with thin layer of batter. Pour excess batter back into bowl. Cook crepe over medium-high heat until lightly browned on each side. Slide onto a plate.

Continue making crepes, stirring batter and reheating pan before each. Adjust heat, and add more oil to pan (if necessary). Pile crepes onto a plate as they are cooked. Makes about 18 small crepes. Crepes keep for 3 days in refrigerator or can be frozen.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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