I would calmly and ignorantly say “what?” to which he just ran his hand down the banana leaves. “Bro, you do realize you get to cook with these, right?”
I had been looking at these banana plants for weeks now, but quite honestly I saw them as nothing more than tropical, decorative plants. After a short lesson by Jay on Japanese-hybrid banana plants, I was even more excited to live in our new house.
We use banana leaves quite a bit at school when I teach South and Central Americana cuisine, as well as Asian cuisine. Hawaiian Kalua pork, Filipino Suman, Salvadoran tamales et al all grace our tables throughout the school year, and yet I was staring down the business end of these magnificent plants for all of this time without putting two and two together.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was harvesting the bigger leaves to make some succulent dishes. When Jay gets back from Hawaii, we will have a luau with the aforementioned Kalua pork wrapped in banana leaves and smoked for hours. Served with sticky rice, some poke and a few other Hawaiian specialties, I’m pretty sure that we’ll hit the mark. Of course, we may have to throw in a few Kona beers, but I think we’ll manage.
But for today, I just want to use the banana leaves in the simplest of ways. I believe in the Veracruz part of Mexico this is a common treatment for white fish along the coast. It couldn’t be any simpler; just line the banana leaves with garlic, vegetables, seafood and anything else that you might include in a steamer and go to town. You are left with an individual steam packet of seafood bliss, moist and retaining all of its nourishment.
The leaves also impart a very distinct flavor, albeit not strong or unpleasant in any way, shape or form. For any of you reading this far into the article, you may have to run over to a Latin market in Selbyville or Salisbury, or the Caribbean market in Salisbury to find these in the freezer aisle. Just make sure to pull them out and give them plenty of time to thaw. They can be quite brittle after freezing. If you are lucky enough to grow these in your garden, then suffice it to say that you won’t have to travel too terribly far.
This is a very simple recipe, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out. As I noted already, the fish retained all of its moisture and it is a wonderful addition to a steaming mound of rice. Once you get the hang of playing with these, you will want to try all of the other applications as well.
This week I am going to cook the Filipino Suman (almost akin to rice pudding with a fresh, warm caramel sauce) to add to my repertoire, and I imagine I’ll have to start harvesting the trees before they go back from whence they came. You see, before we moved in all we had were landscape boxes, and the trees rose from the garden. They were a pleasant surprise.
I imagine we’ll learn a lot in our new house, but to find that we had edible banana leaves all along? I wouldn’t mind a smack upside the head, as long as we can follow it up with a luau’s worth of ono grinds … aka delicious foods.
Seafood wrapped in Banana Leaf
4 Banana leaves, 10-inch x 10-inch
4 3-ounce Pieces fresh salmon
4 3-ounce Pieces fresh flounder
12 Peeled & deveined large shrimp
Butter or coconut cream, as needed
Zest of 1 lemon
Fresh chopped parsley, as needed
Salt & Cracked black pepper, as needed
1 medium red onion, julienne
1 Yellow bell pepper, julienne
1. Remove the main rib from the banana leaves, and if they are rigid, run them quickly over a flame to “loosen them up”
2. When the leaves are nice and pliable, lay all four out on a clean counter
3. Divide all of your ingredients among the four leaves and season to taste
4. Wrap up your little packages like burritos and either tie them with strips of banana leaves, or lay them seam-side down on a sheet tray
5. Bake between 375-400 degrees (depends on your oven, sorry) until the seafood is cooked through. This will take a little practice, but in my electric, conventional oven, it took about 15 minutes. It is ok to pull these out when the seafood is just a slight touch underdone. It will continue to cook and will maintain its moisture, leaving you with a succulent dish
6. Allow to cool and place a packet on each plate. Simply open and trim away some of the banana leaf until you have an attractive base on which to serve your finished meal
7. Serve with rice or any other side that traditionally goes with seafood