Think outside the banana: Save those skins for two delicious, and unconventional, recipes

Nigella Lawson and Nadiya Hussain are leading the charge in the save your banana peel movement. Charlotte Druckman doesn’t know if she’s convinced... yet

Wednesday 12 May 2021 17:22
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<p>Raw truth: All of a banana is edible</p>

Raw truth: All of a banana is edible

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In November, Nigella Lawson shocked the nation when she demonstrated a recipe from her latest cookbook, Cook, Eat, Repeat, on her BBC television show of the same name. It wasn’t royal family-level scandalous but, based on public reaction, you’d think she’d caused a major controversy.

And all because she’d prepared a fragrant dish of cauliflower – and banana peels.

“I certainly didn’t expect newspaper headlines about it!” she tells me in an email. “It’s hard to overcome the cultural assumptions about what is and is not edible and to start eating what we have customarily regarded as waste.”

A few months earlier, another culinary television star and cookbook author, Nadiya Hussain, had appeared on a Good Morning Britain segment on cooking during lockdown. “Everyone’s making banana bread,” she explained, offering resourceful tips on using scraps to avoid food waste. “Don’t chuck the peel away. Cook it up with some garlic and onions and barbecue sauce, stick it in a burger, and you’ve got, like, pulled pork, pulled chicken.”

After Lawson’s show aired, Hussain’s previous appearance resurfaced and the peels became a culinary cause celebre. “Nigella Lawson shocks viewers with banana skin recipe,” read one Independent headline. “Are banana skins about to become a must-eat ingredient?” wondered The Guardian.

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Hussain, whose parents are Bangladeshi, credits her father, a former chef and restaurant owner, for introducing her to cooked peels. In Bengali cuisine, unripe skins are cooked until soft, then puréed with garlic and green chillis and sauteed with additional seasonings.

Lathika George, author of The Kerala Kitchen, says: “Different varieties of banana grow all over India and there are recipes for all parts of the plant – flowers, fruit and even the trunk of the plant!”

In the southwest region of India’s Kerala state, where George was born, unripe bananas are most commonly associated with a thoran, a type of stir-fry for which they’re soaked then sauteed with a bouquet of bloomed spices and an aromatic, chilli-warmed paste of ground coconut. Some adaptations include the peels, while others feature them on their own. “As the skin and flesh of green, unripe banana is like a vegetable, it is also used for kofta (mashed-vegetable dumpling), cutlets and vegetable curries,” George adds.

Travel north and you’ll find dishes that feature riper skins. George cited an Assamese khar from the northeastern part of India that calls for the ripe, sun-dried peels of an indigenous strain of banana. “Personally, I think it’s just a fad, especially if you’re vegan and looking for different options,” she says of the hype in Britain.

Banana skins have been trendy among vegans since at least 2019, when online recipes began circulating for treating the peels like bacon. At around the same time, the pulled not-pork had its first brush with internet fame, courtesy of blogger Melissa Copeland, who published an explainer – and recipe – on her site the Stingy Vegan along with a video. She’d developed it after learning that vegans in Venezuela use bananas’ outer jackets for an alternative to carne mechada (shredded beef) and in Brazil a similar swap is popular in a dish known as carne louca (or “crazy meat”). Copeland’s “pulled” peels, “made it on to the menus of several restaurants in places as far away as Hawaii, Malta and New Zealand thanks to this recipe!” she wrote in an update to her original article a few months after posting it.

For US author Lindsay-Jean Hard, the appeal of cooking with banana peels extends beyond interests in veganism. She has spent the past 11 years learning as much as possible about utilising the jettisoned parts of her produce. Her 2018 book Cooking With Scraps includes a recipe for her grandmother’s banana cake layered with brown sugar frosting and one notable change: she substituted the fruit with its peels, softening them with a simmer, then pureeing them with some of their cooking liquid (she has subsequently realised that freezing them in advance takes care of the softening). She applies the same technique to banana bread, utilising the whole fruit – casing and flesh – for “even more banana flavour”.

Hussain does a whole-banana loaf, too. It’s a gooey, chocolaty “roller-coaster”, as her daughter described it on her mother’s social media page where it debuted. She doesn’t trouble herself with tenderising the peels; they yield during baking, resulting in a springy chewiness.

Now that Hard works for a bakery in Michigan, she encourages the bakery to put peels in all of the banana bread it produces and distributes. It’s an, “impact on a larger scale”, she says. “We compost a lot at the bakehouse and composting is great but it’s not as great as eating the food and not wasting it in the first place.”

But eating the peels might not be as great as choosing another fruit altogether or being more selective about which bananas you purchase. Among other reasons, bananas are one of the crops with the worst track records when it comes to environmental harm, according to Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project in California. “There’s a whole lot wrapped up in that piece of fruit that involves colonisation, sexism, racism, just in that one fruit,” she says.

The flavour of the skins isn’t too pronounced in a loaf – subtle, politely bitter and slightly floral

She recommends buying bananas from a fair trade source and says Edinburgh workers’ co-operative Equal Exchange Trading is a reliable resource for produce that’s been grown and traded under ethically and environmentally sound conditions.

Hard has received only praise for her banana cake. Lawson reports that the feedback from those who have actually made her curry has only been positive. “I don’t think I’ve received one negative comment from anyone who’s cooked it themselves,” she says. “Some, certainly, said that they had doubts before they tasted it but felt that they just had to try for themselves and were universally delighted.”

Columnist Felicity Cloake was among them. “I had to try it because there wasn’t much promising going on at the time,” she says. “And it did blow my mind. I did like it.”

In truth, the flavour of the cooked skins isn’t too pronounced – it’s subtle, with a polite suggestion of bitterness and a slight floral note on the finish. Lawson believes that, “if you had to guess what the cut-up banana peels were, without knowing, you’d be much more likely to think them related to eggplant”. That’s how she uses them, in ratatouille as well as in this dish. She deploys a traditional method for preparing curry – frying a concentrated savoury paste and then adding coconut milk to form a sauce. Once the peels are tossed into the pan, Lawson marvels at how they “take on a luscious velvety texture”.

For those who remain unconvinced, she offered this last encouragement: “If you took a bite out of a raw potato, you’d never guess at the utter deliciousness of a french fry!” A few moments later she followed up with a postscript: “I rather feel I should have added an expectation-managing sentence after comparing the cooked banana peels to fries though!” No, they will never be fries but they’re not scandalous and yes, you can eat them.

Whole-banana bread

Adapted from: Nadiya Hussain

Makes: 1 (20cm) loaf

Total time: 1½ hours

Ingredients

100g virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, plus more for greasing the pan (see tip below)

2 ripe bananas

280g all-purpose flour, plus 1½ teaspoons for tossing peels

64g tahini (or nut butter of your choice)

80ml oat milk, nut milk or dairy milk of your choice

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt

200g coconut palm or dark brown sugar

20g unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking powder

Unsalted vegan or nonvegan butter (optional), for serving

Method

1. Heat the oven to 180C. Grease an 6x11x21cm loaf tin with coconut oil and line it with parchment.

2. Wash the bananas then trim and discard the tips. Peel the bananas, then slice the peels crosswise into 0.6cm-thick strips. Place them in a small bowl and toss with 1½ teaspoons flour to coat; set aside.

3. In a large bowl, use a fork to mash the bananas into a rough purée (don’t worry about small lumps). Add the coconut oil, tahini, oat milk, almond and vanilla extracts, and salt. Beat together with a whisk to thoroughly incorporate and create a thick batter. Add the sugar and beat with the whisk to combine.

4. Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into the batter and fold it in using a rubber spatula until no streaks remain. Fold the floured banana peels into the batter.

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf tin and smooth the top into an even layer. Bake for about 55 to 65 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

6. Let the loaf cool in the tin for 10 to 15 minutes, then lift it out on to a baking rack using the parchment. Let it cool a bit, then serve warm with butter slathered on top, if using, or let it cool completely if you want to store it for later (wrapped tightly, the bread will keep at room temperature for about four days).

Tips: Unrefined, virgin coconut oil is recommended here because it lends coconut flavour. Refined coconut oil would also work but since it’s a neutral-flavoured oil, your banana bread won’t have such a pronounced coconut flavour.

Cauliflower and banana peel curry

Adapted from: Nigella Lawson

Makes: 2 to 4 servings

Total time: 1 hour, plus soaking and cooling

Ingredients

3 large banana peels, tough stems and bottom ends trimmed

1 small cauliflower and tender leaves, trimmed into bite-size florets

1¼ teaspoons ground turmeric

Fine salt

113g shallots (about 2 to 3 large shallots), peeled and roughly chopped

1 (3.8cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into thick coins

1 fresh red chilli (such as bird’s-eye or Fresno), quartered

4 fat garlic cloves

1 small bunch coriander, stems separated and reserved, leaves chopped

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (400g) can full-fat coconut milk

2½ tablespoons lemon juice

1½ teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, plus more to taste

Cooked rice or flatbread (such as naan or roti), for serving (optional)

Method

1. Bring a large pot of water to a full boil.

2. Put the banana peels in a medium-large heatproof bowl. Pour in enough of the boiling water to cover, reserving the rest for cooking the cauliflower.

3. Add the cauliflower florets and leaves to the pot and boil for 5 to 7 minutes, or until fork tender.

4. While the cauliflower cooks, gently stir ½ teaspoon each turmeric and fine salt into the bowl with the soaking banana peels. Let sit until they’ve softened up and are cool enough to handle, around 30 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, once the cauliflower is tender, drain it into a colander in the sink; set aside while the banana peels cool and you make the curry paste.

6. Prepare the curry paste: Place the shallots, ginger and chilli into a measuring jug or wide jar that accommodates an immersion blender.

7. Using the flat side of a heavy knife, bruise the garlic to help remove the skins, then add the peeled cloves to the measuring cup followed by the cilantro stems, cinnamon and remaining ¾ teaspoon turmeric. Use the immersion blender to turn everything into a paste. Be patient: at first you’ll never think it’s going to happen but after a while, everything will obligingly turn into a vibrantly coloured mush.

8. Drain the banana skins, squeezing out any excess liquid, and either chop them into slightly smaller-than-bite-sized pieces, or take a fork and, with the interior of the banana skins facing you, press the prongs into the top and push all the way down so that you have long, thin strips.

9. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or medium frying pan over medium-low. When the oil is hot, add the curry paste and fry for 7 minutes, stirring most – if not quite all – of the time. As it cooks, the paste will seem to condense and tighten; it will also lose its cheery brightness.

10. Stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for three minutes. Add the coconut milk, lemon juice, sugar and flaky salt. Whisk to combine, scraping the browned curry from the bottom of the pan. Cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes, letting it bubble, reduce and thicken a little.

11. Add the banana skins to the pan, lower the heat and bring to a simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the banana skins are soft. Tip in the cauliflower florets and leaves and cook until they’re hot all the way through.

12. Taste and adjust for salt as needed. Scatter the reserved chopped coriander leaves over the curry and serve with rice or flatbread, if desired.

© The New York Times

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