Mashed Green Bananas and Other Comfort Foods

I have mentioned here before that I have very simple taste in food. My favourite dishes are the ones that are simple to prepare, use accessible ingredients, and are made with very little waste.

I was not this diligent half a year ago. My interest in vegetarian cooking was born during quarantine. I avoided the shops and supermarkets, so I made an arrangement with a local farm to deliver a weekly basket of vegetable produce, that set me off on a cooking marathon from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. And I started using ingredients I did not know, and parts of vegetables that I usually discarded.

Last year I remember buying a bunch of unripe bananas, as I usually do, to ripen slowly over the week, but the bunch remained green for the whole week and was destined for the bin. Nowadays I get these green bunches that never ripen, and eat them.

The first recipe I tried with green bananas was a curry-type dish in coconut milk and peanut sauce. I used the recipe from Kaluhi’s kitchen, but I was first tempted to try it after watching her step-by-step video. I credit this lovely lady’s lively instruction with seducing me to the simple charm of African (and Kenyan) cooking. I now check her out regularly and consult my Kenyan friends on traditional dishes. I love the resourceful way Africans cook their food with little or no waste, and using available ingredients and tools. On another Kenyan channel I found a recipe for a divine- looking stove-top baked chocolate cake ! It was fascinating to watch, and I trust that it works, because of its simplicity.

I later discovered that green bananas can be prepared simply, as a mash. There are two ways of doing this. The first method involves peeling the bananas with a knife or potato peeler then boiling them in water. This might cook the bananas faster but one would need to be careful with the resulting sap that might coat and discolour the hands or clothes. I read advice to rub the hands in oil before peeling. The bananas also discolour very quickly and you have to drop them in water immediately after peeling to prevent them turning dark. The second method is to cut the ends of the bananas, make a side slit in them and boil them in their skin. Once done, you can peel them easily while they are still warm, and you save your hands from the sap. There might be a discolouring to the pot, but this is easily remedied by putting a little vinegar in the cooking water.

I tried both methods and I preferred cooking the bananas in their skin. The resulting cooked bananas are light in colour and can be mashed with butter, salt and milk. The texture might come out less creamy than mashing potatoes, but the taste is comparable, and they are very filling. My choice of comfort food.

In terms of nutritional content, it might also be the type of guilt-free comfort food. Green bananas are 70-80% starch, but the starch is resistant and does not get digested in the small intestines, so while tasty and filling it could aid in weight loss.

In addition to green bananas, I learned also to use up root vegetable tops. Beetroot, kohlrabi and radish are all delivered with their leaves. Some of these leaves are higher in nutritional content than the edible root. The trick though is to wash them well and cook them gently for a short time to preserve their nutrients, or even use them in salad if fresh and tender.

I have waxed lyrical before on my love for radish. Another humble veggie that I love is the leek. I love its silky taste and the way it softens into sweet perfection in a stew. I have taken to making it with roasted turnip and kohlrabi, another of my favourite comfort foods that I never tire of eating, either with couscous or with buckwheat.

So my adventure continues. Sometimes the results are stellar, successful and tasty, but I also fail a lot. Other times I feel that the effort is not worth the result. I have yet to discover a carrot greens recipe that warrants the long process of cutting, sorting and washing the feathery leaves. I have so far put them in soup, and made them into salsa. The stalks I have used for broth. But most of the time I wish that I had a big enough compost pile, or a grazing animal to use them up.

The Humble Radish and Other Simple Pleasures

The negative aspects of quarantine are often mentioned these days. I have seen some adverse effects in my own life. Today however is a day to appreciate some of the nice and simple things.

This is now my third month of home-based confinement. Like almost everyone else I am still finding it hard to keep to a routine, find motivation at work, keep my child disciplined with online school, and, frankly, keep a clean and well-organised house.

One of the responsibilities I had to take on recently was kitchen duty. Before quarantine, I ate lunch at the staff cafeteria, and my child had his main meal at school. We complemented this with eating out at weekends, and some light and easy to prepare meals, mostly omelettes or other quick pan-fried meals.

My domestic skills have always been challenged, but a woman (and a child) got to eat, now that all our sources for cooked food are gone. Now, I have to create our dishes from scratch. Fortunately, this is fertile Africa, and raw food is readily available especially vegetables. I signed up with a weekly fresh vegetable basket from a nearby farm and got to work.

My weekly veggie basket has become a notable highlight of my quarantine life. I cooked the traditional African greens like sukuma, terere and managu. Some of those I would have readily mistaken for weeds, if I ever saw them in the wild. I enjoyed salads with arugula, and at least four different types of lettuce. I searched for recipes that combine wildly different ingredients (bok-choy and beetroot; lentils and celery; chickpeas, leek and parsley; green banana and peanuts). To compensate for my lack in knowledge, I took photos of unfamiliar vegetables trying to identify them online. I also asked my neighbour for tips on local plant names and cooking instructions.

The vegetables I received, weren’t always as familiar as your broccoli, cabbage and leek. I know what rhubarb looks like, but was never tempted to buy it, nor bake a rhubarb cake from scratch. But I found the red stalks three weeks ago in the basket. Now even my long disused cake pan is getting a workout. I also got to meet live specimen that I only saw before on a food plate, like baby bok-choy. I had to explore the versatility of some strange items that are neither fruit nor vegetables, like chayote. I also suffered a few cases of mistaken identity. Last week, I prepared a smoothie with what I thought was a guava. Much later I learned that it was White Sapote (some strange fruit that is sometimes called Mexican apple). The smoothie tasted a bit like bitter almonds and I feared that I had ingested some toxic substance from the seed, but it tuns out that the slight bitter taste is normal in this fruit.

In short, I had to work with ingredients that I would have never bought from the grocery. I am a simple potato, onion, tomato and green pepper girl. Anything more requires research and a recipe I probably never cooked before. Furthermore, I always considered cooking a chore. I was, after all, raised by a super-human mother who spends half her day in the kitchen, producing delicious fare that took so long to prepare, and no time at all to polish off the plate. To complicate matters further, my child is a very picky eater, who dislikes almost every kind of food, so there was never any motivation for me to try anything new, and I stuck with the few tried and true dishes he liked.

Surprisingly, and even with the lack of encouragement from my younger quarantine mate, I managed to find pleasure in the simple farm order. One day I received the basket while I was on the phone with my friend. She laughed at me when I became excited at finding a small bunch of radishes hiding in my basket. I have always been a huge radish lover. But getting it from the farm was a treat because in addition to enjoying its crispy bite, I could also do something with its leaves. They are wonderful in an omelette and can also be cooked like spinach greens. When cooked, they retain the slightly spicy taste of radish. The radish itself, can go into salad but I love eating it on buttered toast with a little bit of salt and pepper. It is a poor-man’s feast and something that takes me immediately to my childhood. I think it was something that my grandmother ate with great enjoyment. My mother introduced it to us kids, as I introduced it also in my home. Even my finicky child liked it, so there must be something genetic about loving radish.

Radish the humble ingredient, is always present at the breakfast table at my parents’ house in Germany. Mostly for my benefit I guess, since its season is very short here, while in Europe it is cheaply available all the time. My father laughs at me when I eat it raw like a piece of fruit, but he always buys me fresh bunches whenever we visit them.

I have always been a sucker for simple pleasures. Now I am discovering the simple joy and adventure of cooking. I approach it with great abandon, like love. And while I chop and mince the ingredients, I am not afraid to try adding something different, or leaving something out. At times this works well, and at other it turns out horrible. I learned for example that chayote, as tender as it is, takes time to soften, so it is best to add it first not last to the pot. Otherwise it remains crunchy, while the rest of the vegetables turn to mush. I also learned that it is ok to alter cake recipes. When my rhubarb cake tuned too moist the first time, I added less milk on my next attempt and it turned out in perfect balance the second time.

Yes at times one might go wrong, but it is about the journey, not about this one dish. I am taking it as an adventure.

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

 Harriet Van Horne, Vogue Magazine, 1956