A Story of Rebuilding

2020 will surely be remembered as the scariest year of all, for the pandemic we just faced and for the forced isolation we all lived in. During this tough period, my grandmother’s words echoed in my ears almost every day: Make a virtue of necessity. This saying, borrowed from St.Jerome, also accompanied me while growing up, when some days looked like unsurmountable obstacles. Some days in those months had that gloom. Cooking and baking were my beacons of light, the reason I got up to something pleasing and rewarding. The new shape of my body was a consequence of that for a while. Rebuilding my life, my business…my travels. My everything. Assuming that none of us get sick, when will I be able to see my family? Where to start? A yellow banana came to me, solving this problem! Bananas have always been my favorite fruit. I love their bright color, the captivating tropical smell and the soft, sweet flesh. They conquered my palate from the first time I tasted them as a child, and when I think of this fruit, images of it automatically pop up in front of my eyes like slides: The Jungle Book, tropical islands, the bright side of my fruit bowl, a banana daiquiri, and the quickest dessert ever. Last but not least, they represent the fastest and most effective life saver whenever I need a pick-me-up. Elvis Presley made banana famous by mashing it in a sandwich. Andy Warhol made it immortal with his pop art. Maurizio Cattelan duct taped a banana to a wall, making it the most talked-about artwork of 2019. Speaking of artists, chefs have made banana famous in the culinary stardom. Who hasn’t devoured a banana split at least once in their life? And how about bananas foster? And these are just two of the never ending list of delicious treats you can make using this fruit. Days and days locked in the house with one only positive thought: this will pass and I will be re united with all my students and friends before this Summer. It took a little longer than that but the light at the end of the tunnel ultimately, became a real light, and was not a train. Meanwhile I would spend the day teaching online and cooking with my staff. Weird but also fun.  Due to the lack of fresh produce in supermarkets, bananas were sometimes the only fruit available everywhere. I can say I have seen every type of variation on banana bread, new takes on banana gelato and smoothies, and incredible interpretations of scrumptious granola cups… It’s funny how we can make a virtue of necessity. Creativity, we have a ton! Bananas, in this necessity, have been the virtue. A little more info on this fruit, since it literally saved my cravings. Bananas are berries that grow in clusters hanging from the top of large herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. Indigenous to Southeast Asia, mainly India, they were brought West by Arab conquerors in 327 B.C. and started to be cultivated in Africa. Many historians agree that the name banana is a derivative of Banan, Arabic for finger, as the bananas coming from South East Asia were very small, the size of an adult finger. Bananas are also known as plantains as the Spaniards, who saw a similarity to their native plane tree, named the fruit plátano which led to plantain. This word was used to describe the banana genus as well as the banana variety plantain, normally used for cooking. Please don’t start being bored, LOL. The journey of our yellow fruit continued to the New World, through the Caribbean, where it was introduced by the first traders, explorers and missionaries. In the early 1800s, bananas started to be grown on the same land previously used to grow sugar cane. Their popularity kept increasing and they became a staple or put it simply, the dawning of the age of Bananas had just started. Chosen by chefs, artists and doctors, bananas are the fruit most children adore and the easiest food to carry with you. Easy to carry, store and eat without silverware. Hopefully now I got your attention. 

Reyes Melendez, a native of Puerto Rico, is a professional photographer who travels the world and immortalizes moments, people, places and the beautiful bananas in this page. My chef instructor at the school, Keith DiLauro and his partner Reyes, live in Manhattan where we met decades ago and where we all live during the Winter. We work together but more importantly, we are friends with capital F.

Shortly after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, Reyes and Keith flew from New York to begin to rebuild damaged land and properties. The first step was to clear the land of fallen trees and debris. Their first thoughtful intention was to create a banana grove. Growing bananas in Puerto Rico is a common thing, as they pretty much grow wild there. However, due to their fragile plant structure, most of them were toppled over and destroyed in the hurricane. Keith and Reyes decided to rescue fallen trees by digging up the roots and replanting them on their property in Manati, Puerto Rico. They started off successfully transplanting the roots of about a dozen fallen trees, and in just two years, they are now growing around thirty healthy trees. They currently grow a variety of bananas including Cavendish, Apple Bananas, Niños and Plantains. The pandemic blocked them from going back to New York. During these difficult times, they made virtue of necessity. They wanted to help their neighbors and their community, so they started a charitable, sustainable farming and gardening program where they share all the fruits and vegetables that they grow on their small farm. The first abundant produce they started to harvest  and share with the community was from their banana trees, then mangos and passion fruits were next.Keith and I were on whatsapp video every other day and in those occasions he would show me pictures of everything they were harvesting. Those pics were so amazing and real! Why not use them for my  recipes? Why not work together again…Keith in his Puerto Rican kitchen and me in my Tuscan one. For a moment, it felt like being together again teaching our students. The predominant ingredient? This yellow, happy fruit, straight from the tree. A ray of light in this dark period, a yellow bridge connecting Tuscany with Puerto Rico through this luscious fruit. And the two of us, somehow re united. Some of the recipes he shared with me were surprising. Bananas are not just used in desserts and sweet applications in Puerto Rico. Often, bananas are mashed with root vegetables, cooked in savory pasteles (a type of tamale wrapped in banana leaves), and most popularly in a very unique salad called Guineos en Escabeche (green banana salad). This dish is usually served at holidays and festivals. It is made from unripened green bananas that are boiled whole in their skin, then peeled, cut into bite-sized pieces and tossed in a fantastic, briny marinade and garnished with pickled red onions and sweet red peppers.  When in Rome, do as Romans do. Rebuilding my cooking programs and rebuilding relationships meant rebuilding my life.  And all started again with bananas.


makes 1 loaf

There are so many recipes for banana bread, and I am always looking for the perfect one. Some are not banana-flavored enough, some need more sugar, some are not moist, some are too dense. It is impossible to make everyone happy. Try this one by Alessio JM Da Prato, pastry chef at the school and then, please, tell us what you think. Wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, banana bread keeps very well at room temperature for 4 days and one week in the refrigerator.

4 medium ripe bananas, peeled about 12 oz
1/2 cup plain, Greek yogurt 
2 large eggs, cold
1  tablespoon vanilla paste, such as Nielsen-Massey
2  cups flour, sifted twice
6 ounces brown sugar, plus more for topping
3 ounces oat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 pinch of sea salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoon dark chocolate, cut into small chunks
3/4 cup lightly toasted pecans, chopped 3/4 cup coconut oil or vegetable oil

Line a 10 1/2-inch by 5 1/2-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a medium bowl and using a rubber spatula, mash bananas with yogurt, eggs and vanilla until perfectly combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, place flour, sugar, oat flour, baking powder, cinnamon and oil. Combine on low speed until oil has been incorporated, about 5 minutes.
Add banana, egg, yogurt-vanilla blend and combine well, about 5 minutes.
Stir in chocolate and pecans, mix well. Using a rubber spatula, transfer the mixture to the loaf pan (or muffin tins previously sprayed with vegetable oil or buttered) and level into an even layer.
Sprinkle some brown sugar on top. Bake until well domed and golden brown for about 70 minutes. Test internal temperature with an instant read thermometer, it should read 206°F.


serves 4

Keith DiLauro shares this traditional recipe from beautiful Puerto Rico. For a change, he decided to surprise me with a savory dish featuring green bananas. A simple salad. Surely different but worth trying it.

8 to 10 bright green unripe bananas
2 large red onions, sliced into thin rings 3/4 cup white vinegar
Juice of 2 limes
2 to 3 cloves crushed garlic
1/4 cup green olives (about a dozen)
1 roasted red pepper, sliced into strips 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns 4 fresh bay leaves
11/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra pickled red onions, for garnish
Fresh chopped cilantro, for garnish

 Make escabeche sauce. In a medium saucepan over medium low heat, combine onions, vinegar, lime juice, garlic, olives, peppers, peppercorns and bay leaf and extra virgin olive oil. Stir occasionally for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Cut off ends of each banana. Cut a slit down along the outside curve of the banana skins. Do not remove skins. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add 2 tablespoons of salt and 2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil to water.
Place bananas into the water; boil for 15 minutes on medium heat. Bananas are done when you pierce with a toothpick and they are tender but still firm.
Remove bananas from water. Peel and cut into1-inch rounds.
While still warm, toss banana slices in the escabeche sauce. Stir and mix well. Let cool to room temperature before refrigerating for a minimum of 2 hours (overnight is even better).
 Serve at room temperature. Garnish with extra pickled red onions and fresh chopped cilantro

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