SEED OF AN IDEA
Discard any thought that pips and peels are useless in the kitchen
The obviousness of using some food discards is not solely about feeling green and virtuous but because they really do taste good. Or improve a dish. Or make a damn fine snack.
We can easily predict that the eventual symbol of this pandemic will be a loaf tin of banana bread. While thousands of these loaves were being turned out I was, as mindlessly, maniacally providing myself with pasta and squashed, balsamicked, roasted cherry tomatoes in their juices with olive oil. And then more of the same. Sometimes interspersed with aglio e olio. When I looked up from the saminess of my lockdown diet I saw a food piece called 21 Best Banana Bread Recipes. How unsamey was banana bread getting?
Among the blueberry, buttermilk, walnutty, caramel, cream cheese, lemon-iced variations, something hit me over the head like a loaf tin. When the ingredients listed, for example, three very ripe or overripe bananas, they meant, even when not specifically saying so, three overripe bananas stripped of their skins. I had always thought the idea of using those super-ripe, soft-skinned bananas was because of their skins. I have not made banana bread in so many decades without skins. It was never so much about waste in the beginning as imparting to the banana bread its unique moistness.
Having tested the difference now, I can say that the taste and the colour don’t differ. The moistness does. And you would use one less overripe banana unpeeled if the recipe calls for three peeled ones. The other difference is that you wash the bananas before using them, like you would apples. Then you always cut the little ends off, right through the skin. You probably do that with the skinned ones anyway because those ends of bananas taste weird. You chop the bananas within their skins, into chunks, and they go into the processor like that, with the other ingredients, for a whirl or two for the chunkier kind or a full whizz for the smooth batter.
If your banana bread is sacrosanct and you like it better a bit unmoist, maybe make the rather trendy and vegan banana bacon, with the same overripe peels. They taste nothing like bacon but are crispily intriguing and breakfasty. The rashers look pretty much like bacon, good nestling up to scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu. I’ve even been given them with hamburgers.
For eight skinny rashers, use the very ripe black-mottled or even black skins of two bananas, peeled off or cut into four long pieces (per banana). Put them in a marinade of soy sauce, maple or golden syrup, smoky paprika and maybe some squashed garlic if you like. They can marinate for 10 minutes or even a few hours.
Have hot cooking oil in a frying pan that’s long enough to take rashers. Fry them for a couple of minutes per side, so that they start to bubble up a bit. The rashers may get smoky from their natural caramels and those from the syrup but it adds to the flavour. Remove the rashers from the pan, drain on paper towel and serve. The banana peel bacon will crisp up even more as it cools.
I was very puzzled as a schoolkid when other kids said banana skins could be smoked like dope. I just couldn’t figure it out and still can’t but having them as bacon is a helluva lot less trouble, I suspect.
In Cuba one Christmas, a friend and I were invited by a local family for the festive dinner, which featured the national butterflied pork dish, deliciously slow-roasted, constantly basted and finally served with the mojo or sauce of the juice of whichever citrus is in season, plenty of garlic and olive oil.
The dessert was preserved grapefruit skins. I think they were served with an option of custard but I was enchanted by the wastelessness of generally poor Cubans and that exquisite preserve.
There was a time when food was somehow deemed better-class if things were “purified”, of all goodness generally, crusts removed from sandwiches, the colour and content removed from flour, apples and kiwi fruit peeled of their nice-tasting skins. My grandmother, watching me with some disdain eating grapes from a stalk with my hands, said I’d better learn how to peel a grape at table with a fruit knife and fork if I were going to be at all fit for society.
I also think we peel potatoes needlessly sometimes and then also before we cook them, rather than after. Then we discard the potato peels. They’re so tasty and useful. I don’t mean those steakhouse snacks called potato skins that are really like baked potatoes, just having the inner section hollowed out and cheesed up. I mean the real ugly-looking greige peels that just need to be dried slightly with paper towel and then crisp-fried or oven-baked and shaken with salt or garlic salt or salt and cayenne pepper. If you don’t gobble all of them straight from the pan, use them over things, especially soup. When you want a tasty bit of crunch like those that Woolies used to have, little boxes of texture treats, ideal for bejazzing smooth soups and calm salads.
The crunch was how I got to my own Duh Moment, inspiration for a lot that followed. I was making a pumpkin soup as we do at this time of year. Except it was another year and quite a few back.
I’d chopped up pumpkin, always daunting, wondering whether the best knife for that job should be helluva sharp or helluva blunt. I’d thrown the peels and slimy pips into a bowl, like a holding stage for stuff before it goes to the compost urn in the garden. I’d creamed the thick soup and it was time for finishing touches. I’d stripped a few thyme twigs and those little leaves were ready for strewing purposes, alongside some white pepper, and was removing the cellophane from a pack of purpose-bought pumpkin seeds, to toast quickly in a dry pan, when…
I could see the ones I’d chucked as vegetal detritus, pulled one out and compared it. Same thing, silly. The ones I’d bought weren’t even pepitas that have had the outer part of the seed removed for less chewiness and quicker snap, which is another easy operation anyway.
For pumpkin seeds, gem squash seeds, butternut seeds, wash the strands away, off the seeds, and then dry the seeds by allowing them to stand or by rubbing with a tea towel. Then dry-fry or fry in a little bit of olive oil. If you have lots, put them on a baking sheet, to roast. Salt these pips as you did the potato peels above. Or you could go the sweet-spice route and use cinnamon, nutmeg etc. They make very moreish bowls of nutty tasting snacks when they aren’t putting in an appearance on top of their own soups.
Pepitas are the inner kernels of the pips of all squash and pumpkin seeds. The outer part of the pip is the hull and perfectly edible. In fact, I like them better with the hull and don’t even mind a tangle of the fibres attached to the seeds for my snacks. The hull makes the seeds a bit more chewy. If you want to remove it, boil the seeds in water for 10 minutes and then break the hull open and tweezer out the kernels. You could also dry out the pips in the sun for a couple of days. Crack them open and remove the kernels that way.
These seeds are all wonderfully nutritious and concentrated with protein, fats, minerals and vitamins, as any Googling will no doubt reveal (yes, Ed, they are all edible and safely so). For the nut allergic, of course, eating these pips instead is a good idea, much as you do sunflower seeds.
Watermelon pips can also be used in the same ways, hulled or not, and most other summer melon pips have very interesting food uses, as in other parts of Africa and Asia. But those are stories for a summer’s day.
Pawpaw pips are not delicious in the way that the above seeds are. I love them because they’re peppery. They are full of even more wonderful healing and protective qualities than other seeds but shouldn’t be eaten by anyone pregnant. Wash the seeds and dry-fry. They are excellent as crumbly pepper over salads or vegetables.
Here’s one more fun thing. Many pips will pop, not quite as dramatically as popcorn when given the same treatment but, if you have eaten all your amaranth marogo and it’s going to seed, use the seeds when dry, to pop. They make the cutest little white end-puffs and it changes the taste of the seeds to something most delectable and cheffy. Promise.
Yes I did learn to peel grapes with a fruit knife and fork. I can claim a societal skill that is up there with being able to wiggle one’s ears. DM/TGIFood