We live in an age of high fashion food; hence, the commonplace banana has no more glamour than a nylon nightgown. But glamour can be exhausting, and slowing down to savor the familiar goodness of a banana is one of life's pleasures.\nNext time you try such a simple feat, consider the history held in your hand. The origin of the banana is traced back to the Malaysian jungles of Southeast Asia. Some horticulturists suspect that the banana was the earth's first fruit, but all agree that banana plants (no, contrary to Curious George, there are no banana trees) have been in cultivation since the beginning of recorded history. One of the first records of bananas dates back to Alexander the Great's conquest of India where he first discovered bananas in 327 B.C.\nIn some lands, bananas were considered the principal food. Early travelers and settlers would carry the roots of the plant as they migrated to the Middle East and Africa. From there Portuguese traders carried banana roots to the Canary Islands, where bananas are still grown commercially. When Spanish explorers came to the New World, so did the banana. According to Spanish history, Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought the first banana root stocks to the Western Hemisphere in 1516 on a sailing mission to the Caribbean.\nIt was more than 250 years later before bananas were officially introduced to the American public. At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, bananas were offered as a novelty refreshment, wrapped in foil and sold for 10 cents. They were so popular, they reportedly sold out in less than an hour. Within a few years, the banana industry was going full force, with year-round delivery from systemized Central American growing fields to almost every American kitchen.\nMost are acquainted with bananas' lunch bag suitability; only a few are aware of their gym bag potential. Significant savings can be made by chucking sports drinks and power bars in favor of bananas. Bananas are equally portable, but all-natural, and ideal for athletic and fitness activities because they replenish carbohydrates, glycogen and body fluids burned during exercise without any fat, cholesterol or sodium.\nThat's the tip of the iceberg. Bananas are also a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber. One banana has 15 percent of the vitamin C, 11 percent of the potassium, and 16 percent of the dietary fiber needed each day for good health. Bananas also contain a rich supply of vitamin B6 (20 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance) which is significant in the synthesis of antibodies in the immune system. Finally, they help in protein metabolism, red blood cell formation and functioning of the central nervous system. At 90 calories and fewer than 15 cents a pop, it is little wonder that bananas are America's No. 1 fruit.\nA crucial issue with bananas is color. Green-tipped bananas are best for cooking, such as in the curry recipe below. The banana will hold its shape in the heated dish. Bananas eaten out of hand or sliced in cereal or salad should be freckled. Bananas are one of the few fruits that ripen best off the plant, so give newly purchased bananas a few days to develop. A smattering of brown freckles on the banana's peel indicate increased ripeness and a subsequently sweeter treat due to the metabolization of starch into sugar. Browner bananas are ideal for baking in breads, cookies, or the muffin recipe listed below.\nAnd now, to the kitchen! \nRecipes\nDOWN ISLAND CHICKEN OR TOFU CURRY\n1 and 1/4 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast (about 4 breasts)\n2 tablespoons vegetable oil\n1 medium-size onion, very finely chopped\n2 tablespoons curry powder\n1 teaspoon ground ginger\n3/4 teaspoon salt\n1 14-ounce can light (reduced fat) coconut milk\n2 medium bananas, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices\n1 ripe, firm mango, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces\n2 ripe, firm kiwi fruits, peeled and cut into large dice\nHot cooked rice or couscous\nCut the chicken into 1-inch pieces. Heat the oil in a large, preferably non-stick, skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook 4 minutes until no longer pink. Add the onion, curry powder, ginger and salt to the skillet; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Add the coconut milk to skillet; stir and bring to a boil. \nContinue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes to thicken. Add the cut banana, mango and kiwi fruit to the skillet and stir gently to combine. Cook for 1-2 minutes until fruit is heated but still maintains its shape. Serve over hot cooked rice or couscous, if desired. Makes 4 servings.\nTOFU OPTION: Substitute 1 pound extra firm tofu for the chicken. Dice tofu into 1 inch pieces, then drain thoroughly on a two layers of paper towels. Proceed with recipe above.\nLEMONY BANANA MUFFINS\n1 cup all-purpose flour\n3/4 cup yellow corn meal (not corn bread mix)\n1/4 cup granulated sugar\n1 tablespoon baking powder\n1/2 teaspoon salt\ngrated zest from 1 large lemon (about 2 teaspoons)\n3/4 cup mashed ripe banana (about 1 small banana)\n1/2 cup milk\n1/3 cup vegetable oil\n1 egg, slightly beaten with a fork\nOptional lemon glaze:\n3/4 cup powdered sugar\n2 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)\nPreheat oven to 425 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper baking cups (or lightly butter cups). In a medium bowl, combine the flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest, banana, milk, oil and egg. Add wet mixture to dry mixture, stirring just until moistened (do not mix too much). \nFill muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake 15-18 minutes or until lightly golden brown; cool. If making the glaze, combine powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth; brush over the tops of cooled muffins. Makes 12 muffins.
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