Banana Leaves

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Culinary teacher Nancy Zaslavsky shares tips on how to cook with banana leaves. She specializes in Mexican cuisine and leads tours to Mexico throughout the year.

Cochinita Pibil (Pork Roasted in Banana Leaves, Yucatan Pit-Style)
Makes 8 to 10 servings

4 heaping Tablespoons packaged achiote paste
2 tsps sea or kosher salt
¼ cup orange juice
¼ cup lime juice
4 lbs semi-boneless pork leg or shoulder roast, meat deeply scored (may substitute skinned chicken thighs, deeply scored)
2 fresh banana leaves, about 6 ft x 2 ft each (some yellow spots are okay, but they should not be brown). Unfold leaves, and with scissors trim out the hard center vein and any brown places. Each leaf side should be about 1 ft x 5 ft
2 white onions, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 red-ripe tomatoes, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 large sprigs fresh epazote
1 habañero chile, toasted in an ungreased skillet until black spots appear all over

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

2. Mix together the achiote paste, salt, orange and lime juices. Rub the mixture into the meat.

3. Line a large pot with lid (a Dutch oven is perfect) with banana leaves and center the pork (or chicken) the center. Cover the meat with the onions, tomatoes, epazote and chile. Wrap with more banana leaves, tucking some top leaves under (there will be wastage). Cover the pot tightly.

4. Bake at 325°F for 3 hours (1½ hours for chicken thighs). Remove the pot from the oven and let it stand, covered, for 30 minutes (not for chicken thighs). Remove the meat and place on a serving platter. Discard the banana leaves. Cut the meat into chunks and spoon some sauce and vegetables over.

Traditionally served with Cebolla Curtida, Red Onion Condiment: Slice a 4-inch red onion vertically into ¼-inch slices. Break into rings, put into a strainer and rinse 3 times with cool water. Dry, and put into a bowl. Pour ½-cup white vinegar mixed with ½ teaspoon salt over the onions. Mix. Toast one habañero chile until black spots appear all over and snuggle it in the middle of the onions. The chile is not necessarily to eat, but adds traditional flavor and spiciness to the onions.

Fish Fillets Baked in Herbal Banana Leaf Perfume
Serves 6

1 fresh banana leaf, or a package of frozen banana leaves, thawed
2 lbs fish fillets, skinned (grouper, halibut, yellowtail, snapper or sea bass) cut into 6 equal pieces, 1/2-inch thick at the thickest point
3 Tablespoons pure, mild ancho chile powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 fresh limes (Mexican, aka Key limes), thinly sliced (discard end pieces) and seeded
2 fresh hierba santa leaves in 6 pieces, and/or 6 avocado leaves, or 1 bunch cilantro

1. Preheat an oiled baking sheet in the oven to 400°F.
2. Unfold the fresh green banana leaf and tear out the center vein. (Begin at the pointed end because the leaf can split if torn from the wide end.) You will have two sides. Discard the center vein. With scissors, cut 6, 1-foot squares, plus a few extras, as they easily tear. Put the squares of fresh leaves in a wide pot, with water to cover. Simmer 20 minutes until they are pliable. Turn off heat and cover to keep leaves moist.

3. Season the fish with salt and pepper, and sprinkle all over with the mild chile powder. Heat the oil in a large skillet to hot. Sear the fish 1 minute per side to toast the chile. Immediately remove the fish from the skillet to a plate.

4. Center a banana leaf on the work surface with the ribs facing horizontally. Place a piece of fish horizontally on the banana leaf. Place 2 lime slices on top, and cover with herbs. With 2 hands, turn up the bottom third (long side) of the leaf, flapping it over the filling. Turn down the top third over the bottom third’s flap. Carefully turn under both sides to form a package without tearing the leaves. Continue with the others.

5. Arrange the packages on the hot baking sheet so they don’t touch, and bake about 12 minutes. Remove one and check for doneness by cutting through the banana leaf into the fish. The center should barely be translucent - the fish will continue to cook in the leaves until unwrapped.

To serve: Each person unwraps his/her banana leaf to enjoy the blast of herbal perfume. Do not eat the banana leaf.

Recipes courtesy of Nancy Zaslavsky.