Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.
Should bananas be kept in their plastic bag? And how can I keep them from getting too soft? --Hank Goldman, West Hempstead
Bananas are one of the few fruits that actually ripen off the tree. Along with pears, kiwis and mangos, they not only get softer, they get sweeter. (This is in marked contrast to peaches, say, or pineapples, which may get softer but will never get sweeter.) Your job, as a banana consumer, is to make the fruit's ripening schedule suit your eating schedule.
According to the old Chiquita Banana jingle, "When they are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue/bananas taste the best and are best for you." At the market, you will usually have your choice of green-tipped bananas, yellow bananas, or brown-flecked bananas. If you want to eat them right away, chose the brown-flecked. Otherwise, you'll need to wait a few days, depending on the banana.
At home, take the bananas out of the plastic bag and place them directly on the counter. (If you have one of those nifty banana hooks, go ahead and hang them up; this will ensure that they don't develop banana bed sores, an admittedly rare affliction.) If you want to speed up their ripening, put them into a paper bag with an apple. Apples emit ethylene gas, a natural substance that hastens ripening. Actually, bananas emit ethylene too -- but not as much as apples. (This apple-bag trick also works well with avocados.)
If the bananas get ripe and you're not ready to eat them, you are going to have to contravene Chiquita Banana by putting them in the refrigerator. They'll turn brown, but the flesh will remain at whatever ripeness it was when they went into the fridge.
Overripe bananas are well suited to banana bread and smoothies.
When cooking with garlic, how dark should I let it get?
By me, barely golden. I make abundant use of garlic in my kitchen, but -- in stark contrast to many local Italian restaurants -- I find that less is more. If I'm starting a sauce or a pan saute or a braise, I'll put my oil and garlic in a cold pan, turn on the heat and try not to let it pick up much color at all before proceeding with the dish. If I'm also using onions, I'll add them first, since they need a lot more time to soften than garlic needs to brown.
Nor do I use much chopped garlic. Instead, I'll peel and lightly smash the cloves and let them cook along with the dish. Before serving, I'll remove the cloves lest someone think they're clams or pieces of potato. To me, there is nothing less elegant than a dish of broccoli rabe or escarole that has been showered with minced garlic.