It's hard to imagine Alexander the Great munching on a banana. Yet history, recorded by Pliny, tells how Alexander's soldiers enjoyed this strange fruit during their invasion of India in 327 B.C.

Actually, bananas have been around mush longer than that. They were growing even before man himself walked the earth, and were probably our first cultivated fruit.

They grow upside down in huge bunches which hang from plants that are, in fact, giant herbs. Each banana plant produces one bunch, which is broken up into "hands" at it is harvested. The individual pieces of fruit are then referred to as "fingers."

Most of the bananas eaten in this country are of the well-known, bright yellow variety. Occasionally, a much smaller red banana with a slightlyy richer taste and firmer consistency is also available.

Although many people think that green bananas are inedible, they actually are preferred for dishes which require cooked bananas to retain their shape. Since green hananas contain more starch than those which have ripened, they are used in cooking as a vegetable rather than a fruit in the same way as are their cousins, the plantains.

Ripe bananas -- those which have turned completely yellow (or red), and perhaps begun to "freckle" -- are best for eating out-of-hand or for mashing into assorted baked goods, as they have a higher sugar content. In this form, bananas are very easily digested and therefore often given to infants as their first solid food.

Bananas should be stored at room temperature to allow them to ripen, although they will ripen in the refrigertor at a slower pace. It's best to leave them unwrapped and attached as they were bought since this helps prevent spoilage. In the refrigerator the skin will darken, but the pulp will not be ruined.

For longer storage, mash overripe bananas and place them in an airtight container of plastic bag, then freeze.

Or, cut extra just-ripe bananas in half crosswise, then insert a wooden popsicle stick into each peeled piece. Place the banana "popsicles" in a container or individually cover with plastic wrap, then freeze. Eat them right out of the freezer. You'll be surprised how creamy and ice cream-like they are.

If you'd like to make these "Ice Cream Bananas" a little fancier, dip them in this special carob sauce.

Skewered indonesian-style BEEF WITH BANANAS (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds flank steak 1/2 cup soy sauce 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon molasses 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste 1 clove garlic, chopped 1/2 cup shelled peanuts 2 large green bananas

Remove all traces of fat from steak, then cut lengthwise into 8 long strips. Place in shallow container or baking dish. To make marinade, place remaining ingredients, except for bananas, into a blender jar or food processor and blend until smooth. Pour over steak, then cover well. Marinate in the refrigerator several hours.

Shortly before serving, remove steak from refrigerator. Cut each banana into 6 chunks. Place a piece of banana on a wooden or metal skewer, then thread on a steak strip by weaving it back and forth. Add another banana, then another steak strip, and end with a banana. Repeat entire process three more times.

Brush some leftover marinade over steak and bananas, then place under broiler (or over hot coals) for about 7 to 8 minutes. Turn, brush again with marinade, then continue broiling until done. Serve over a bed of hot, cooked rice.

BANANA-CARROT COFFEE CAKE (Makes one cake) 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar 2/3 cup vegetable oil 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 large eggs 2 medium bananas, mashed (1 cup pulp) 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup whole wheat flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup finely shredded carrot 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans

Place sugar, oil and vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl, and beat at medium speed until well combined. Add eggs and continue beating to mix in well, then add bananas. Mix in flours, soda, baking powder, allspice and salt, and beat at low speed until completely combined. Stir in carrot by hand, making sure it is evenly distrubuted.

Pour batter in to a well-greased 9-by-13-by-2-inch pan. Sprinkle top evenly with chopped nuts. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan, then cut into squares to serve.

Note: To prepare in food processor, first grate carrot using grating blade. Remove carrot and set aside. Place steel blade into unwashed bowl, and chop nuts with a quick on/off motion. Remove nuts and set aside. Place remaining ingredients into bowl (bananas need only be cut into slices), and process until smooth. Add carrot and process one second more, just to completely combine it. Then proceed as above.

BANANA-NUT CHEESE CAKE SQUARES (Makes 16 squares) Crust: 1/2 cup butter or margarine 1/4 cup brown sugar 3/4 cup whole wheat or all-purpose flour 1/2 cup walnuts of pecans, finely chopped Filling: 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1 large egg 1 egg yolk 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 1 very large or 2 small bananas, mashed (2/3 cup pulp)

To make crust, cream butter with brown sugar, then gradually add flour and nuts to form a crumbly mixture. Remove 1/2 cup of the crumbs and set aside. Press remainder evenly into the bottom of an ungreased, 8-inch square baking pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare filling. Place cream cheese in same mixing bowl as above (washing is not necessary), and blend with sugar until fluffy.Add whole egg and yolk and mix well. Next add lemon juice, flour, and bananas and mix until smooth. Pour evenly over pre-baked crust. Sprinkle reserved crumbs on top, and lightly press into filling. Return to oven 25 minutes longer. Cool, then refrigerate several hours. Cut into squares.

Note: This is especially easy to prepare using a food processor. To make crust, place cold butter, cut in cubes, into a processor fitted with a steel blade. Add brown sugar and flour, then use and on/off motion of the blade to make crumbs. Add nuts (if is not necessary to chop them first), then process a second or two longer until they are chopped. The proceed as above.

To make filling, place cold cream cheese, cut in cubes, into unwashed bowl. Add rest of filling ingredients (bananas need only be sliced, not mashed) and process until smooth.