Getting a thrill from strawberry hill

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Smoking out a way to use many, many of the little red fruit.

After stepping from the shower on Saturday evening, I was greeted by a house full of smoke.

The windows were open, a fan was blowing, the door between the kitchen and living room was closed, and I was stunned that I wasn’t being roused by the overbearing blare of a smoke alarm. Or maybe that was a bad sign.

Should I call 9-1-1? Was everyone OK? Where were the flames? What had blown up?

Well, no and nothing.

This smoke was from a couple of loaves of strawberry banana bread that were baking aromatically in the oven. I say aromatically except for the haze of smoke.

It seems a new recipe had overwhelmed the bread pans and spilled onto the oven’s burners, hence the smoke, hence the windows and all of that. And my lovely wife and our children were taking refuge in the dining room, behind a closed kitchen door, in front of that fan and an open door to outside.

Comedy far outpaced tragedy, you can be sure. Everyone was alert, healthy and in good spirits, even if a bit smoky. No harm, no fire.

To understand how this happened, and why it’s noteworthy in the pantheon of kitchen ketches we all have endured,  we have to turn back the clock a few hours and understand the enormity of the situation that led to this smoke-out.

We took a family trek to Gallrein Farms on Saturday for a pick-it-yourself visit to the strawberry patch. And, man, did we pick ‘em.

They gave us each a gallon bucket lined with a plastic bag and pointed to the strawberry patch, which is a misnomer. A patch is small bunch of plants gathered in one area. This was a few acres of plants tightly formed in rows and dotted with the red of the berries and the squatted haunches of several pickers.

My wife: Do we need a bucket for each of us?

Me, never before having done this: Sure. The more the better.

Truthfully, I doubted, looking at the plants and the ominous skies overhead, that any of us would fill a bucket. That’s a lot of bending and grabbing for old backs and young attention spans. Logic would suggest that good intentions would lose steam long before a bucket would teem.

I was wrong.

The rain held off, and the berries were found. And found. And found. And when we worked our way back to the counter and weighed in our bounty, four of us had more than $40 worth of strawberries. In a grocery they would’ve cost about 10 times that much.

So maybe you’ve seen four gallons or so of strawberries. But have you ever contemplated what to do with them without previously having done anything more than dumped them on shortcake?

Seeing just a third of them spread on a cutting board and getting relieved of their greenery and occasional blemish was overwhelming. Strawberry peels forever.

Those strawberries, though, were outnumbered, outflanked and outmanned by the pages of cookbooks, magazines, iPad apps, iPhone apps and E-mails from Betty Crocker and the spirit of my Mammaw with suggestions of how to make the most of most of those berries.

Jam, jellies, muffins, salsa, salad dressing, bruschetta, syrup, sauce, ice cream concoctions and my personal favorite: strawberry margarita pancakes.

You get the idea about the ideas.

So after much research and a trip to the grocery store, the simplest or at least most immediately understood task was chosen with the bread. A couple of quarts of strawberries gave their lives, along with a couple of bananas and a quantity of Greek yogurt. It created this marbly mixture that the 6-year-old wanted to eat right out of the pan before she was cautioned about the presence of raw eggs.

When I last saw the bread before my post-yard-work shower, the batter was being poured into the pans to a precipitously high level, and said pans were headed for the oven rack. One shower period later, and a Strawberry Alarm Clock was going off.

My 11-year-old: “Did the oven’s convection have anything to do with that?”

I told him I doubted it, given that I had no idea what an oven’s convection had to do with anything in the first place. I would have had to ask my cousin Jeannie, the fair baking champion, but that would be embarrassing, too.

But, fact was,  the diagnosis of the problem was what I had most feared: that there was too much batter in the pans, a problem remedied by a brave smokefighter (re: beautiful wife, again), who placed aluminum foil over the top. The smoke dissipated, and the breads baked.

Me: I thought the strawberry barbecue sauce concept was getting a test drive in somebody’s smoker.

Her: Very funny, or some words to that effect.

Eventually the smoke dispersed, and the loaves emerged. Like the Little Red Hen, each of us wanted to taste the wares, even if some of us were in the shower during the peak of problems. But the Little Red Hen acquiesced, and the bread was enjoyed by all.

One little problem: Those two loaves used less than 20 percent of the strawberries.

On Sunday, more of them – but hardly all of them – gave their lives to become several jars of preserves.

This time I left the house. I was afraid of the inhalation.