The weather has been gorgeous for the last week or so. Chilly mornings. Crisp days. Biting nights. Gosh, I love cool weather! Kevin and I went for a walk around the neighborhood every night this past weekend, Friday included. I refer to these walks as our dates since this is pretty much the only time we can carve out for each other these days. Funny thing is, back in my adolescence days in Russia if a guy wanted to ask a girl out, he would ask her out for a walk. Up to now I’d rather go out for a walk on a date night than out to dinner. Walking makes me happy.
These early March days are full of clear skies, bright warm sun, and chilly winds. Spring is definitely in full bloom in Florida and so are strawberries, I hope, whose short-lived season down here will be over by the end of the month.
Yesterday I peeled Mom off of the computer, we picked up Nicole from school and were headed to Natural Wonders Landscaping nursery and u-pick farm for a taste and a bucket or two of mid-season strawberries.
Neat and cozy little place at a glance, it offers quite a variety of hydroponically-grown produce. The day we came, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, Pak Choi (Bok Choi), Bibb and romaine lettuces as well as different herbs were available for picking. Their website claims that they grow as many as 30,000 different plants there. Talk about wonders of growing fruits and veggies vertically!
Strawberries were scarce. They said they didn’t do well in the unusually warm and humid winter of 2012. But then cherry tomatoes were many. Sun-ripened and ready to burst, they hung in clusters like grapes. Nicole got down on her knees and straight to business.
We spent a good hour and a half at the place. I could’ve easily stayed there longer. I loved breathing in the teasing aromas of fresh tomatoes and basil, looking at the weathered outdoor furniture and colorful potted plants, listening to the gravel crunch under my feet and the sheep bleat in want of food and attention.
I was wishing to have a piece of land, a garden, a farm one day. . .
We returned home with strawberries, cherry tomatoes, Cherokee lettuce, and a few blooming stems of parsley. I immediately whipped them up into a simple salad with radishes, shallots, and cooked buckwheat grains. A drizzle or two of white truffle oil and a pinch of sea salt were all we needed to enjoy this farm fresh salad for a late lunch.
I stayed up late that night cooking strawberry kisel and banana-strawberry bread for us to enjoy the next morning for breakfast.
I’d been cooking my banana bread the same way for years. It’s moist and incredibly flavorful due to a little trick I discovered along the way. Using firm, slightly under-ripe bananas that I never puree but rather mash up coarsely is what got this bread its status of a true family favorite. On a side note, green bananas are said to have resistant starch that actually aids in losing weight by curbing appetite.
But inspired by our trip that ignited a desire to live and cook in more natural and healthier ways as well as an itch to shake things up a little, I gave it a quick spring lift by adding freshly roasted strawberries and swapping my usual all-purpose unbleached ultragrain flour for a combination of gluten-free ones.
To bring out the flavor of strawberries, I roasted some over-ripe berries drizzled with raw honey. Then I pureed them into a paste, reserved ¾ cup for the bread and put away the rest in the fridge to serve over ice cream, yogurt, or pancakes.
As I prepared the batter, I chose to lace the flavor of bananas by simply swirling the paste in. I did not want to clash these two very distinct flavors in a 50/50 ratio.
The bread turned out very tasteful, with a moist, cake-like texture and a crumbly crust. It looked sort of marble because of the strawberry syrup streaks. Occasional banana chunks and strawberry seeds reminded of the fresh and healthful ingredients that went into it.
“Not bad, darling,” Kevin said the next day after about three straight pieces. “How did you do it?”
“Easy! It’s all about under-ripe bananas and over-ripe strawberries!” I answered joyfully.
“I mean gluten-free,” he insisted.
“Don’t ask me. I trusted my Remi again…”
That day we ate the bread with strawberry kisel. Kisel is actually a fruit soup but we often enjoy it as a drink. It is very satisfying, especially dolloped with crème fraiche or yogurt.
That day I knew exactly what spring tasted like. It tasted earthy and refreshing.
Just like the strawberries it sprouted to life . . .
Recipe for Olga’s Original Gluten-Free Marbled Banana-Strawberry Bread
1. 1 cup (225g) white rice flour
2. ½ cup (120g) millet flour
3. ½ cup (120g) tapioca flour
4. ½ teaspoon xanthan gum
5. ½ teaspoon baking soda
6. ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
7. 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8. ¼ teaspoon table salt
9. 1 ½ cups (345g) coarsely mashed bananas (about 5 medium)
10. 2 beaten eggs
11. ¾ cup (180g) raw sugar
12. ½ cup (125ml) canola oil
13. ¾ cup (175ml) roasted strawberry syrup at room temperature, recipe follows
Recipe for Roasted Strawberry Syrup, adapted from the June 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living
Place 1 pound strawberries, washed, dried, and hulled but left whole, in a single layer in a 5-by-9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons honey, and toss gently to coat. Bake until syrup begins to thicken and strawberries turn deep red and shrink slightly, about 1 hours and 45 minutes. Let cool. In a blender, puree until smooth.
Yields about 2 cups.
1. Grease bottom and sides of one 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan and set aside.
2. Combine flours, xanthan gum, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Make a well in center of flour mixture and set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, combine bananas, eggs, sugar, and oil. Add banana mixture all at once to flour mixture and stir just until moistened.
4. Spoon one-third of the batter into prepared pan. Spoon half of the ¾ cup strawberry syrup over batter. Repeat with remaining batter and syrup, ending with batter. Using a thin metal spatula or table knife, swirl the syrup through the bread.
5. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan. Cool completely on a wire rack.
Recipe for Olga’s Fresh Strawberry Kisel
1. 1 pound (450g) fresh strawberries, washed, dried, and hulled
2. 4 cups (1L) water
3. 4 tablespoons raw sugar
4. juice of ¼ lemon
5. 3 tablespoons arrowroot
1. With a masher or pestle, crush up strawberries and strain for juice, using a fine sieve or cheesecloth. You should have about ¾ cup fresh strawberry juice. Set aside.
2. Place the strawberry leftovers in a 3-quart saucepan, cover with 4 cups water, and bring to a boil. Boil gently for 5 minutes. Strain into a bowl and let cool completely.
3. In a small bowl, mix 12 tablespoons of the cooled strawberry mixture with arrowroot until arrowroot dissolves. Set aside.
4. Return the strawberry-water mixture back into the same saucepan, add sugar, lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Add the arrowroot mixture all at once, stirring constantly to eliminate any lumps. Bring to a second boil and remove from heat.
5. Add fresh strawberry juice all at once, stirring constantly until smooth.
6. Let cool. The kisel will continue to thicken as it cools.