Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When life gives you cucumbers...burp!

The garden is on full throttle, those nasty hornworms seemed to have packed their little bug-hauls and moved on, so every day I wander out with my collection basket and do some picking. This was this morning's harvest.

The cherry and grape tomatoes are my favorite and there were substantially more of them in that bowl before I walked in the back door. They are so delicious to pick and eat right off the vine.

In our house, cucumbers usually mean one thing: the world-famous summer salad recipe dating back to Meredith's earliest day-care days. I tasted this recipe and knew I HAD to have it. So my mission this morning was to sacrifice my gorgeous cukes for this time-honored tradition.

There is an assumption in our household that I can't cook. Granted, compared to Mr. B. and his apt pupil, Meredith, I am a rank amateur. But the truth is, I can hold my own in the kitchen and avoid either 1) starving or 2) poisoning anyone. Given the chance, I might even be able to put an entire dinner together that wouldn't be half bad. But I'm no fool. I have someone who lives for the food preparation process, all the way from grocery shopping to cleanup (sort of). I'm not looking THAT gift horse in the mouth! But cucumber salad is one of MY special recipes so when I can gain access to the kitchen without a food critic glued to my shoulder, I'm off and running.

Once I locate the recipe (no easy feat in this house), the first step is to crisp the cucumbers. I have found this is the true secret to this recipe. The crunch adds so much. To do that you will need kosher or canning/pickling salt, ice cubes and water and at least an hour of "crisping" time. The longer you can leave them in this icy brine, the crisper they will become.
Don't worry, you will rinse the salt later so you are in little danger of driving your blood pressure skyward (unless, of course, you have that food critic hanging around second guessing your every move and questioning your choice of utensils, ingredients, or need to make this thing in the first place). My secret? Pick a day when said food critic is not EVEN IN THE HOUSE and not due back for hours. Geez, Louise...

The first thing to do is to peel the cucumbers and discard the ends. They need to be sliced as thinly as possible, so much easier if you have one of these handy gadgets, sometimes called a mandolin (not to be confused with the musical instrument). If you strum this baby you're going to end up at the ER. It is extremely sharp and will slice your fingers in a heartbeat. Use the plastic guard if you are smart. (Voice of experience speaking here!) Our version came to us thanks to the ingenuity of the Japanese who seem to have perfected the "As seen on TV" marketing model. This thing sells for substantially less than a genuine french mandolin but does a heck of a job.

For legal reasons, I'm sure, it has been renamed the "Benriner", actually the new Benriner, so as not to be confused with the old Benriner, I guess. But the only thing that matters is that this thing can do a heck of a job slicing everything that crosses its sharp little blade. The picture shows a happy Japanese housewife but she's NOT using the guard that comes with it. Shortly after this picture was snapped she was probably whisked off to the hospital missing the tips of three of her fingers while screaming in agony because her lucrative hand modeling career was abruptly and so needlessly cut short. Don't make the same mistake...use the guard.

The directions are plainly printed on the backside of the box in case you aren't sure how to use this valuable tool.

The fact that they are in Japanese should pose no problem since, of course, everyone has a fluent speaker of Japanese in their circle of friends. Actually, the addition of the instructions in English helps too. Not that you need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out but some people do benefit from that added boost of written instructions.

Okay, now we are ready to crisp the cukes. After being sliced paper thin, layer them in a bowl with alternating layers of the kosher or pickling/ canning salt. Be generous with the salt. Most of it is going to be rinsed later.

Put as many whole ice cubes as you have on hand on the top of the cucumbers. Whole cubes are better because they will take longer to melt and keep the mixture colder longer. The longer it stays cold, the crisper the cukes will be.

Now pour cold water over the entire mix, filling the bowl as much as possible. This will dissolve the salt but keep it in contact with the cukes. Put the bowl in the refrigerator to slow the melting of the ice cubes and keeping the temperature at ideal "crisping" level. Trust me, you'll thank me for making you do this when you taste the difference in the cucumbers from the mushy, droopy ones that are in your neighbor's cucumber salad at the pot luck!

Ok, this next step is for women only. We know that men are genetically incapable of filling ice cube trays so they get a pass on this one. But, you gals know how important it is to replenish those ice cube trays that you just used. Avoid the frustration of reaching for some ice for the mojitos only to find a tray with a single cube sitting lonely in there. Some might argue that with the summer we are having, this could be a life-saving tip...especially if there are mojitos or margaritas or bloody marys involved. This has been a public service announcement.

While the cukes are crisping you can make your dressing. It won't take you the full hour, unless like me you discover at the last minute that you don't have any %*@#& vegetable oil and have to make an emergency trip to the supermarket where you get caught up in conversation with your mechanic whose sister just got divorced and found out that her ex had an affair with her hairdresser and...oh, never mind. Anyway. you mix together a cup of cider vinegar, a cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of vegetable oil, celery seed (not salt!), parsley flakes and generous amounts of pepper. Slice an onion (or two) very thin...use the mandolin/benriner...and USE THE GUARD for the sake of your own hand modeling career.

Now you are ready to drain the crisped cukes. Remember the longer you have left them to crisp the better! Pour off the the water and ice and put them on multiple layers of absorbent towels. Only use paper towels if they are heavy duty. Otherwise you will end up with a cucumber and paper towel salad...not particularly appealing unless you are desperate for fiber. Roll them up and squeeze out as much water as possible. Put the cukes in a bowl and cover with the the dressing. Refrigerate and enjoy!

You can season with additional parsley flakes, celery seed and pepper (my favorite) but you should not need any more salt (unless you're plotting a murder by hypertension). It has plenty!

Here is the complete recipe with just the facts:

Ingredients: 3-4 large cucumbers
Salt (kosher or canning/pickling)
dressing: 1 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
parsley flakes
celery seeds
lots of pepper
one large (or two small) onions, thinly sliced

Peel cucumbers and slice as thinly as possible. In large bowl layer cukes with salt between layers. Cover with ice water and ice cubes. Let sit for at least one hour, refrigerate if possible. Drain and squeeze excess water out. Mix with dressing.

Happy Crunching!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Guest Gets the Best...

There is a definite season for visitors to Maine. Summer brings them in droves, with visions of lazy beach days and idle strolls through cobblestone streets, ducking into shops for treasures to bring home. We Mainers have a love/hate affair with this time of year. We enjoy showing off the beauty of our state and basking in the envy of tourists who remind us how lucky we are to live here. On the other hand, we brace for the increase in crowds, the "creative" driving habits of some of our neighbors to the south (dubbed massholes) and count the days until late fall when we can reclaim our state, breathe a sigh of relief and resume our quieter lifestle. Only the hardiest of souls venture across the Kittery Bridge after November 1st, fearful of becoming trapped by the blizzards they believe we get non-stop from then until May.

Last summer, my sister and niece came for a long weekend in early August. They enjoyed themselves so much, they decided to make it an annual tradition. I did my best to put my hometown on display last year and, as a result, they clamored for more.

Our first stop was Deering Oaks Park and the Farmer's Market Saturday morning. That was an encore request from last year so off we went.

They loved the many colors of flowers and the tables and stalls mounded with fresh produce everywhere.

It was total sensory overload and we loved it!

Everything we saw looked so fresh and delicious.

It made us hungry just walking around.

And the flowers were spectacular. They almost made me forget those sub-zero, blizzardy February days.

Even the dogs were feeling upbeat and sociable as they conducted their obligatory "sniff and greet" routines.

Once we had surveyed all the offerings (and Lynny had purchased her usual "kitty" paraphenalia from the craft vendors) we headed up the coast to have lunch at Five Islands Lobster Company in Georgetown. I'd love to show a picture of that beautiful spot and our lunch but it's impossible to steady a camera with both hands wrapped firmly around a roll crammed full of delicious lobster meat picked fresh from a lobster that had probably been pulled from the water that very morning. No mayo, no other stuff, just lobster...precisely the way God intended us to eat that ambrosia. Man, they were good! Brendan and I have been there and taken pictures many times before so this is the view we had from our al fresco dining spot, courtesy of a previous visit. It looked exactly the same.

Next it was on to nearby Reid State Park, known for it's long beautiful beach seen in the top picture. There is a rocky outcrop overlooking the beach so we climbed up (despite Lynny's case of acrophobic jitters). Once there, she refused to venture anywhere near the edge, although she admitted it was a spectacular view. Here are some of the pictures from there.

Lynny and Melissa against the pine and ocean backdrop.

Brendan and Melissa made Lynny VERY nervous with their proximity to the edge. (It actually slopes down to the water pretty gradually but she was convinced a rogue wave...or a great white shark...was on its way in to snatch her baby and my hubby!)

OK, I'll admit it does look a little scary, especially from Lynny's vantage point practically hugging the trunks of the pine trees up above for dear life.

We finally came down from the ledges and decided to walk along the beach for a bit. It was tough going, the sand was griddle hot and the water was too churned up (and VERY cold) to do any leisurely wading.

So Melissa decided to send her boyfriend in New York a message, writing it in the sand and attempting to snap a picture with her phone. Clueless beach people kept ambling right over it like zombies. It took her four tries before she got a shot without somebody's big hairy feet stepping all over it.

Some people just ain't got no couth...or appreciation of young love and great artwork. :-)

We finally headed home, with bellies full of lobster and a little sunburnt, having introduced Lynny and Melissa to another spectacular coastal spot.

Sunday was overcast, threatening rain so we headed downtown to visit Brendan at the bakery where he does his usual Sunday morning gig. We indulged ourselves with some more lobster in the form of a frittata at the Porthole and then did our best to give the local retail economy a shot in the arm in the Old Port. Tough job but somebody's got to do it.

We spent much of the weekend poring over old photos, regaling (or boring) Melissa with stories that she has probably heard before about growing up in the fifties with our quirky family and dissolving into fits of laughter at forgotten events and images. In short, we had a wonderful time together.

Distance separates our family, much as it does so many families today but those rare times when we can reconnect bring us back immediately to earlier times that seem so much simpler. They weren't all sweetness and siblings and I bickered and argued like nobody's business...but we now realize the value of having each other, the strength of the bonds forged by years of shared experiences of joy and grief, with the common everyday in between. We recognize each other's imperfections and idiosyncrasies and despite them, perhaps even because of them, we love each other to our cores.

Thanks for the wonderful visit, Lynny and Melissa. Can't wait for next year's summer visit! I'll alert the lobster boats you are on your way so they can stock up!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Precious Gift of a Maine Summer

When I first moved to Maine almost 30 years ago my New York friends teased me that I would be shoveling snow year round. There is a local joke that there are two seasons in Maine: winter and Fourth of July. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we don't have the luxury of a long growing season, we are blessed with some spectacular warm weather for the months of June, July, August and sometimes September.

This year summer really took hold and our temperatures rivalled those of places in the deep south. For example, a couple of weeks ago I took this picture of our indoor/outdoor thermometer.

It was hotter here than in Florida where my sister lives. We don't have air-conditioning in the house -- a stubborn statement to ourselves that, thanks to cool ocean breezes it isn't necessary. That day the breezes disappeared. Even the numerous window fans we have throughout the house were useless, simply pushing the hot air around.

My major concern was for our dog, Isla, a seven year old Border Collie/Aussie mix who is blessed with a luxurious coat of thick BLACK fur. Beaches in Maine are mostly off-limits to dogs during the day...and it was too hot to think about driving somewhere anyway so my solution was to buy a small inexpensive kiddie pool and fill it for her to use to cool down.

What I hadn't counted on is her sheer stubborn streak. I filled the pool and called her over to it. She eyed it warily as if I were coaxing her into a bath of battery acid. I tried taking off my shoes and stepping into the water, cooing my joy and encouragement like a complete idiot. Nothing. I put her beloved frisbee in the water and centered it strategically in the middle so she would have to step in to get it, figuring that once she felt the cool water, in she would go. The stinker stood at the edge and stretched her neck as far as possible to snare the edge and pull it out. She was NOT going in. I even put on my bathing suit, got in and sat in the water, calling for her to join me. She came over to lick my face and swipe a lick or two of the water but refused to come in. It wasn't going to happen. Finally, I simply pulled a lawn chair over, dangled MY feet in the water and gave up on her. At that point she came over, settled down in shady grass next to me and fell asleep, snoring loudly. Obstinance, thy name is Isla!

The garden has loved this weather. We limited our efforts to tomatoes, cucumbers and some basil this year and have been doting on the plants like mother hens. Our efforts have really paid off.

There are hundreds of these beauties on the vines: full-size, cherry, grape and some that will be surprises to us since they never got tags. We've been pruning the vines and keeping a close eye on the vine growth. This year Brendan had the brilliant idea of using tomato cages to keep them upright (ahem...honey, I've been suggesting that for years and you have always dismissed the idea...just saying!) and as a result we aren't seeing the best tomatoes lying on the ground and rotting as we have in the past.

The only bad news with that crop was the startling discovery of these guys last weekend:

It's a Tomato Hornworm and it can devastate an entire tomato plant overnight. I found three of them last weekend and two more this morning. This is the kind of damage they can do to a crop.

That is a cherry tomato that is nearly completely devoured. The not-so-little bastards are feasting on MY dare they!? We don't believe in putting any kind of pesticide on our veggies so I have been staging a one-woman crusade to spot them and pulverize them. They're tough to see, thanks to their natural camouflage but I'm relentless. No hornworm is going to deprive me of the sweet taste of home-grown tomatoes. This is WAR!

The cucumbers are doing spectacularly. I haven't spotted any grubby little critters feasting on them and they are climbing the stakes I put out for them nicely.

I've had a couple in salads and their sweet, crunchy goodness is so amazing. Once I have a couple good sized ones I'll make my favorite cucumber salad, one of summer's favorite treats for me.

I really enjoy the activity in the garden. In addition to the birds and squirrels who visit our yard year-round (the birds to feed, the squirrels to torture Isla) the insects are so amazing to watch.

Here are two shots of these busy, beautiful creatures at work:

The monarch butterflies go crazy for the purple coneflowers in our yard and are fascinating to watch as they delicately pick their way around the centers.

And they share the stage with the honeybees who seem to become intoxicated by their presence on the flowers, totally ignoring the presence of a camera lens. They are intent on their purpose, working at a feverish pace as if they know that their days of opportunity in the warm summer sun will disappear all too soon.

Maine summers are unique. Perhaps because they are so short and come on the heels of such polar opposite weather of the winter we treasure each warm day. We also know the countdown has already begun to fall and the winter beyond. When the snow arrives we need to have these memories to warm our thoughts and assure us that summer will return once again.