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!

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