Here at Exit 51, like in life, it’s funny how sometimes totally unrelated things intersect. One day I’m going on and on about pickled this and pickled that. The next I’m gushing over my glorious mandoline. And today, I shall bring the two together.
Because nothing makes a more perfect combo than thinly sliced cucumbers and onions bathed in a pickley brine. Yeah, chocolate and peanut butter are two great tastes that taste great together and I do love me some salty sweet watermelon with feta. But none of them are especially suited for the mandoline.
Cucumber salad was a summer staple in our house. It was served in small china saucers with most every dinner as soon as local cukes started hitting store shelves. Every week my grandmother broke out her box grater, the vinegar cruet, and sugar. Onions and cucumbers got sliced, seasoned with pepper, and dressed with sugar and vinegar. Her method was a hybrid of measured tablespoons and what looked right. When it finally occurred to me to ask her for the recipe, her instructions were pretty vague, something along the lines of slice your cucumbers and onions and add sugar and vinegar until it tastes right. Pretty straightforward and flexible yes, but also pretty vexing too.
Vexing because I did not learn to cook by memory or feel, the way countless women did without structured recipes. That trick is one I have yet to master. You know how a novice piano player stumbles and stutters his way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star while a prodigy can play a complicated sonata after only hearing it once or twice? If the kitchen was a piano, I’d still tend to be the struggling novice that focuses intently on the notes on the page or the position of my hands on the keys, not being able to see them both at the same time. I think that’s why, despite SFC’s best efforts to teach me how to gracefully waltz like Arthur Murray, I remain stuck staring at my feet the whole time. I need to see where I am and where I go next.
Even when I’m making a dish that I almost know by heart, I have to have that recipe in front of me. Just in case. When it’s a new recipe, I read it and re-read it before I begin. And then I’ll still stop along the way just to make sure that I haven’t taken a wrong turn or missed a step. What I really need is to just get out of my own head long enough to let some sort of collective memory take over. This, then that. One, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three. I think this intersection is as good a place as any to start.
Since fans of cucumber salad seem to be pretty strictly divided into two distinct camps – creamy vs. vinegar – I have a recipe that should appeal to you no matter what side of the line you’re on.
MamMom’s Sweet and Sour Cucumbers
This salad, with its crisp rounds of fresh cucumber and raw onion slices, will forever taste like summer to me. Make it as sweet or tart as you like. The ground black pepper brings a nice bit of heat to an otherwise cool dish. Refrigerated, these will keep for a week. But why would you do something like that?
2 cucumbers, peeled or unpeeled, sliced into rounds
1 medium or large onion, sliced thin
5 heaping tablespoons sugar
7 tablespoons white vinegar
Slice cucumbers. Add a big pinch of salt and sliced onion, set aside.
In a jar, mix sugar and vinegar. Add more of one or both to get desired taste. Add pepper to taste. Squeeze liquid from cucumber and onion mixture and add to jar with sugar and vinegar. Keep refrigerated.
Mr. Frank’s Creamy Cucumber Salad
Mr. Frank is my friend Jamie’s dad. I’ve known them for as long as I can remember. After tasting his creamy cucumber salad a few years ago, I asked for the recipe. Again, this is one of those recipes that depends less on actual quantities than on personal taste.
3 to 4 thinly sliced cucumbers
1 onion, thinly sliced
Start with a spoonful of mayo and add a little vinegar until the mayo emulsifies. Add additional mayo and/or vinegar until you have enough loose dressing for your cucumbers. Season to taste with a pinch of salt and pepper.