Aunt Bea moved to Wayne County when I was around nine years old, and life was better ever after. I loved everything about being near her. She had taught Home Ec and kept an organized kitchen and a good garden. She gave me countless gifts, not least of which is the ability to view washing dishes as an honorable, bearable part of orderly cooking.
In summer, Aunt Bea often made a cool summer cucumber dish that I liked, even though I did not think much of either cucumbers or pickles. I even liked the smell of her refrigerator when this dish had been inside for a few minutes, or was stashed as a leftover. This dish dwells somewhere in the sweet spot between bare cucumber and overdone pickle. It is a mild, quick transformation of a garden vegetable into something crunchy-cool. It takes minutes to make, and is eaten at the next meal.
I never helped Aunt Bea make this dish, and I do not know whether she used a recipe. I think probably not. In my adult life I have devised ways of getting the dish to taste as I remember it. I know it was easy and quick to make, and so is this. Near the end I offer a few variations, useful for keeping cucumbers tops on my list of vegetables that define summer, day after day, meal after meal.
- Select about four pounds of firm, young cucumbers that do not yet have fully formed seeds. I like young Kirbys, and heritage varieties like lemon and White Wonder. Mature English or Japanese cucumbers also work well. If your cukes have seeds, peel them, slice in half the long way, and scoop all those jellied seeds out for your compost bin. (Avoid this if you can - and eat that jelly-like stuff with young unformed seeds when you can.)
- With a vegetable peeler, remove long strips of skin from each cucumber, leaving the cuke striped with about half its skin on, half off. With tender-skinned English cucumbers, you can skip this step and simply leave all the skin on.
- Slice into thin round disks. Use a well-sharpened knife for this (very satisfying), or use your mandoline slicer, carefully, carefully.
- Now the path diverges a bit, depending on your cucumber type.
- If you are using heritage cucumbers, which are sweet by nature, pile the slices into a bowl, cover with ice water, add about a tablespoon of good salt, and wait about 20 minutes. Drain off the salt water, shake well in a colander, and put in the serving dish.
- If you are using Kirby, Japanese, or English cucumbers, pile the slices into a colander. (Also see "Cool English Cucumbers.") Sprinkle with at least a tablespoon of good salt. Add 2 cups or so of ice cubes. Set in the sink to drain for 30 minutes. Then pick out and discard the remaining ice cubes. Squeeze the sliced cucumbers lightly between your hands several times. This process drains out some of the cucumbers' natural bitterness. Put the cold, salted, squoze cucumbers in a serving dish.
- Sprinkle with a mild, light-colored vinegar. Cider vinegar gives the classic Aunt Bea taste. Unseasoned rice vinegar is also excellent. Dark vinegars tend to make the dish look less appealing.
- Stir the cucumbers well, and taste. You may need to add salt and more vinegar. You may want to add gratings of black pepper.
- If you finish the dish a few minutes before your meal is ready to serve, set the dish in your freezer to add extra coolness and crunch (and set a timer, if you need, to remind you to take it out when everything else is ready.)
- Start eating!
Or you may want more elaborate variations, such as these (which can be mixed together if you want adventure):
During step 4:
- Add a few rings of onion.
During step 5:
- Add fresh or dried dill weed. Go easy - about 1/4 teaspoon will add without overwhelming.
- Add 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil.
- Add 1 teaspoon of any of these fresh herbs from your herb garden: parsley, tarragon, mint, thyme, marjoram, basil.
- Add 1 - 2 Tablespoons sugar. Organic sugar is particularly sweet and you may need less. Honey may work if it is a light type and you like honey's flavor.
- Add 1 - 2 Tablespoons finely chopped dry roasted peanuts.
- Add tomatoes - any amount. You may want to add a bit of olive oil if you use tomatoes.
- Add 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more, to taste.
- Add 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds.
- Add 2 Tablespoons thick sour cream.
Leftovers keep for up to a week, at least in theory. In my house, leftovers usually disappear within 24 - 36 hours.