Crunchy local cukes and sliced onions in a potent bath of vinegar and water with salt and pepper is the perfect accompaniment to all summer food, as far as I am concerned. The flavor of the freshest mild-skinned early season cucumbers against a headstrong vinegary backdrop awakens the palate and provokes a deeply familiar taste of childhood that brings me right back to the dining room table at my Grandma’s farmhouse. My only addition to this simple recipe-less side from my past is a fluttering electric frizz of fresh dill just picked from the garden and snipped on top. Added sensory bonus: if you bring the leftovers to work and the container opens in your bag, you can smell/smell like the summery parfum of vinegar, onions and dill all day long!
There are two schools of thought on the ubiquitous sliced cucumber side dish, one vinegary, like mine, and the other, a creamy version made with sour cream. Check out this recipe for the creamy version of sliced cukes on Deucecities Henhouse, a favorite Twin Cities based blog haunt of mine.
Watching the cukes grow has been almost as much fun as eating them. Ours are growing in all sorts of unconventional shapes. I spend time every week tying tomato plants to chicken wire and winding twine around bamboo poles to support green beans, peppers and peas. Cucumber vines take the initiative of sending out tendrils that stretch out until they find other plants and structures nearby, then curling the tendrils tightly around so they hang tight. Cucumbers are fully capable of supporting themselves.
Our garden delights me! We find ways to eat fresh veggies and herbs in every meal. I keep learning and I enjoy everything except the squirrels!
This post is one part ode to one of my favor summer meals and one part cautionary tale. I figure that this blog is about my life, including some of the great meals in it, so I will start with a brief account the day when I spent inadvertently spent $17.72 on 0.57 lbs of cheese. [Oopsie.]
It was a typical Saturday morning. We started our day at the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market. I determined my mission that day was to purchase the components of a summer sandwich for our lunch. At the time, our garden still had a few weeks to go before it would have much to offer us. I bought vegetables, bread, and then we left the market and looped our way up Grand Avenue to the Saint Paul Cheese Shop. That place is pretty neat. Sampling is encouraged, so we tasted several paper-thin wisps of cheese the cheesemonger shaved neatly off of several wheels of cheese and dropped into our extended hands from the forked tip of the blade of his cheese knife. I let my guard down. It is atypical for me to make a mindless splurge without glancing at the price per half pound. I was in a cheese-induced stupor when I asked for a small wedge of Marcel Petite Comte raw cow’s milk cheese from France, and a wedge of Terchelling Sheep’s milk cheese from Holland. I’m sure there are people who routinely spend far more than this on cheese in any given week. I’m not knocking it and I might do it again at some point. The difference will be that I do it intentionally. As a consolation, at least the cheese was very, very good.
Whew. Now that I’ve made that confession to my friends and readers, let’s make a sandwich! A Summer Sandwich is quite simply a sandwich with any combination of meat or vegetarian meat substitute, seasonal vegetables, cheese and sandwich spreads piled on top of nice bread.
I sliced a grainy loaf of bread and served the bread and cheese with our own cheese knives on wooden cutting boards. We eat most of our meals al fresco on our patio. It has been 90+ degrees farenheit there lately, but it is still very pleasant in the shade of a Maple Tree canopy.
I filled a platter with sliced cucumber and tomato, garden lettuces, piles of deli turkey and tofurky, along with bowls of mayonnaise and grainy dijon mustard, and placed salt and pepper shakers on the table. The secret to the perfect summer sandwich is bringing out whatever looks good and fresh, and let each person assemble the sandwich they desire.
If Freud were here, he’d say, “a sandwich is never just a sandwich.” It is the meal I ate on pebble beaches out of a cooler with my parents camping in Door County, Wisconsin in grade four. It is the BLT’s that beckoned numerous cousins, Uncles and Aunts to my Grandma’s farm house every July when the tomatoes were all ripe at once. It is the meal of lettuce, ham, turkey, tomato and cheese sandwiches on good sandwich bread that we shared with friends from Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saint Paul and Minneapolis on a lakeshore in Northern Minnesota after a long, hot day on the lake last year over the 4th of July long weekend. It is the halved baguettes piled with cheese, sliced tomato and a pile of pršut [for the meat eaters] that we ate on a secluded pebble beach a few months ago in Croatia.
What is one to serve on the side? Well, nothing—any decent summer sandwich is in itself, a square meal. Or, if the mood strikes, some salty-crunchy potato chips, leftover potato salad out of the fridge, deviled eggs or summer fruit would all be the perfect compliment. On this particular day we rounded out our plates with bright, rainbow radishes that were too pretty to slice or even to remove the stem. Sure, they could have been thinly sliced and piled on the sandwich, but they were refreshing, spicy perfection and a visual treat perched on the side our plates.
A Summer Sandwich is simple perfection. No matter what fresh fixings are available, where you are, or what time it is, a sandwich satisfies hunger. A sandwich feeds a crowd with varied tastes, comes together easily and is a perfect meal to eat outdoors on a hot July day.
And the cheese?
I’ve been thinking about snacks. If you say the word “snack” I associate it with the small plate containing Triscuit crackers with peanut butter and jam or slices of cheddar cheese that greeted me after school when I was a child. I recall the semester that I studied abroad in England the break between morning lectures was an occasion for friends meeting in a dorm room for cups of instant coffee and McVitie’s Biscuits. It also calls to mind taking part in the ritual of afternoon noshes — a tiny bowl of salty-crunchy bits and nuts served with a cocktail and a crossword at my great Aunt Margaret’s home Victoria, British Columbia — très sophistiqué. In these moments, snacking served a dual purpose — it was a time to pause and enjoy a simple and comforting luxury, and to stave off hunger for a few hours more until mealtime arrived.
If you don’t happen to be in the midst of childhood or your college years, or making precious memories with elderly relatives, snacking can have a dark side. This would be most snacks that come in 100 calorie servings sealed in shiny wrapping, or anything mindlessly inhaled while standing fridge-side. I don’t find those snacks to be satisfying. For me, a snack composed according to a few simple principles fits into the romantic episodes in my life as well as the real world. Take this tasty morsel — a tiny slice of rye bread topped with a little leftover egg salad and a sprig of fresh dill from my garden. It is well worth saving a few leftover spoonfuls of egg salad so I can have a snack like this one in the middle of a summer afternoon.
The first principle of a good snack is that it should be quick. It should take less than 5 minutes, or preferably less than 3 minutes to prepare. I start each day with only so much energy to devote to food preparation, and I don’t want to devote very much of that to snacks. I like to keep a small bowl of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge so we can grab one for a snack at work. It only takes a moment to crack the shell and eat it with a little salt and pepper. The protein and small amount of fat that an egg contains can sustain me through the afternoon.
The second principle of a good snack is that it should either be light, or very very small. I usually opt for light. For this snack that I prepared for myself and for Bjorn, I spread a wedge of light Laughing Cow cheese on two Wasa Crispbread Crackers. I sliced a radish and some cucumber very thin. I sprinkled a little smoked paprika on the cucumber and a dash of salt and pepper on the radish. The whole snack contains less than 150 calories, and also healthy things like fiber. You can enjoy the crunch of the crackers and veggie slices, the creaminess of the cheese, and take in the brightly colored veggies with a punch of paprika with your nose and your eyes.
The final principle of good snacking is to pause. While eating, it is so important to take a moment to pay attention, so you know you’ve eaten something, and to appreciate the nourishment. I also try to pause when I’m done. If it was a tasty snack, I might think that I want a little more, but if I give my mind and stomach ten minutes to catch up with each other, I usually find that I’m satisfied.