when life gives you cucumber

My favorite cucumber dish is my mom’s summer cucumber salad. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. It’s very refreshing straight out of the refrigerator, cool on the tongue, with an addictive sweet-sour tang.

Most of the work goes into slicing the cucumber just right. (I don’t know where Mom picked this up, as I haven’t seen the technique anywhere else.) First she peels the cucumber, bisects it lengthwise, and scoops out the seeds. Then she turns each half cut-side-down on the cutting board and slices it by making a series of several shallow cuts, followed by one deep one. The result is a curved arc of cucumber held together at the ends, but separated in the middle. After the pieces are lightly pickled, the ends are still crunchy but the middle bits are silky and soft. It’s a fantastic combination of textures.

This is all that was left when it finally occurred to me to take a picture.

Summer Cucumber Salad

2 or 3 cucumbers
1/2 cup white vinegar (definitely use white; I tried apple cider vinegar once and the result was horrible)
1/2 cup white sugar

Peel the cucumbers and slice off the ends. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds with a spoon.

Turn each half cut-side-down on the cutting board and make a series of several shallow cuts followed by a single deep cut, as shown, until all of the cucumbers are sliced. Don’t worry if you mess up a slice or two. They’re still going to be tasty.

Toss the cucumber slices with salt and let sit in a strainer for an hour or two, to soften the cucumber and drain out some of the natural liquid.

Rinse the salt off the slices, drain, and put in a bowl.

In a measuring cup at least 1 cup in size, measure out 1/2 cup of white vinegar, then add enough sugar to equal a full cup. Stir to dissolve. This step can be hurried by putting the sugar-vinegar solution in the microwave for a short period of time; this will heat the vinegar and help the sugar dissolve.

Pour the sugar-vinegar solution over the cucumber slices, toss to coat, and let marinate for a couple of hours (or longer; I usually let it sit overnight in the fridge).

Strain the cucumber mixture to get rid of excess liquid. Serve cold.

toaster oven chicken

80-plus degree days have descended upon Maryland again, and I for one am not excited about the prospect of cooking anything on the stove or in the oven. Who wants to introduce even more heat to an already overheated house?

Sure, you could fire up the grill (and indeed we did, this weekend; K worked magic on smoked lamb riblets and grilled loole kebabs). But although K is certainly a genius with charcoal, the grill takes a lot of time to set up. That’s okay; in a pinch, we have the toaster oven.

I can’t claim credit for toaster oven chicken. That idea belongs to Eric Ripert, who created an entire series of recipes using the toaster oven.

It’s simple. Basically, you cut chicken up into small pieces (Ripert uses chicken tenders, but I just cut up a chicken breast), toss the pieces with olive oil on a toaster oven tray, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and whatever fresh herbs you have lying around (dried will do in a pinch), and toss it in the toaster oven at 450 degrees or so. It’s done in under ten minutes.

For easy cleanup, I line the toaster oven tray with foil. When I made this particular batch, I minced up some rosemary, thyme, and garlic greens.

chicken before cooking

It’s good chicken, very flavorful with the herbs. We’ve served it over rice and on dinner salads. I’d say it takes fifteen minutes from start to finish; if I want to make a dinner salad, I just wash and chop the greens while waiting for the chicken to cook.

chicken after cooking

Just remember to wash your hands whenever you’ve touched raw chicken. (This is a modern warning. K likes to point out that Julia Child used to happily handle raw chicken, and then go on to cook for the rest of the episode without once approaching a sink or a soap dispenser. Times certainly have changed.)

spring CSA, week 12

Week 12 is the last week of the spring CSA. [moment of silence] The summer CSA will start up the first full week of June. At least there will be farmer’s markets to tide me over.

This week we have tons of greenery: romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, spinach, and green beans. Nice big beet greens on those beets, too. We also have the last of the Florida oranges, some white potatoes, and a bonus item (you could choose between applesauce, mustard, eggs, or cheese). I opted for the block of Bowling Green feta, which was made with milk from Howard County cows. I’ve liked Bowling Green cheese in the past. I think they also sell their cheese at the Oakland Mills farmer’s market on Sunday mornings.

spring CSA week 12

I’m looking forward to dinner salads with feta and orange segments. We’ll probably do some grilling this weekend (it’s supposed to be nice) and I might prevail on K to take up some of his precious grill real estate with some sliced beets. Grilled sliced beets can be pretty tasty, especially with a quick splash of balsamic.

I also met the woman behind the blog Anyone can cook, even Tina! while she was there doing her work share. I’m looking forward to using the Cedar Hill Farm yogurt, as well as my applesauce*, in her apple cake recipe.


* Because the apples we’ve been getting are from cold storage, they just aren’t as crispy and awesome as the ones we tend to get in the fall. As a consequence, ours have been piling up in the produce drawer in our fridge. Over the weekend I finally decided to do something about it. I peeled and chopped them all, heated the pieces in a pot over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, and let them reduce to applesauce. (Applesauce is really that simple to make — apples, heat, wait, stir. I leave it chunky, but you can whiz the applesauce in a blender if you want it grocery-store smooth.) Our pile of apples produced 5 quarts of applesauce. I may have to freeze some.

the Wellington at BGR

K and I showed up at the new Columbia BGR on opening day. The place was pretty well-attended, both with friendly cashiers and happy diners. Since we’d already been to another BGR location, where I’d tasted (and loved) their classic burger as well as their Cuban, both of us opted for a new experience: the mushroom-and-onion Wellington, with a side of rosemary fries. (We made the cashier’s day, apparently, because he got to push the “repeat order” button.)

I like BGR’s philosophy of cooking the burgers to order, and using beef that is hormone-free and grain-fed. I was disappointed, however, in the Wellington; I can see the appeal of the caramelized onions and the mushrooms, but for me, the blue cheese was so strong that it basically took over the flavor of the meat. Oh well, I’ll try something different next time. (If you like blue cheese, though, then the Wellington is for you!)

We’ll still be back; K wants to try the lobster roll and I’m looking forward to the asparagus fries. The potato fries were delicious: hot, crispy, and fragrant with rosemary. Also, K got to play with the customize-your-own-soda machine, so I’d call it a win.

A note on doneness: BGR’s definition of medium rare was just a bit more red inside than I had been expecting. I’ll eat rare meat (I’ve had tartare), but for a burger, I prefer a bit more in the way of texture. Next time, I’m ordering medium.

spring CSA, week 11

This week’s CSA pickup brought the first freshly-harvested vegetables from Maryland! The radishes and the romaine lettuce were grown and harvested on Maryland farms. Everything else (except the bread, eggs, and potatoes) is still from out of state though; besides the radishes and romaine, we have grapefruit, orange, cucumber, sugar snap peas, green beans, and North Carolina strawberries at perfect peak ripeness. Still, spring has finally come to Maryland and by the time the summer CSA starts up, everything will be from Maryland or Pennsylvania farms.

CSA pickup week 11

Casey at the farm said that their strawberries were probably going to be ready in about two weeks, which is also what the folks at Larriland Farm are predicting. I can’t wait to go out and eat dusty perfect fresh-picked strawberries.

When we get radishes from the CSA, I like to saute up the radish greens that very evening. If you let the greens sit in the fridge connected to the radishes, the greens will suck the moisture out of the radishes and then they’ll both wilt, so you have to cut the greens off right away anyway. Radish greens have a lot of bitter, complex flavor. I just melt a bit of butter in a pan on medium-high heat, toss in the greens with some salt and garlic powder (they don’t need pepper; they’re peppery enough on their own), and stir the greens around until they’ve wilted and turned bright green. Voila, radish greens: a healthy snack (though it would probably be healthier if I didn’t saute them in butter).

cooked radish greens

Pickup at the farm this week was also special because it was the first non-rainy week that there were herbs available to pick. (They don’t let you out on their herb plot when it’s muddy — something to do with bacteria that might be on your shoes.) I picked myself a teeny bouquet of flowering chives, flowering thyme, and a couple of branches of oregano.

flowering herbs

The picture is dominated by the tall chive stalks, but you can see the little thyme blossoms beneath. Flavorful and decorative, too.

Finally, I dropped by the farmer’s market yesterday to pick up my annual lemon basil plant (I kill one of the poor things every year, but they’re so good in summer salads), and picked up a huge bundle of green garlic on impulse. The farmer told me that he’d put garlic bulbs in the ground two weeks ago, and just in that time they’d sprouted to easily two feet in length; he crushed a leaf and had me smell how beautifully garlicky it was. Now the bundle is sitting in some water on my counter. I’m looking forward to mincing it into scrambled eggs, slicing it into soups, and turning the rest into some tasty pesto…

I’m so glad that spring is finally here.

house noodle soup at Pho Dat Thanh

We used to go to Pho Dat Thanh for the pho, but now that we have discovered the House Special Thin Egg Noodle Soup (what a mouthful), there’s no going back.

House Special Thin Egg Noodle Soup

The soup is “C1” on the menu. K was the first one to order it, and neither of us have gotten anything else since. The soup comes with “shrimp, fish balls, squid, barbecue pork and fried shrimp cake.” For the record we haven’t seen the fried shrimp cake on the dish since the first time we ordered it. That’s okay though, because what I’m really there for is not the fish balls, nor the pork, nor the shrimp, nor the (frankly kind of mushy) pieces of artificial crab. No, it’s the slender egg noodles, and the broth.

I have no idea what goes into this broth, but it tastes like my childhood. It’s exactly the type of broth that I remember from my parents’ trips to Chinatown, salty and savory and ever-so-slightly tangy (from what, I don’t know. Garlic? Green onions?). I’ve had this broth served up with Cantonese style wontons, the ones with lots of shrimp and vegetables and a thin, almost transparent skin. Wonton noodle soup is a total comfort food for me, warm and reassuring.

In Columbia, the “house special thin egg noodle soup” is as close as I’ve gotten to classic Cantonese wonton noodle soup. It makes sense that Pho Dat Thanh would offer a soup with Cantonese flavors; I’m told the owners were Cantonese who grew up in Vietnam.

The only downside to impulse soup dinner is that the place apparently does a bustling business on weeknights, and there was a bit of a wait at the door (and then, once we got a table, we had to wait even longer for the waitstaff to notice that no one had taken our orders). Next time I’m ordering carryout. At least the crowds mean that the Columbia restaurant scene is alive and well.

Pho Dat Thanh is on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia. For other menu options there, see HowChow’s review.

spring CSA, week 10

Technology is failing me tonight. First, our cable (and hence our internet access) was out for most of this evening, and then when it finally came back, I encountered technical difficulties getting pictures off my phone. I’ll add pics into this post when I can get them onto the computer.

In the meantime, you’ll just have to believe me when I say that this week’s CSA pickup contained spinach, mixed greens, eggplant, carrots, cucumber, mushrooms, apples, oranges, and the usual bread and eggs. The mushrooms are from PA, eggplant and oranges are from FL, the spinach is from New Jersey, and the carrots are (astoundingly) from cold storage up in Maine. I don’t know why they’re from Maine. We can’t possibly have run out of cold storage carrots in Maryland.

I also bought a pint of maple yogurt. The farm just started carrying fresh yogurt from grass-fed cows, out of Cedar Hill Farm in Darlington, MD. I had a bit of yogurt for breakfast today, topped with some granola. The yogurt is fantastic, sweet and just slightly tangy. It’s runnier than the yogurt you get from the stores, but the taste is just fresher. I love it. At $5/pint it’s pretty pricey, I think, but since yogurt is only an occasional indulgence for me, I don’t mind paying premium prices every now and then.

I took a picture of the yogurt container, too, with its adorable cow label, but you’ll just have to wait to see that.

Edit: technology and I are finally friends again. Here are the pictures of the CSA pickup and the yogurt.

spring CSA pickup, week 10

quart of maple yogurt

when life gives you ham

Some people get sent home from Easter dinner with a few extra slices of ham. Somehow, though, this year we got sent home with… an entire ham. Yep, an entire ham. For two people. I have no idea how this happened.

I cut a bunch of it up into medium dice and froze it. (K, who is wise in the ways of freezing, suggested spreading the diced ham on a sheet pan and freezing it first, then pouring the frozen cubes into freezer bags so that they could be easily separated later. Brilliant.) They’ll come in handy for casseroles or whatever. Still got all these slices to deal with, though.

Anyway, it’s been ham in every meal for us. For dinner last night, I made a split pea soup with plenty of ham in it, and served it up with ham and cheese scones. My standby cheese scone recipe, I figured, was robust enough to take some extra ham.

The batter had me worried at first, because the dough was incredibly moist and shaggy. It was hard to work with, but I managed to separate it into triangles. Then I pushed it into the oven and hoped for the best.

Result: total success! The scones are near-relatives to cheesy biscuits, not dry at all, with plenty of savory ham flavor in every bite. They’re best right out of the oven, but toast up just fine the next morning (and, I hope, will continue to do so for several mornings to come).

ham and cheese scones

Ham and Cheese Mini Scones
(I like my scones smallish, but you can make yours as big as you want)

2 3/4 cup flour
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder (make sure it’s fresh!)
1/2 tsp table salt (actually, you could probably cut the salt completely, with all the salt from the ham and cheese)
1/4 tsp baking soda
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cubed
approximately 1/2 cup ham, cut in small dice
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 green onion, minced
1 cup buttermilk (I used 1 tbsp white vinegar plus enough milk to equal 1 cup)
1 tbsp water (may not be necessary; add bit by bit if it looks like more moisture is needed to incorporate the dry ingredients into the dough)

Preheat oven to 375 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (I used a silicone baking mat).

Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender or fork until lumps of butter are pea-sized.

Stir in ham, cheddar, and green onion. Add buttermilk and stir; dough should begin to clump. Add water if necessary. Knead gently until blended.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface (or another baking mat) and pat into an 8″ square. Cut into 2″ squares and then cut squares into triangles. (Or if you want big scones, pat the dough into a big circle and cut it into wedges.) Dough will be moist. Arrange scones on baking sheet, spacing 1″ apart.

Bake until golden, or until the bottoms start darkening, about 25 minutes. (Just lift one up with a pair of tongs and peek if you’re not sure.) Serve warm.

o frabjous day!

This morning could not get any better. First I wake up to the news that a mass murderer has finally been brought to justice, and now HowChow informs us that the Howard County Farmers Markets are opening this week. Does it get any better than this?

(I know, total juxtaposition of the monumental and the prosaic. But that’s life.)

Yay, the farmers markets are back! I’m so thrilled. One of the things I love about the CSA is the sense of community. Members chat with the other members, or the farmers, and trade recipes and suggestions. That’s also the attitude in the farmer’s markets, where people will just turn around and chat with you about how good the strawberries are, or what to do with spinach, and the farmer might even throw in an extra tomato or two if you buy enough produce. It’s a type of community interaction that’s pretty much missing from the big box grocery stores, where you just get stuff off the impersonal shelves and your interaction with the cashier is limited to “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.”

Farmers markets! Words cannot contain my excitement. I’ve had such great experiences at the farmers markets. At the Cedar Lane one, I walked up near closing once and the guy just gave me all his remaining spinach for the price of a pound (“I’m leaving anyway,” he said, “it’ll go to waste otherwise.”). There’s a guy at the East Columbia one who will happily talk your ear off if you just ask him a simple question (“Do you have lemon basil plants this year?” spawned an entire dissertation on the care and feeding of herbs).

Berries in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, apples and cider in the fall… it’s the beginning of a wonderful, bounteous time of year.