Be careful what you wish for. When I planted our garden earlier this year, I wished for a year’s supply of pickles, and now I have cucumbers piling up more quickly than unread e-mails. With only so much free time and so many pickle jars, and a pandemic-era food budget that requires us to make the most of what we have, we’ve been coming up with other ways to stay ahead of—or at least lag closely behind—our harvest.
We’re growing heartland heirlooms: Beaver Dam peppers and Sheboygan tomatoes from Wisconsin, Hidatsa Shield beans and Arikara sunflowers from North Dakota, Chelsea watermelons and Grandma Einck’s dill from Iowa. Our cucumbers are Snow’s Fancy Pickling, a variety of Chicago Pickling selected by J.C. Snow of the Snow Pickle Farm in Rockford, Illinois, in the early 1900s.
They pickle well, of course. They make good cocktails. We’ve been making variations on the gimlet: two parts spirit, one part citrus, and a touch of sweetener, supplemented with a muddle of garden herbs and either cucumber slices or the seeds that we spoon out when making more delicate dishes. The most interesting of those easy cocktails so far has been a combination of aquavit, lemon, cucumber, and mint syrup that, because of the caraway and fennel in the aquavit, tasted not like the basic cucumber-and-mint summertime sipper you might expect but rather like a refreshing old-world tonic.
Then there’s the cucumber Caesar. We’ve enjoyed it a half-dozen times in the past couple of weeks, including for lunch today, after finding the recipe in a new cookbook from the husband-and-wife team behind two of our favorite restaurants in the Midwest: Michael and Tara Gallina of Vicia and Winslow’s Table in St. Louis.
Michael, who runs the kitchen, cooks like a gardener. He finds sophistication in simple preparations and opportunity in leftovers, recycling tomato skins into flavored salt and juice pulp into falafel. Serving juicy peak-season tomatoes on beds of whole-garden pesto, sausage in shaved-turnip taco shells, and pears wrapped in prosciutto and grilled over live fire, Vicia, the couple’s flagship project, earned best-new-restaurant buzz from Eater, Esquire, and the James Beard Foundation after opening in 2017. In 2019, Post-Dispatch critic Ian Froeb named Vicia the best restaurant in St. Louis.
Like any summer classic, it’s simple, it’s quick, and it calls for ingredients that you may already have on hand
For years, I have wished that they would write a book for all of us who want to make magic with a bunch of turnips and a handful of herbs, so I was excited to read that they had teamed up with the creators of a new St. Louis-based cookbook series, Small Circle. Small Circle founders R.J. Hartbeck and Mary von der Heydt work with local chefs on short, stylish culinary zines that sell for $15. (You can subscribe to a four-issue series for $50.) The ten or so recipes in each pamphlet add up to a family-style feast, which happens to be the Gallinas’ favorite way to serve seasonal bounty at Vicia.
So far, we’ve made the tomato salad, kohlrabi-shell tacos, and vegetable fried rice, and the schnitzel is on my to-do list, as are the fall fruits with prosciutto and the apple crostata, for later in the year. Right now, because we have so many cucumbers, and our tomatoes and kolhrabi aren’t ready to harvest yet, I keep coming back to the Caesar.
Like any summer classic, it’s simple, it’s quick, and it calls for ingredients that you may already have on hand: oil, garlic, mustard, lemon, anchovies, breadcrumbs, and cheese for grating. Maybe you don’t have shishito peppers around, but we’ve had no problem finding them at farmers’ markets over the past couple of weeks. You could adjust the recipe and proceed without them, but they add an interesting vegetal flavor and note of char to the dressing while also thickening it. Because this salad calls for a grill, consider serving it as a zippy counterpoint to burgers or steaks. If you don’t want to bother with charcoal or propane, you can blister your peppers in a medium-hot pan.
A few more tips: Save the seeds for cocktails, as mentioned above. I recommend a gimlet, a gin and tonic, or a margarita. Consider lightly salting the cucumber after scooping out the seeds and letting it drain in a colander while you work on dinner, which seasons the slices and draws out some of their water, making them crunchier. And feel free to use a few cloves of fresh garlic in place of the garlic confit. I recommend trying the recipe as written, but I prefer the bite of fresh garlic in this dressing, and skipping the confit step saves time and work on a lazy summer night. Try not to compromise on the breadcrumbs, which are best when homemade, toasted in a skillet or the oven. (They freeze well!) Don’t skimp on the lemon or anchovies. As always, though, know yourself and your audience. You can use the whole tin, but not everyone who tolerates a touch of anchovy will welcome the briny blast of a dozen filets. Michael adds them to taste.
And let me know if you’re looking for cucumbers. Seriously. I’ll drop a bag on your porch if you’re near Cincinnati.
1 cup shishito peppers
1 cup neutral cooking oil, such as canola (Note: Using the oil from the garlic confit instead of neutral oil would be very VIP.)
2 oz. tin anchovies in oil and salt
2 tbsp. garlic confit
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. lemon juice, plus more to finish
2 large slicing cucumbers
1⁄4 cup breadcrumbs, fresh or toasted
1⁄4 cup grated salty cheese, such as Sarvecchio
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make the vinaigrette, remove stems from peppers and blister them on the grill. Combine blistered peppers, oil, oil from anchovy tin, anchovies to taste, garlic, mustard, and lemon juice in a food processor blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon to taste.
Peel cucumbers and slice into quarters lengthwise. Remove seeds and place on serving dish. Top with 1 cup of vinaigrette. (Save the rest for later.) Sprinkle on grated cheese and then breadcrumbs. Add pepper and salt if needed. Finish with a squeeze of lemon.
Image and recipe excerpted with permission from Small Circle (@SmallCircleChef)