Tante Maria (my aunt Maria) lives in the southernmost tip of Bavaria, in a small town near München (Munich) Germany. My mother comes from a very, very large family —all still living in Europe— and although I have many aunts, uncles and cousins, I will always feel closest to my Tante Maria. When I think of her and our long summertime visits, I am flooded with warm memories of her cooking, canning, baking and storytelling (as well as various odd adventures). My unmarried, travel-loving Tante would arrive at Boston’s Logan airport on a Lufthansa jet —arms laden with heavy packages and carts of enormous luggage— in a soft, lemony cloud of Tosca perfume. It was almost impossible to sleep the night before my family made the two hour drive to pick her up, but when I finally did drift off, I’m sure I was dreaming of the contents of her perennially over-gross, goodie-stuffed bags. The edible treats hidden in Tante’s luggage usually included Alpine chocolate, German cookies, Haribo Goldbären, chamomile tea, spices for cooking and baking, and of course, smuggled meats and cheeses for dad. Tante rolled all of these things —as well as dishes and perfume for my mother, biersteins for my father and toys and books for us kids— in delicately fragrant bed linens, hand towels, and wonderfully strange articles of clothing.
München Skyline- Photo by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons
It seems to me that from the moment she arrived, until the moment she left —usually quite tearfully, six weeks later— Tante Maria ruled our family kitchen and dining room table. No sooner did she step inside the door, than she donned her apron. Spätzle (egg noodles), kartoffelknöedeln (potato dumplings), apfelstrudel (apple strudel), sweet kuchen (coffee cake), and delightfully vinegary kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and gurkensalat (cucumber salad) are but a few of my Tante’s many specialties. And although I tend to cook in a more Mediterranean than Bavarian style, I have added a few of her dishes to my repertoire. My favorite? It’s hard to choose, but I do love gurkensalat —a vinegar-based cucumber salad— especially when it’s hot. In July, when my father picked the first, deliciously fragrant cucumbers fresh from his garden, Tante Maria liked to make a very simple version of this classic German salad; cutting the fruits tissue-paper thin with an old-fashioned, über-sharp slicer (mandolin). On a humid summer day —made with a hefty dose of good, white wine vinegar, a bit of red onion and lots of pepper— this cool salad is truly heaven-on-earth.
Bavarian Checked Bierstein – From King Werks via Amazon
I love cucumbers served most any way —fresh in soups and salads and of course pickled— so I grow lots of them in my garden. Overall, Raider and Holland cucumbers are still my favorite green varieties for flavor, but I have also come to love the taste and pretty chartreuse color of lemon cucumbers. Recently my friend John introduced me to some more exotic cucumbers, including a delicious red variety I hope to grow in my own garden next year. Wonderfully easy to grow on fencing and trellises, cucumbers produce more fruit, grow straighter and are less vulnerable to slugs and other pests when grown on vertical supports. Good cucumber companions include dill, nasturtiums, sunflowers, broccoli, bush beans, radishes, and peas. Avoid planting cucumbers near other cucurbits (squash, melons, etc) as they share similar pests. If you spot cucumber beetles on vines or foliage, they may be controlled with neem oil soap (use only as needed), and squash beetles (which also affect other cucurbits) may be controlled with insecticidal soap and/or garlic spray. Cucumbers prefer a neutral to slightly acidic, rich soil (with plenty of nutrient-dense compost worked in) even moisture and regular applications of fish emulsion to help develop productive vines and tasty fruit. Cukes should be picked frequently —check vines daily when it’s hot— and at a small size for best flavor…
Tante Maria’s Gurkensalat
Ingredients (serves 4 as a side salad, easily doubles for increased portions):
2-3 Very fresh cucumbers (more if very, very small), washed, partially peeled and sliced paper thin with a mandolin
1/2 Small red onion, peeled and sliced very thin with mandolin
1 Teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 Cup white wine, rice wine or apple cider vinegar
1 Tablespoon fresh, finely chopped dill (traditional)
Freshly ground pepper
*For a creamy version of this salad, add 1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt
Partially peel the cucumbers with a vegetable peeler (stripes look kind of cool)
Set a your mandolin, or other slicer blade to a very narrowly angled opening. Run the cucumber through to test, and if the resulting slice is thicker than tissue paper, narrow the slit between blades. If you are slicing by hand, you will need to be quite patient and steady. It’s very, very important to get ultra-thin slices as this enhances the cucumber flavor and the delicate texture of the salad. Slice all of the cucumbers and place them in a medium sized bowl. Mix in the salt and cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Remove the cucumbers from the refrigerator and drain. Pat gently with paper towels.
Slice the red onion, again very thin, and toss the separated rings into the bowl with the cucumbers.
Add the vinegar, cracked black pepper and optional dill to taste. Chill for one hour before serving.
If you would like a creamy gurkensalat, drain the chilled mixture and stir in the sour cream or yogurt. Serve garnished with a bit of fresh dill.
The Joy of Thin Slices… My classic Bron Mandolin !
Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE
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