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Cucumber and Tomato Salad



My summer-in-Texas food memories are chock full of homemade ice cream, devilled eggs, barbecued chicken and pinto beans, popsicles, potato salad, Dr. Pepper, peach pie, grilled vegetables, homemade sausage, and cucumber and tomato salad, among other tasty things. These dishes were consumed at chili cook-offs, family reunions, 4th of July get-togethers, siblings’ summer birthdays, and church picnics. I was inspired to make the cucumber and tomato salad this week after buying cucumbers at the community grocery store called Hoffer’s, in Hallettsville, and a friend gifting me with a large orangey-red Sungold Medley tomato from Austin’s Farm to Table company. Many stalls at my local Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market also had cucumbers and tomatoes on offer this morning. I love the vibrant colors of the dish, the spicy raw onion and crisp cucumbers, and the bright flavors that are so dependent on the summer Texas sun. 

Hairston Creek Farms' tomato display at my local farmer's market in Austin

I think of the salad as a Texas Czech thing. "Salad" in the Czech Republic, in my experience, is nothing more than raw vegetables doused in vinegar, salt, and pepper. For several trips I took there, I actually thought cucumber-tomato-onion salad (all grated however) was the only salad served. It was that ubiquitous on restaurant menus. There were several versions at both my Orsak reunion (Ganado) and Morkovsky family reunion (Hallettsville) this last month. But I could not find a single recipe for it in my community cookbook collection. Perhaps it’s too simple for someone to think the directions warranted inclusion in a cookbook. I did find many recipes for cucumber salad (no tomatoes) with some kind of dairy product in the dressing, whether mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, sour cream, or Greek yoghurt. There were versions of the dish in Country Cuisine III by the Catholic Daughters of America chapter in East Bernard, Domaci Kucharstvi put out by Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina, Sharing Our Best, the centennial cookbook by the KJZT, and the SPJST 100th Anniversary Cookbook.


I love these versions, but when tomato is added, somehow only a vinegar-based dressing is called for. The SPJST book had the only vinegar-based tomato salad I could find and it was actually called Tomato Salad. But I substituted cucumbers for the green pepper in the original recipe and got what I wanted. The recipe was submitted by Elaine Berkovsky of Lodge 63; my variation recipe is below. I also composed the salad rather than mixing everything together because the sliced tomatoes were so pretty. 




Cucumber and Tomato Composed Salad

1 large heirloom tomato
2 small cucumbers
1 small onion
kosher salt to taste
cracked pepper to taste
½ teaspoon sugar
1 to 2 tablespoon vinegar

Slice the vegetables and arrange in separate rows on a platter. Add the sugar to the vinegar and mix until dissolved. Sprinkle the mixture over the rows of vegetables and season with sprinkled salt and cracked pepper to taste. (I sprinkled chopped scallions on top of my salad, too, since Hoffer's had local ones for sale, but you wouldn't have to include them.)

My father, Steve Orsak, with his mother,
Irene (Zielonka) Orsak, about 1947
For contrast, and because I love the creamy versions of cucumber salad, below is my paternal grandmother’s recipe. My grandmother, Irene (Zielonka) Orsak made this salad for regular family meals and my father, Steve, thinks it’s a Polish recipe, since Irene was Polish. She said that you put salt over the cucumbers and let them sit to “draw the poison out”, which Steve says was an old timer’s wive’s tale. My grandmother was a fantastic, expressive, hilarious storyteller, so I believe him. Of course, salting the cucumbers to help draw excess liquid out does help them stay crisper in your salad. My father would pick vegetables, including cucumbers for this salad, in his grandfather’s and his uncle Ben Parma’s gardens south of Cuero in the summers growing up. “No matter how crazy it sounds, I like my cucumbers over mashed potatoes, with fried chicken.” He told me. “That was the way my grandpa Steve (Irene’s father) ate his cucumbers.” I don’t recommend topping your mashed potatoes with this salad, but my father’s comment does speak to the power of food and memory. Summer food, summer memories.


Irene Orsak’s Creamy Cucumber Salad
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin
2 T. salad dressing or mayo
Salt and pepper
2 T. sour cream or cream
2 T. apple cider vinegar
2 T. milk

Salt sliced cucumbers and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Pour off any liquid residue. Add vinegar and stir. Add remaining ingredients and stir again. Refrigerate for 30 minutes and serve.






Comments

  1. I absolutely love fresh cucumbers right out of the garden. My mom always made her cucumber salad much like the last recipe. I made up a recipe with cucumbers, fresh dill, which works really well because dill is used in pickles and pickles are cucumbers, after all. I pulverize garlic and layer with sliced purple onion and a dressing containing balsamic vinegar, oil, sugar and fresh cracked pepper. I love it the day I make it and even more the next day. Also, my mom fried chicken every Saturday and we had it along with mashed potatoes and fresh cucumber salad made with Miracle Whip! I can see how cucumber salad on mashed potatoes would be good. I'd dip my fried chicken in the creamy dressing from the cucumbers! All of these delicious aromas remind me of hot summer days, out on our farm in Wallis, Austin County. I sure miss those days and I'm glad I grew up during the '60's-'70's, the simpler times!

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  2. So sorry for not seeing this wonderful comment earlier. Thank you for sharing your memories and I agree about growing up in simpler times. I'm a child of the 70s and am grateful for a childhood without technology other than a phone, stereo, and TV. At least I can pass on some of those simpler times to my kids through home cooked food. Sounds like you're doing the same. Kepp up the good work! -Dawn

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