I love this time of year. The air leans toward crisp, the leaves hint at a palette of gold and crimson, and my propensity for “glistening” lessens to the point where I can comfortably walk without shvitz (and makeup) running down my face. My affection for autumn began when I was a kid. Since I was born in late August, birthday presents almost always included “school clothes." Fine with me, I love new clothes (and you thought it was just shoes). Unfortunately, I’ve always had issues with holding off on wearing new things until they are “weather appropriate.” I’ve gotten a bit better over the years, but as a kid there was NO way I wasn’t going to wear that new item immediately. Since the first week in September is rarely crisp and fall-y, picture an 11-year-old clad in new wool sweater and corduroy skirt, beads of sweat lining up on forehead and upper lip as she is about to burst into flames on the first day of school. But as soon as the temperature hit below 65, a fashionably dry kid was I.
I’m also mad about this transition time between the seasons, culinary-speaking. Farmer’s markets are busy clearing out the summer crops for pumpkins and apples, giving the cook on a budget plenty opportunity to load up on things that during the height of their growing season are priced like platinum. Meat should be $5 per pound, NOT tomatoes. And if you are lucky enough to have “connections” (a.k.a., friends or family with vegetable gardens), you’re in fat city. Gardeners are only too happy to pawn off zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and anything else they can shove at you because they have been drowning in it for weeks. To you, this culinary jackpot is like vegetable Christmas morning. To them the garden’s bounty has become a horticultural version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers" — They’re EVERYWHERE! Whether you cook or not doesn’t really matter. They just want to unload the stuff, and if you don’t ask for something you’re likely to find produce tucked into any bag or receptacle you brought into the house. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “is that a zucchini in your pocket or are you just happy to see me…”
Another good thing about this embarrassment of end of season riches is a cook becomes far more creative. When tomatoes are new to the market, just eating them with salt and pepper is sublime. When you are up to your eyeballs in them, you sauce and jam, pie and pickle. Who among us hasn’t had zucchini bread, zucchini pie, zucchini soup, zucchini muffins, or zucchini lasagna? I’ve even had someone serve me zucchini candy along side zucchini ice cream! Awful, yes, but I admired their gumption. So since summer is now a memory, squeeze all you can out of its culinary cornucopia. After all, it’s going to be a while before that next perfect tomato hits the plate.
One of the things I remember growing up was the end of summer cucumbers in the garden. Just when you thought a cucumber couldn’t get bigger, there they were, lined up like green Louisville Sluggers threatening to take over the backyard, and possibly the neighborhood. So what do you do when "attack of the killer cucumbers" hits? Make pickles of course, specifically Senfgurken (mustard pickles). Reminiscent of the sweet & sour flavor of bread and butter pickles (but bigger and much better), these are the wonderful homemade pickles I grew up on. Best of all, they are the perfect way to get rid of those giant cucumbers taking over your garden at the end of the summer.
Senfgurken (Mom’s Mustard Pickles)
Makes about 8 cups of pickles
5 big fat cucumbers (about 5 pounds)
1 medium to large onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 ½ tsp mixed pickling spices
1 TBSP salt, plus extra salt for the jars
Peel and scoop out the seeds from the cucumbers. Cut into 1” thick slices – you should have 9-10 cups of slices. Soak the slices in a large bowl of water with 1 TBSP salt about 3-4 hours.
Add the vinegar, 2 cups water, mustard seeds and pickling spices into a large pot and bring to a boil. Drain the cucumbers, add to the pickling brine and when the pot has just come to a second boil, turn off the heat. Slice 1 large onion in half, then in very thin slices. Add about a teaspoon of salt (for a two cup car, less for smaller jars) into the bottom of jar, then scoop in the cukes, lay thinly sliced onions on top, and pour syrup over. Tightly close the jars and let cool to room temperature, then store in the fridge for at least a week.
These will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while, but once you try them, I doubt they’ll last long!