Friday, October 12, 2007

Cucumbers Are Slippery

One of the ideas I like to introduce to the kids in my "food appreciation" classes is that good food doesn't always have to be cooked. I also like to show them how people used preserve food so they would have good things to eat all year 'round.

That leads me into the subject of cucumbers, because they're delicious raw as well as pickled. So this week we made a cucumber salad as well as starting two buckets of pickles.

This is one of those lesson I like on multiple levels. Not only does the food lend itself to teaching about freshness and preserving, we also get to practice some of our basic kitchen skills, such as peeling and slicing. And we can do some math along the way as well.

First we take two large cucumbers and I slice them crosswise into two pieces. That makes four, which I distribute among the class. The kids then take turns peeling the cucumber halves. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the children are still learning how to peel. They whack at the cucumbers or whittle away furiously. Several times I demonstrate how to hold the peeler correctly against the cucumber, and peel away the dark skin only in slow, methodical strokes.

When the peeling is finished, I slice the four cucumber pieces in half lengthwise. Now we have eight pieces. Again I distribute the pieces among the kids and they use spoons to scoop out the seeds. Some kids say they like the seeds. But I think the seeds are bitter and not worth eating. So we remove them. Now we have eight little cucumber boats.

For the final step, I bring out the mandolin. We used the mandolin the previous week to slice zucchini, so the kids know what it is and are excited to see it again. We take turns slicing the cucumber boats into thin crescent shapes, learning how to hold the vegetables properly so that certain parts of the fingers aren't sliced off in the process. When we're done, we have quite a pile of thinly sliced cucumber.

I put the cucumber slices in a cucumber bowl to make the simplest possible cucumber salad. Kids love sugar and salt. To dress the cucumber, we simply sprinkle on a little kosher salt, toss, then season it lightly with a splash of distilled vinegar.

Some of the kids think the salad would be good with extra-virgin olive oil or ground pepper. And of course you could use a flavored vinegar, dill weed, even cream for a Scandinavian-style cucumber salad. But we're just going to put our cucumbers away to marinate for a few minutes while we assemble our pickles.

Along with the slicing cucumbers I've brought several pounds of pickling cucumbers from Whole Foods. The pickling process is so simple, and I've mentioned it here a number of times. Cucumbers go into a heavy plastic bucket with salted water, mixed six tablespoons of pickling or unadulterated sea salt to one gallon of water. We then add generous amounts of dill weed and garlic cloves.

The kids have been asking ever since school started whether we would be making pickles again. So here we are. They get to plunk cucumbers into the bucket, then we have a short math quiz: If we have a two-quart measuring cup filled with water, how many gallons is that? And if we make half our recipe, how many tablespoons of salt do we need for one half a gallon?

(It isn't till grade four that the kids start to shout out the answer. The younger kids just stare at me.)

We add the water and the other ingredients to the cucumbers, place a ceramic plate over them, weigh the plate down with a plastic container full of water, then cover the whole thing with a kitchen towel to keep dirt out. The bucket will sit in a corner till next week, when the pickles should be ready to place in jars and refrigerate.

Now, to eat our cucumber salad. The kids are definitely more enthusiastic than they were with my zucchini carpaccio with goat cheese the week before. They take up their plastic forks with relish. And I would say most of the kids finish the salad, but there are still a fair number who just don't like these green vegetables.

Could it be time for a vegetable soup?

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