While I was juicing cucumbers to make a cocktail base, Jackie was drawn to the kitchen by the aroma, and we were both reminded of what a striking thing a cucumber can be, something we — or I at any rate — keep forgetting.
The scent is at once delicate and powerful, and the vegetable itself is both crunchy and tender (thanks to it being mostly water, I suppose). We often make fun of cucumber sandwiches as artifacts of a spineless upper class in decline, but the fact is that, so long as the bread is soft and you add enough salt, they make a great snack, though perhaps not much of a meal.
Thinking again about the summer standby, I remembered that cucumber salad was one of my mother’s year-round staples. I never liked her version, which she made with white vinegar and sugar, but I am very fond of the one that Jackie taught me, which she, in turn, learned from Polish friends: Mizeria, it is called. Our scholarly Warsaw friend Jola tells us that this is because it’s a food of poverty: Cucumbers were usually available, even in dire times.
Now that cucumbers were back on our radar, we immediately had that salad. Here’s how to make it: For two or three side-dish portions, peel a biggish cucumber (to make it prettier, leave some thin strips of skin on if it’s not waxed or otherwise coated in foreign matter), halve it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon.
Don’t bother with those plastic-wrapped “seedless” cucumbers. They cost three or four times as much and aren’t seedless anyway. Cut it into 1/8-inch slices (or thinner if you like), salt generously but not wildly and put into a strainer set over a bowl. Weight the cucumber slices with a couple of plates and leave for 30 to 45 minutes to let the salt draw out some of the water. Pat drier (they’ll never be truly dry since, as I said, they’re mostly water anyway) and taste for salt. They may be perfect — and a little too salty is okay, as the rest of the ingredients will compensate. Their texture will have changed from crisp to softly crunchy.
Toss with a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar — here, my mother had it right — a modest squeeze of lemon juice, a generous 1/2 cup of sour cream and a lot of chopped dill (wash the dill very carefully — it can be gritty — and dry it on paper towels). Taste it, contemplate it, smile and most probably add some more dill.
The pre-salting will keep this salad from getting watery. The leftovers, even a day later, shouldn’t be swimming in liquid. You can eat mizeria with anything: fish, breaded pork cutlets, bread and butter, you name it. Because the dish is cold, it’s easy to think of it as a summer standard, but nowadays the ingredients are available all year, so keep that in mind.