On a visit to Cleveland last summer, my friend took us to an Irish restaurant for lunch, then told us we had a choice for dinner: Polish, Russian, Slovenian or Hungarian.
Tough choice. We picked Hungarian sort of randomly, and ended up at Balaton in Shaker Square, on a just-warm-enough night with a concert going on in the park across the street. We asked for a little table outside on the sidewalk to take it all in.
To start, we ordered Uborka Salta, Hungarian cucumber salad. It came as wide, shallow bowls with paper-thin cucumbers soaked in a juice that was sweet and vinegary, topped with dollops of sour cream.
It reminded me of the old Southern dish of sliced cucumbers with vinegar that was a staple of my mother's Sunday dinners in summer. But these cucumbers were sliced so thin that you got this amazing crunchiness from the edges of the peel. And the sour cream added a creaminess that balanced the vinegar and sugar in the juice. It was sprinkled with little seeds that popped as you ate, adding even more texture.
When I got back to Charlotte, I dug through my cookbooks, looking for something like it. I never found the exact recipe. But in Craig Claiborne's 1961 "The New York Times Cookbook," I spotted a Sweet Cucumber and Green-Tomato Pickle that had a pickling liquid that I thought might be close.
I got some long, thin cucumbers and pulled out my mandoline, the tool you need when you need paper-thin slices. You can sometimes slice things thin enough with a vegetable peeler, but for a job like this, you really need something like a mandoline or a Japanese Benriner.
I heated a mixture of cider vinegar, sugar, salt and mustard seed, cooled it just slightly and poured it over the sliced cucumbers, then chilled it. At dinner, I topped the cucumbers with sour cream and a light sprinkling of mustard seeds. And I tasted success: Re-creating a recipe is sometimes impossibly elusive. But this time, I nailed it on the first try.
The cucumbers kept beautifully in the refrigerator for weeks, ready whenever I needed some small dish of something to round out a meal.
It was getting so late in the season that I thought it was too late to share this cooking adventure. But at the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market on Saturday, Maria Fisher of Fisher Farms had a huge box of heirloom-variety cucumbers she was selling for Tega Hills Farm. There were green ones and white ones, small ones and large ones.
So I got the chance to make it again. I sprinkled on a little fresh dill, just because I had some handy, but you don't really need it. With the sweet/sour/creaminess, it seems like a perfect transitional dish to add to fall meals.
Sort-Of Hungarian Cucumbers
Heavily adapted from "The New York Times Cookbook," by Craig Claiborne.
1 to 2 cucumbers, preferably fairly thin ones with smaller seeds
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
3 teaspoons mustard seed, divided
1/4 cup sour cream
Leave the peel on the cucumbers. Trim off the stem and root ends. Slice the cucumbers very thinly, preferably using a mandoline or a very sharp slicer. They should be thin enough to see through them, between 1/16th and 1/8th inch thick if your slicer has a dial to set the size.
Combine the salt, sugar, vinegar and 2 teaspoons mustard seed in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, and heat just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let stand a few minutes, until it's still very warm but not boiling hot.
Pour over the cucumbers. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours; they'll keep for several weeks.
To serve, spoon cucumbers out of the juice with a slotted spoon into a serving dish. Top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of mustard seed.