Something snappy on the side

by Bonnie Sparrman

No matter what main dish claims the center of a plate, tasty sides go a long way to create a truly satisfying meal. It’s best when each bite complements the next. I spend lots of time planning menus, always aiming for that delightful combination of colors, textures and tastes that come together into a memorable meal. And while the main entrée is very important, it’s not all that matters. Just as the leading role in a play depends heavily upon supporting actors, each dish’s contribution to the plate is significant. The marriage of the various components is better than the individual parts on their own.

A favorite side dish that frequents the menu at our house is a classic Scandinavian holdout. Very plainly, it is inlagda gurkor, or fresh pickled cucumbers. They are so simple, on first thought I doubted them article-worthy, but obviously, something changed my mind.

It was my dad, whom we sadly lost just a couple of months ago. At 91, Dad’s sweet tooth was robust to say the least. After a career in the confectionary business, his penchant for chocolate and black licorice of all kinds remained strong. He lived just a short bike ride from me, and I did my best to keep him well supplied with the basics: fresh berries, cream, milk, coffee, butter, bread, eggs, chocolate, licorice and gurkor. For “real meals” he ate at his community’s restaurant, at our house, or I cooked for him in his apartment. He didn’t ask for much, but the one thing he enjoyed more than anything else was gurkor. The glass pickle bowl needed lots of re-filling, which was my joy to do. When so many of life’s pleasures eluded Dad, it was heartwarming to see him relish gurkor. One day he thrust his fork into the bowl of green-edged circles, stabbed about a dozen thin slices, and tossed them into his mouth. With a satisfied smile, he licked his lips and declared them to be more delicious than candy! Coming from him, that was a strong statement.

While making the next batch of what some call “quick pickles” I pondered why Dad liked them so much. Certainly, it had to do with their familiarity harkening back to the Danish delicatessen on Chicago’s South Side where Dad grew up. Fortunately, Dad’s mother was a talented cook, fresh off the boat from Denmark, and the deli was grateful for her good work. Anna produced gallons of homemade mayonnaise, pounds of liver pâté, cabbage slaws, pickled beets and inlagda gurkor in a jiffy. She also had a knack for baking and made thousands of spritz cookies. Her food sold well and she never came to our house without a stash of white round cardboard containers brimming with slaws, potato salad, pickled herring, beets, pâtés and gurkor. Watching her unload shopping bags of food from the deli was pure magic.

Ahh...but I digress. Back to gurkor, the piquant side dish that offers the loveliest complement to fish, pork, poultry and beef. Gurkor pair perfectly with baked salmon, grilled pork tenderloin, steak au poivre, and they are absolutely required next to a steaming mound of Swedish meatballs. They are sweet, salty, herbal and tart

with vinegar. Plus, they offer a little crunch that is most refreshing.

I watched both my Swedish and Danish grandmothers create this dish. Their hands moved quickly as they deftly sliced razor thin wheels of cucumber and lined them up between layers of salt, freshly ground pepper, a sprinkling of sugar, a few chopped herbs and a drizzle of vinegar. Mormor and Farmor also added ice chips to ensure crisp cucumbers, though that is something I omit to prevent diluting the vinegar.

This salad is well received at our table, and because it accompanies so many main dishes, it has been dubbed our “house salad.” Everyone should have a few “house somethings,” that natural go-to that can be pulled together in a matter of minutes with automatic precision. It’s easy to have a cucumber on hand, and of course every pantry ought to house a few bottles of vinegar and seasonings.

During the last few months, when Dad’s appetite lagged, I lured him to eating something by keeping gurkor in his fridge. Some days when he resisted a traditional sandwich, I could entice him with a piece of knäckebröd, topped with a little Dijon, a slice of ham and a generous heap of gurkor piled on top. This did the trick, satisfying my desire to see Dad eat, and giving the candy-lover something better than candy.

Inlagda Gurkor

(Classic Scandinavian Quick Pickles)

1 English cucumber, or a cucumber fresh from your garden
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
3 T. sugar
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
chopped fresh herbs of your choice, (parsley, dill, chives, tarragon, or any combination)

Slice cucumbers into thin wheels.

The easiest and most efficient way to consistently slice a cucumber is with a mandolin. A sharp knife or cheese plane will also do the job.

Gather all the ingredients together on a large cutting board:

cucumber slices

a salt pig or salt grinder

pepper grinder

small bowl of sugar

vinegars, mixed together in a handy squeeze bottle

minced shallot

chopped herbs

In a serving bowl, arrange a layer of concentric rings of cucumber slices overlapping each other. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, sugar, shallot, and herbs. Drizzle with vinegars. Arrange next layer of cucumber slices on top of the first layer. Again, season in the same manner. Continue using all the cucumber slices. Cover and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to several days. After serving the composed cucumber salad, leftovers may be tossed into a jar and kept in the fridge to be enjoyed with a subsequent meal or on a sandwich.

Platter of pickles

Cook’s Note:

The measurements for the seasonings are approximate, and should be adjusted to suit your taste. I don’t measure the salt, pepper or sugar; I grind or take pinches. The same goes for the vinegar; let your squeeze bottle release what looks and tastes good to you.After you have made a batch or two, you won’t need the recipe anymore.

Cutting board, mandolin, and ingredients

One more note:

The “Yes!” written on the bottom left corner of my cutting board reminds us that it’s okay to cut stronger flavored foods on this side of the board. It says yes to garlic, onions and peppers.

The opposite side is reserved for fruits, nuts and breads. No one wants a fresh slice of cantaloupe that tastes oddly of garlic.

PHOTOS: Bonnie Sparrman