Why Hello There, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophe. I’m your host and human embodiment of the word “pedantic”, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to talk about cucumbers. But we’re also going to discuss television, because, hey, there are only so many interesting facts about cucumbers. (Did you know they have a higher water content than Milk? Then you’re pretty much caught up.) So let’s do what I always do, and discuss the off-topic part first.
Off the Beaten Path in our A-TV
So, today’s recipe comes from Valerie Bertinelli, and her show, Valerie’s Home Cooking. And that lead me to a kind of revelation: Man, the food network is WEIRD these days. Now, I don’t want to dive too deeply into this, as it’s been covered by a lot of different publications, but here’s what I’m getting at: Back in Kitchen Catastrophe 58, I covered a recipe from Patricia Heaton’s show on the network. Today I’m covering one from Valerie Bertinelli. It’s not impossible that I will, sometime soon, cover something made by Tia Mowry, Brian Boitano, or Trisha Yearwood. In case you’re not immediately familiar with functionally every celebrity, let me break those names down: Today’s recipe is from an actress. Last month, we did a recipe from another actress. We may someday cover recipes from another actress, an Olympic figure skater, or a country singer.
Though, honestly, modern-day Trisha Yearwood and "Your 'Fun' Aunt" are pretty indistinguishable.
The original batch of show-runners for Food network consisted of restaurateurs and chefs. They were professionals in food production. Of that list of creators above, the closest any of them have to culinary credentials is Valerie, who at least became a weight-loss advocate, and served as a judge on a couple cooking shows before getting her own.
Now, I don’t want to sit here and poo-poo the state of Food Network programming, or claim that only professionals should be allowed to cook. For one thing, that would openly and directly violate our mission statement here at Kitchen Catastrophe: We think everyone should cook, and have fun doing it. I WILL say that it makes me feel…uneasy. And Luckily, I have just the suite of skills to explain why.
The reason Food Network moved to their programming is very easy to see: it made them an ever-loving shit-load of money. The thing about professional chefs: they’re not typically also professional performers. Mario Batali is one of the first food network stars, but it was clear he was out of his element in the first few episodes he shot. Over time a trend emerged: the shows that did well were the ones that focused on competitions, or shows with more showmanship than skill. Again, I’m not saying that as an insult: I’ve made no bones about my favorite food Network personality being Alton Brown, and he’s basically the first example of this trend: Alton, at the start of Good Eats, had only graduated from Culinary School a year earlier, an establishment he attended with the intent of making ‘better’ food TV than he was seeing.
I guess he succeeded? Is this what success looks like?
After him came Rachael Ray, who openly confesses she is not a chef and has no professional training. (As a note, she had been working AROUND and with food for several years before her show, she just wasn’t directly cooking it.) And it just kind of…unfurled from there. Soon after, Guy Fieri would win Next Food Network Star, becoming a core member of the channel, Chopped would debut, and eventually we wound up here.
I relate all of this to you because I actually find it kind of hopeful. Sure, you could argue that the hosts of Food Network aren’t as accomplished as they used to be, but if you want accomplished chefs, go turn on PBS or Create TV. Lidia Bastianich has been running restaurants for 40+ years. She’s cooked for two Popes. Jacques Pepin has been a chef for over 60 years, and cooked for Charles De Gaulle. And they’re great as well. But this explosion of celebrities of cooks speaks to the idea that anyone can cook, and that’s the hope I was referring to earlier. So let’s see what Valerie brought to the table, with a Marinated Cucumber Salad.
I’m Kooky For The Cukes
Now, I honestly don’t know if I’ve brought this up before, or if I have, how many times, because for some reason, I have the internal timeline of Eric Bana’s titular Time Traveler in The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I’m willing to spend 3 hours trying to find footage of the first episode of Molto Mario to give my frank opinion of it, I’m pretty unwilling to search my own archives. I blame…Amy Adams? Rachel McAdams? Which Adams was it in The Time Traveler’s Wife?
"God, Karen, you're so stupid."
But, as that paragraph that got wrapped up in temporal romances and Mean Girls references was meant to say, I am actually a pretty big fan of cucumbers. They’re just so crisp and clean. Tiny cucumber sandwiches for tea? Done it. Home-made dill pickles? Easy. Smashed Cucumber salad? Not yet, but I keep considering it. The problem is I keep thinking about it in December, thinking “I should do that this summer” and then don’t think about it again until November. Again, internal consistency is just a mess.
But yeah, cucumbers. Slightly bitter, but fresh and re-fresh-ing. They’ve got a bunch of neat uses and quirks. (Kill bad breath! Beat Hangovers! Scare Cats! Don’t do that last one, it’s kind of mean!) Today, we’re using a recipe that’s quite simple, so stick with me here. Basically, we’re quick-pickling the cucumbers in an Asian marinade.
There’s some contention on exactly when and why pickled cucumbers became just “pickles” in the North American vernacular, but I have my guess, which is based on a simple idea: everything else still tasted like itself. See, the word “pickle” comes from the Dutch word “Pekel” meaning “brine”. So it makes sense that pickled onion, pickled tomatoes, and all those, held onto their identity. But cucumbers are 96% water, and notably of pliable form. So they bore the most distinct transformation from being pickled. This is, of course, simply a guess, but it ties to a core idea: pickling cucumbers is nothing new. It’s often considered the heart of American pickling.
So, how does one ‘quick-pickle’ a phrase so fun to say I can’t understand why it’s not used all the time? Simple, first you get some thin sliced cucumber.
Oh, look, a picture of actual food. How novel, you hack.
Then, you through it in something salty or acidic for like, an hour. Boom. Done. Seriously, this is “picnic food 101” here. “Church Bazaar Basics” What I’m saying is this shit is definitely easier than pie. So you start with 2 English Cucumbers. If you don’t know, the three main varieties of cukes are English, “Normal” and Persian. Persian are typically smaller, and English are the ones that come in like, plastic wrap. Persians and English are the more “user-friendly”, having softer seeds, thinner skins, and many varieties being “burp-less”, making them, well, less likely to cause burping. “Normal” cucumbers are also called “slicing” cucumbers.
So, you thinly slice your English cucumbers, toss them in a bowl, and just DUMP Asian flavors on them. The marinade consists of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar. This couldn’t be more Asian if it was played by Scarlett Johansen! HaHA, timely racial commentary! Toss the slices in the marinade, and let chill for an hour in the fridge. Since it’s an acidic cold salad, we served it with Red Beans and Rice (we also did this because it was what Valerie did on the show.)
How did it turn out? Well…’fine’. Our family found it a little too light, in terms of flavoring. So we kinda futzed with each bowl until people got a version they liked. I hit mine with a little hoisin sauce, remembering that anise and cucumber work well, my dad just mixed a more concentrated form of the brine, etc.
But that’s part of the appeal, to me: this salad was customizable right off the bat. It was open to experimentation. It let us all try to be a little more chef-y. And that’s the same attitude we want to foster here, and the same inspiration having people like Valerie host shows can bring. So get out there, and make it your own!
Hopefully better than this.
NEXT TIME: JON ISN’T READY FOR THIS AT ALL. MAYBE WE’LL FINALLY TALK ABOUT IDAHO, MAYBE HE’LL REVIEW ANOHTER COOKBOOK. HE’S IN A WEIRD HEADSPACE AT THE MINUTE.
Marinated Cucumber Salad
2 English Cucumbers, sliced thinly
½ c + 2 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar. (Seasoned wouldn’t like, ruin it.)
2 tbsps soy sauce
4 tsp sugar
4 tsp sesame oil (preferably Toasted, but if you can’t get it, non will do.)
1. Mix everything that isn’t the cucumbers in a bowl.
2. Mix in the cucumbers. Chill 1 hour or longer.
3. Eat. I told you this was easy.