The Swift family joke is that “all good salad begins with melting down a stick of butter.” It's true.
When we were growing up in the 1970s, most of the benefits of fresh produce (what my Grandpa Swift used to call "rabbit food") were surely negated by Miracle Whip, Jell-O and Hidden Valley ranch. But I actually believe we ate a lot more veggies then than we do today.
My mother planted a massive garden each spring, and I still remember the pleasures of garden peas (one for the pail, one for my mouth), tiny, sweet strawberries (one for the pail, three for my mouth) and carrots pulled fresh from the ground (mmm… the secret ingredient is dirt!). Back in the day when tomatoes tasted like tomatoes, Mom simply sliced them and plunked them on a plate. Admittedly, I ate my slices sprinkled with about an inch of sugar, but hey… lycopene!
I also remember lots of watermelon, back when they were all about the size of a month-old baby and riddled with black, nonedible seeds. We loved the summer treat, but Mom always made us eat it outside. If we spilled even a teaspoon of juice on the floor, Mom would sniff it out like a bloodhound in a slaughterhouse. Her theory was that watermelon juice was akin to the cholera virus, and one tiny spill would soon infect the whole house — and possibly the county.
“Who. Ate. Watermelon. In. THE. HOUSE?!” she would crow, getting down on her hands and knees to attack the sticky spot with a scrub brush and a gallon of 409. “You kids! This spot will be sticky for a month!” Occasionally, the melon spill was serious enough to warrant getting out the Perfex, at which point the kids learned it was easier to relocate to Canada and restart our lives. It was decades before I could trust myself to eat watermelon indoors, and only then if I ate it over a garbage can lid with the entire dining room swaddled in drop cloths.
Here, I've included a couple of family favorites, ranging from the simplest cucumber salad to the ridiculously labor-intensive watermelon boat that Mom occasionally wheeled out for reunions and big parties. Fortunately, Mom had four handy sous chefs who were able to help with lesser tasks such as picking grapes off stems or coring strawberries. If you don't have enough patience or PTO to make the boat, you can cube the melon rather than messing with the fussy melon baller, forget the fancy side dressing or, better yet, see if you can order one off Amazon Prime. They will probably drop it onto your front step via refrigerated drone within two hours.
Oh, and whatever you do, do NOT rock the boat. If you spill any juice on the floor, Mom will find you.
Dilly Cucumber Salad
½ cup sugar
2 ½ tablespoons white vinegar
1/3 cup Miracle Whip
¾ cup half-and-half
2 large cucumbers, peeled and sliced
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
In a small bowl, combine sugar and vinegar. Add the Miracle Whip and half-and-half; stir until well-blended. Pour dressing over cucumbers and onions. Add fresh dill. Chill for at least an hour to allow flavors to blend.
Ingredients for dressing (optional):
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
Ingredients for boat:
1 large watermelon
1 honeydew, cubes or balls
1 cantaloupe, cubes or balls
1 to 2 pints strawberries, de-stemmed and sliced
½ to 1 pound green grapes
Directions for dressing:
Combine lemon juice, sugar and flour in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Stir ¼ cup into eggs to “temper”; return all to pan. Cook and stir for 15 minutes or until mixture coats a spoon. Do not boil.
Cool. Fold in whipped cream; cover and chill until you serve with salad, on the side.
Directions for boat:
Cut a thin slice from bottom of melon with a sharp knife to allow it to sit flat. Mark a horizontal cutting line 2 inches above center of melon. With a long, sharp knife, cut into melon along cutting line, making sure to cut all the way through. Gently pull off top section of rind. Remove fruit from both sections and cut into cubes or balls. Combine with other fruit; set aside.
To make decorative “zigzag” edge, place the side you won't be using as a melon boat on its side. Use the following method if you are very left-brained and like to measure and calibrate things: Use an 8-point star cookie cutter against the edge of the melon to make the zigzag edge. You'll use only half of the star to cut through the rind, pounding it through with a mallet if necessary. Insert a toothpick into flat edge of removed piece and attach piece onto melon edge of boat side where last cut ends. Repeat cutting and attaching pieces until entire melon is completed.
If you're more of a right-brained risk-taker, try my Mom's "don't spare the horses” approach: Using a long, sharp knife, carefully cut a zigzag, shark's tooth edge around the edge of the half that you intend to use as the boat. It may not be perfect, but you will impress people with all the food sculpting and melon spheres anyway.
Recipe adapted from “Abbey Cookbook.”
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.