Leave your garden behind for a week of vacation and you never know what you’ll find upon returning: rabbits could have nibbled the lettuces, a bear breached the electric fence, or gusting winds blown over corn plants. None of the above confronted us last week, but we did face a tsunami of cucumbers ranging in size from salad to torpedo. From just six plants — albeit plants that had become insanely muscular and invasive — we picked a half-bushel of cukes in one afternoon and returned two days later to harvest an additional 16. Time to make some relish.

Sweet pickle relish is a humble condiment. Some might legitimately wonder why we bother investing time in making homemade when a fairly acceptable commercial product can be had for around a dollar. But “fairly acceptable” is a far cry from the deliciously sweet and sour condiment, organically grown, that we produce at home. In a good year such as this, when cucumbers, peppers and onions proliferate, we make so much relish it almost becomes legal tender: we trade with neighbors for eggs or help with yard work and enjoy giving jars away to friends and family.

If you think sweet pickle relish is good only for piling atop hot dogs and hamburgers, you are underestimating its myriad uses. We probably use more of it in tartar sauce (mayonnaise, relish and horseradish mixed together) than as a burger topping. It also finds its way into tuna or egg salad, potato salad and even coleslaw. One of our favorite butcher shops sells containers of an addictive ham salad, which we fall upon in the store parking lot, often scooping it directly out of the container with crackers. An approximation of the recipe follows:

H A M   S A L A D

8 oz. ham
4 oz. cream cheese, softened and cut into pieces
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
3 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. prepared horseradish
14 tsp. black pepper
Trim ham of fat and chop into pieces. Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse about 15 times to finely chop the ham. Stir mixture to make sure everything is evenly mixed. Serve with crackers. (At the shop, you can also select a version with added tiny cheese chunks mixed in, another delectable option.)

If you have an abundance of cucumbers, a food processor, and canning jars and kettle, you can easily make your own sweet pickle relish. My favorite recipe has a minimal number of ingredients and is easy to follow. If you are unfamiliar with relish-making, here are a few tips: first, it’s permissible to use differing amounts of the vegetables, but don’t cut down on the sugar and vinegar; they help preserve the ingredients. Second, don’t crowd the food processor. Use the pulse function judiciously so that you end up with chopped bits, not mush. And really press the salt brine out of the relish before mixing it into the liquid ingredients. I press the mixture in a large colander and then take handfuls and squeeze it into balls, placing them in a large bowl. Before I begin to press out the liquid, I get my canning jars out, put them in the canning kettle without the basket, fill it halfway with water and heat it up. That way I have hot, sterilized jars and a kettle full of almost-boiling water for processing.

S W E E T   P I C K L E;   R E L I S H

4 cups chopped cucumbers (about 4 medium-size)
2 cups chopped onions
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
14 cup pickling salt
313 cups sugar
2 cups cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. each celery and mustard seeds
Combine cucumbers, onions and peppers in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and cover with cold water. Let stand two hours, then drain thoroughly. Press out excess liquid. Combine sugar, vinegar and spices. Heat to boiling, add drained vegetables and simmer for 10 minutes. Pack into hot jars, leaving 14-inch headspace. Seal, then process in a boiling- water bath for 10 minutes. This means covering the jars with an inch of water and boiling for 10 minutes after the kettle returns to a boil. After you remove the jars, you should hear the happy pings of jar lids sealing as they cool down. This makes 8 half-pint jars.