Cool as a cucumber
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
At an overpriced tapas joint, I recently took a chance on charred cucumber salad. The dish sounded counterintuitive, to put it delicately. We keep cucumbers cool, so they can keep us cool.
I got $16 worth of sliced, blackened sogginess, plastered to chunks of goat cheese. Yet another failure in the fruitless campaign to cook a cucumber.
Cucumbers are mostly water, so it’s no surprise they don’t respond to fire. Malaysian beef rendang is served with cucumber slices alongside the spicy curry, available to douse any flames. This water-like nature of a cucumber explains one cucumber trend that, unlike cooking, truly has caught on: cucumber water.
You don’t need a fancy vessel in order to make this refreshing beverage. All you need are cucumbers, water, something to hold the cucumber water, and a system for not drinking the cukes and other flavorings that you add. The process is like making sun tea, minus the sun, with ice holding the temperature where it needs to be.
To make a batch, wash a cucumber and slice it thinly, unpeeled. Discard the ends. Add mint, lemon slices, berries, or other cool ingredients, along with the cucumber slices, to a clean vessel that you can pour or ladle from. Add water. Add ice. Wait. Drink. Feel cool.
The mild bitter flavor of a cucumber may be subtle, but it’s persistent. If given the chance it will quietly impregnate everything in its path. This allows a small amount of cucumber to flavor a lot of water.
The penetrating flavor of cucumber is famously harnessed in another cool dish. In Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, cucumber mixed with mint, garlic and yogurt is a common motif. From Indian raita to Greek Tzaziki, few dishes are better able to capture and harness the essence of cucumber. The mint adds even more coolness, while the garlic adds balance with its sharp pungency.
This dish can straddle the line between a dressing and salad, depending on what you serve it with, and how finely you chop the cucumber—larger pieces for salad, smaller for dressing.
A Lebanese version of this old-world combo is called Khyar Bi Laban, or cucumber yogurt salad. The chunks of cucumber add their watery crunch to a flavor that’s salty and refreshing, like a dunk in the ocean in the middle of summer.
This recipe calls for three cups of salad-sized cubes, but slices are fine too. I am not typically a peeler of cucumbers, but do so for this recipe to preserve the classic white look.
Place the cucumber chunks in a strainer, sprinkle with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes, so the salt can draw the water from the cucumbers. Give the chunks a gentle stir every 10 minutes to help squeeze the water out.
Meanwhile, mince two teaspoons of garlic with about two tablespoons of minced mint (fresh is best), then stir them into one cup of strained Greek-style yogurt. Give the cucumbers a final squeeze and combine them with yogurt mixture. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Serve cold, alongside bread, or something with which to eat it. Chill out.
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