Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Defense of Cucumbers

For as long as I can remember, I've hated not been so fond of cucumbers. I remember taking a bite out of one for the first time in the mid-80's, back when every salad was teeming with cucumbers, radishes, sliced carrots and the occasional cherry tomato. I've always been game to try anything where food is concerned, so I took a big bite and immediately questioned why they'd left watermelon rind in my salad. After that I avoided them like the plague until my grandfather, a lover of all things salad, picked the cucumbers off of everyone's plate who didn't want them. Finally seeing someone enjoy cucumbers, I gave them one more go. I was older, wiser; surely my somewhat more refined, near-adult palate could find something appealing about these verdant vegetables. But one more bite was all I needed to know that I was just not meant to love cucumbers. I appreciate their refreshing nature, see the value in their crunch, and even find them quite beautiful when peeled just so. But I get nothing from their flavor and have always been lacking in inspiration when it comes to using them.

So needless to say I was less than thrilled when I got the season's first cucumbers in my CSA basket. They paled in comparison to the rest of summer's bounty, playing second fiddle to more popular produce like summer squash, beets and my beloved kale. But they were a part of my share and would undoubtedly crop up again throughout the summer, so I'd have to find a way to make peace with cucumbers one way or another. I immediately considered dumping them in a gazpacho where I could mask their flavor somewhat with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. But that would be cheating, since I signed up for a CSA for (among other reasons, of course) the express purpose of learning how to face challenging ingredients head-on, and really make them shine. So after a few days of opening the fridge door and staring blankly inside, I decided to put some brain muscle into it and break down the advantages of cucumbers. What is the best thing about cucumbers?

What a dummy, pickles, of course! While making pickles would take some time and also mask their flavor, I remembered a recipe from one of my cookbooks for a quick pickled cucumber salad with a delicious soy sauce dressing. While I'd never made it myself, I knew that the quick pickle (letting the sliced cucumbers marinate with salt and sugar) would draw out the water and concentrate whatever flavor was in there. And the dressing sounded light, with a salty-sweet kick that I hoped would bring some kind of flavor out of the cucumber. And wouldn't you know it? It was super tasty! The cucumbers developed a lovely sweetness (albeit a subtle one) that paired really nicely with the dressing and the salt it absorbed. This salad would be a great cooling side to barbecue, maybe even a healthier replacement for coleslaw. And it's perfect for picnics if you take it nice and chilled. So even though I won't be eating cucumbers in my regular salad any time soon, this all-cucumber salad has definitely opened my mind up to new possibilities. Here's the recipe with a few tweaks from me.

Chilled Cucumber Salad
adapted from Kylie Kwong's Simple Chinese Cooking

5 small (or 3 medium) cucumbers, peeled
1 Tbsp white sugar
1 tsp sea salt
pinch ground black pepper
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1/4 Tbsp finely diced ginger
1/2 tsp sesame oil

1. Cut cucumbers in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds using a spoon (skip if yours are young or seedless). Place cut side down on a chopping board and cut on the diagonal into 3/4 inch pieces. Place cucumber in a bowl, sprinkle with sugar and salt, then mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Whisk together the last four ingredients in a small bowl and set aside

3. Drain the cucumbers and, using your hands, gently squeeze away any excess liquid (discarding extra liquid). Combine the cucumber in a serving bowl with the dressing. Sprinkle with pepper and serve immediately.


amoser said...

I too have never been the biggest fan of cucumbers, though I've recently realized that the perfectly fresh ones at the Green Market (as with most produce) weren't as bland and watery as their grocery store counterparts. Can't wait to try this recipe to trick myself into eating them more often!

Kathryn said...

Mmm...we tried this as a compliment to hamburgers cooked on the grill and it made for a lovely summer meal. :-)