The premise of my bi-weekly newspaper column is to show how one particular food can turn into a myriad of dishes simply by varying the accompanying flavors or the preparation technique.
This way of thinking about cooking resonates with me because we have a limited cadre of fruits, vegetables and proteins produced in the great lakes region. But we can have an unlimited number of ways to show off those primary ingredients, and the creativity and newness that those varying combinations produce makes me proud to be part of the midwestern food culture.
Cucumbers are in their prime right now and particularly well suited to show a variety of different flavors. Their cool crunch pairs well with the fat in dairy, spicy chili oil and the acidic bite of tomatoes or citrus.
Having made warm, buttered cucumbers in cooking school and finding them fully unsatisfying, bordering on gross, I stick to eating them uncooked and full of their watery crunch. But if your curious, give it a try, but I’m not going to help you down that path.
In lieu of changing the technique, I like to play with how the cucumber is cut. The different shapes change how it feels in the mouth and the interplay with the other ingredients. This is one of those times when it isn’t about fussiness but the cut, in fact, changes the way the vegetable is expressed. A half moon isn’t wrong, but it is only one cucumber iteration.
In the first recipe, the cucumbers are shaved as thin as paper and used to mimic deli style meats. The lightness of the shaved cucumbers contrasts the fat in the cream cheese and the weight of the hearty bread.
In the second, the cukes are cut in rounds with only half their skin. I almost never fully peel a cucumber because, like most vegetables, that is where the bulk of the nutrients lie. Beyond the nutritional consideration the texture of vegetable skins gives depth to the sweetness of the flesh. Like Thumper the Rabbit in Bambi, remember to eat all of the clover not just the sweet flower. It is better for you and honors the whole plant.
In the third recipe the cucumber is left in large wedges making it clear the cucumber is the star with the tomatoes, arugula and tuna mayo as the accessories. If the cucumber were cut the same size as the tomatoes they would feel like equals on the plate. And that would be good too, it just depends on what you want to emphasize.
It should also be noted that any type of cucumber could be used for these recipes. I tend toward medium sized, smooth skinned slicers. But if the rougher skinned pickling cucumbers are all that is available, use those. And if the round, yellow lemon cucumbers grace the table of your favorite produce vendor, buy them up not only for their novelty but for the variety of color that they lend to a summer meal.
Planting melons too close to cucumbers will keep them from ever ripening, but serving them together is a refreshing summer delight. Especially when the cool flesh of both is warmed with the back of the throat of chili oil.
This recipe makes more chili oil than you need, but it is unendingly useful to have on your counter and drizzle on just about everything.
- ¼ C chili flakes
- 2 C safflower oil
- 1 small melon, preferably cantaloupe
- 3 cucumbers
- 8oz feta
- 1 bu parsley
- In a small frying pan, toast the chili flakes until they are fragrant and starting to darken.
Remove from the heat and add the oil
- Allow the cool and use when fully cool
- Stripe the cucumbers and cut into 1/8” rounds
- Cut the top and bottom of the melon and then, with a knife, cut the skin away in long strips.
- Cut the melon in half and scoop out the seeds, then cut into 1” pieces
- Pick, wash and roughly chop the parsley
- Combine the cucumbers, melon and parsley in a bowl and toss with a glug of olive oil and salt
- Lay out on a serving platter
- Skitter feta over the top and drizzle liberally with the chili oil
- 1 loaf bread, preferably pumpernickel, rye or something seedy
- 1 lb cream cheese, softened
- ½ C milk
- 1 bu dill, chopped
- 5 cucumbers
- 1 bag sprouts or pea shoots
- Place the softened cream cheese in a large mixing bowl (or stand mixer) and paddle to soften
- Add the milk, dill and several good turns of black pepper and paddle to combine
- With a vegetable peeler peel the cucumbers leaving half the skin and taking the other half off in stripes
- With a mandolin or very sharp knife shave the cucumber into very thin
- Toast or grill the bread and shmear with the dilly-cream cheese
- Pile the cucumbers high like you would a deli meat
- Sprinkle with salt
- Top with sprouts
- Put the lid on the sandwich and serve
- 3-4 cucumbers
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes
- 1 bag arugula
- 1 C basic mayo
- 1 small tin tuna (can substitute smoked fish or tinned mackerel)
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
- In a food processor or a large bowl blend the tuna, mayo, lemon and black pepper until it is well combined. Taste for seasoning and acid and adjust as desired.
- Cut the cucumbers into long wedges
- Cut the cherry tomatoes in half
- Lay out on a serving platter and slather with the tuna mayo
- Toss the arugula with a splash of olive oil and salt and top the platter with the greens