At an overpriced tapas joint in Boulder, I took a chance on charred cucumber salad. The dish sounded counter-intuitive, to put it delicately, because everyone knows a cucumber should be cool in order to be at its best. Cooking a cucumber would be like giving Samson a haircut before the battle. Cooling a cucumber is much more productive.
The best have tried, and failed, to cook a cucumber in a way that has caught on. I tried James Beard's recipe for poached cucumbers. The limp slices that resulted were only rendered edible with cream, mushrooms, and a twist of black pepper he called for. I was not converted.
Yet there I was, ordering a $16 small plate that I was quite sure would suck, on the long-shot possibility that the rules of culinary physics might temporarily bend, and I would be enlightened by some cucumber-whispering chef. Perhaps there would be enough heat to induce a measure of charred fragrance, but without silencing the loudest crunch in the vegetable kingdom. No, I got 16 bucks worth of sliced, blackened sogginess, stuck to chunks of goat cheese like clothes scattered upon furniture. Another failed attempt to cook a cucumber.
Cucumbers are mostly water, so it's no surprise they don't respond to fire. In Malaysian rendang curry, cooled cucumber slices often accompany the spicy gravy, at the ready to douse any flames. The synergy between cucumber and water is the driving force behind a resurgent cucumber trend that, unlike cooked cucumbers, truly has caught on: cucumber water.
By now you have surely noticed the large, clear dispensers of cucumber water that have replaced water coolers in lobbies, waiting rooms, offices, dining rooms and wherever else fine water is served. They are designed to display the cucumber slices, which soak prominently inside the transparent tanks, quietly releasing their cucumber coolness into the water.
You don't need a fancy fruit-infusing cooler in order to make cucumber water. All you need is cucumbers, water, and a vessel. It’s a bit like making sun tea, but without the sun part. Instead, use ice to hold the temperature where it needs to be. It won't stop the infusion.
But remember, a cucumber that has been in the sun is not ruined. Cucumbers grow in sunlight every day, and if your cucumbers caught a few rays at the farmers market, and even heated up in the car on the way home, it’s no reason to worry. Refrigerate until cool, and proceed.
To make cucumber water, wash a cucumber and slice it thinly, unpeeled. Discard the ends. Add lemon slices or other cool ingredients, along with the cucumber slices, to the cold water. 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, allowing a small amount of cucumber to flavor a lot of water, and hydrate a lot of people.
The persistence of cucumber flavor is famously harnessed in another cool cucumber dish that is more popular even than cucumber water: mixed with mint, garlic, and yogurt.
This combination is a culinary universal found in many parts of the world. From Indian raita to Greek tzatziki, and few dishes are better able to capture and harness the essence of cucumber coolness. The mint enhances the cooling action, while the garlic balances the minty aroma with its sharp pungency.
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Here is an example of this combination, in a recipe for a Lebanese Kyar 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.
Kyar Bi Laban
The combination of cucumber, yogurt, mint and garlic can straddle the line between a dressing and salad, depending on what you serve it with, and how finely you chop the cucumber. Today’s recipe is salad, so the chunks are large.
I am not typically a peeler of cucumbers, but I am for this recipe, so as to preserve the classic white look.
Makes 4 servings
3 cups peeled cucumber, diced into half-inch cubes, or smaller
1½ cups yogurt (preferably strained, aka "Greek-style")
12 large fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon minced garlic (minced with the mint, see below)
1 tablespoon salt
Place the cucumber in a strainer, sprinkle with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes, so the salt can draw water from the cucumbers. Give it a gentle stir every 10 minutes to help coax the water out. Meanwhile, mince or crush the garlic and mint together, and then stir this mixture into the yogurt. Give the cucumbers a gentle squeeze, and combine them with yogurt, garlic and mint. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve cool as a cucumber.