Keeping Cool with Cucumber
It’s too hot to cook, let alone eat anything warmer than a popsicle. And yet, the bounty of summer produce is upon us. With so many tasty vegetables coming into season, it seems a shame not to at least make an earnest attempt to prepare a respectable meal.
My solution to this conundrum has been to dive face-first into cucumbers, of all things.
I’ll grant that most of the year, I tend to overlook the cucumber. The generic supermarket variety has a tendency to be waxy on the outside and overcome with large, mushy seeds on the inside. But more and more, I’m seeing smaller, firmer and less seedy cucumber varieties being sold at my local groceries– not to mention the very appealing local offerings now available at the farmer’s market here (and from my mom’s backyard garden) on the East coast. All of a sudden, the humdrum staple of year-round salads started beckoning me, and I was reminded of just how good this cool, watery, crunchy and refreshing vegetable can be.
If you’re looking to fall in love with cucumbers again, look for varieties like the English cucumber (long, skinny and almost seedless), Lebanese or Kirby cucumbers (short, smooth and also almost seedless) in lieu of the fat, waxy, garden cucumbers you’re used to seeing.
OK, so cucumbers may not be the nutritional powerhouses of the vegetable world, but they have enough redeeming qualities to earn a space on our plates nonetheless. They’ve got a bit of vitamin C, a bit of fiber, potassium, folate and Vitamin A… and a whole lot of water. (If you buy an unwaxed variety of cucumbers, you can leave the skin on for extra Vitamin C and fiber.) In this regard, they can help deliver some nutrients while filling you up on a negligible number of calories. One cup of sliced cucumber has just 14 calories and 3g of carbohydrate (1 of which is fiber).
Cucumbers work great as a substitute for higher-calorie (and higher carb) foods: I love sliced cucumber rounds in place of crackers to serve smoked salmon-type hors d’oeurves at parties; or tossing a generous amount of julienned cucumber ‘noodles’ in with noodle salads to replace some of the noodles (try this trick with the sesame-peanutty noodle salad recipe below).
Here are four ways I’ve been enjoying cucumbers these past few weeks:
- Asian Cucumber salad: There are a million permutations on this surprisingly addictive salad of cucumbers sliced paper-thin and marinated in a simple mixture of rice vinegar, salt and sugar. A mandoline will come in handy here for fast slices of ribbon-like cukes, but the salad still works beautifully with thicker slices cut by hand (you may want to let it marinate for a bit in this case to allow the vinegar to soften the slices a bit). It’s so very fast and simple to make, and the taste and texture of cool, crunchy cucumber bathed in tangy vinegar is about the only thing that’s managed to lure me away from my recent pickle addiction. Literalists will undoubtedly point out that cucumbers bathed in vinegar are, essentially, a version of pickles. To which I would reply: Don’t judge me.
- Cold Sesame Peanutty Noodles with Cucumber: Ever since I spotted a huge bunch of bionic scallions and a pile of cute little Kirby cukes at the Farmer’s Market, I have been craving this salad. I finally made a batch today, and plan to bring the leftovers with me to work. Using wheat-free tamari sauce and 100% buckwheat soba noodles keeps the recipe gluten-free (read labels; some soba noodles use a mixture of wheat flour and buckwheat). If you’d like to make it a more substantial one-dish meal, you can toss pieces of grilled/sauteed chicken breast or organic tofu into the salad; either would go great. If you use a mandoline or Titan Peeler to julienne your cucumbers, they’ll take on a pasta-like texture that, when tossed together with the cooked noodles, adds some incredibly satisfying texture to the dish.
- Cool Cucumber Soup: In France, cold cucumber soup was on offer everywhere we turned. I suppose in a country where the metro isn’t air conditioned and they don’t serve you ice with your beverages, a cool, refreshing appetizer like this one can do a lot to revive one’s flagging spirit in the July heat.
- Refreshing Cucumber Water: The nice people at my gym have started putting spa waters into the ladies’ locker room for everyone to enjoy. Sometimes it’s a pitcher of icewater laced with grapefruit slices, other times its lemon, and once in a while, its sliced cucumber. I think it’s a lovely idea to make a pitcher to keep in the fridge during the summer months… especially to quench your thirst as you come inside from the blasting summer sun. Some retailers have started selling “infusion pitchers” to help us lazy folks along with our homemade flavored water projects, as well.