At an overpriced tapas joint, I once took a chance on charred cucumber salad. The dish sounded counterintuitive, to put it delicately, because everyone knows a cucumber should be served cool. Cooking a cucumber would be like giving Samson a haircut before the battle. A cool cucumber is a happy cucumber.
The best have tried, and failed, to find a delicious way to cook a cucumber. Even James Beard, with a recipe for poached cucumbers, couldn’t pull it off. The limp slices of cuke were only rendered edible with cream, mushrooms and a twist of black pepper. I was not converted.
That was before my trip to the tapas bar. Yet there I was, ordering a dish I was quite sure would not be good, on the long shot that the rules of culinary physics might temporarily bend around the charms of 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. But no, I got 16 bucks worth of sliced, blackened sogginess, stuck to
chunks of goat cheese. Another failed attempt to cook a cucumber. When will we learn?
Cucumbers are mostly water, so it’s no surprise they don’t respond well 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 the cucumber water trend. By now you have surely noticed that cucumber water has replaced plain water in lobbies, waiting rooms, offices and dining rooms.
You don’t need a fancy fruit-infusing water cooler in order to make cucumber water. All you need are cucumbers, water and a vessel. To make cucumber water, wash a cucumber and slice it thinly, unpeeled. Discard the ends. Add the cucumber to the water, along with lemon slices. Wait. Drink. Feel cool.
The mild, refreshing 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.
That mild flavor is famously mixed with mint, garlic and yogurt in another dish even more popular than cucumber water. 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. Mint enhances the cooling action, while garlic balances the sweetness with sharp pungency. For a real-life example of this cool combo, here is a recipe for a Lebanese kyar bi laban, or cucumber yogurt salad. The chunks of cucumber add 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
1.5 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 gen- tle stir every 10 minutes to help coax out the water. Meanwhile, mince or crush the garlic and mint together, 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.