Flash in the pan

Cooked as a cucumber?


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 cucumber should be served cool. Cooking a cucumber would be like giving Samson a haircut before a battle.

The best have tried — and failed — to find a way to cook cucumbers that people want to eat. Even the late James Beard, with a recipe for poached cucumbers, couldn’t pull it off. The limp slices were only rendered edible with the cream, mushrooms and twist of black pepper he called for. I was not converted.

Yet there I was, ordering a dish I was quite sure I would hate on the longshot possibility that the rules of culinary physics might be temporarily bent by some cucumber-whispering chef. Perhaps there would be enough heat to induce a measure of charred fragrance without silencing the loudest crunch in the vegetable kingdom. But no, I got $16 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 the resurgent trend of 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 drink.

You don’t need a fancy fruit-infusing cooler to make cucumber water. All you need are cucumbers, water and a vessel. It’s a bit like making sun tea — but without the sun. Instead, use ice to hold the temperature where it needs to be.

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 or other cool ingredients. Wait. Drink. Feel cool.

The mild, refreshing flavor of 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 cucumber flavor is famously harnessed when the vegetable is mixed with garlic, mint and yogurt. This combination of flavors is found in many parts of the world, from Indian raita to Greek tzatziki. The mint enhances the cooling action, while the garlic balances the minty aroma with its sharp pungency.

Here is an example of this combination in a recipe for Lebanese khyar 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.

Khyar bi laban 

This combination of cucumber, yogurt, mint and garlic straddles the line between a dressing and a salad depending on what you serve it with and how finely you chop the cucumber. Today’s recipe is a salad, so the chunks are large.

I don’t typically peel cucumbers, but I do for this recipe to preserve the classic white look.

Makes 4 servings

  • 3 cups peeled cucumber, diced into 1/2-inch cubes or smaller
  • 1 1/2 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 it with salt and set it aside for 30 minutes so the salt can draw water from the cucumber. Give it a gentle stir every 10 minutes to help coax the water out. 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 the yogurt, garlic and mint. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve cool.


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