Depending upon your reference source, the first day of summer is June 20 or 21. In either case, it’s time to plan cool meals for hot days.
One of the most versatile summer ingredients is the cucumber. Everyone’s heard the phrase, “cool as a cucumber,” but what does it mean? Well, let’s consider the cucumber in culinary terms: it offers a refreshing, palate-cleansing astringency that “cools” the mouth after a bite of spicy food.
The cucumber is thought to have originated in Thailand or India, and its mild, crisp flavor is a perfect foil for curries and other foods from those hot countries. Cucumbers also make cool “platforms” for a variety of toppings.
Cucumbers with small seeds are best; older ones with bigger seeds can taste bitter and need to have the seeds removed. The English, or hothouse, cucumber is virtually seedless.
Choose firm cucumbers with smooth, brightly colored skins; avoid any with shriveled or soft spots. Store them whole and unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to 10 days. Wash just before using.
Yogurt raita with tomato and cucumber
Traditionally served with most Indian meals, the raita’s cooling components include not only cucumber, but also yogurt and cumin, which is a “cooling” spice. This recipe from “Madhur Jaffrey’s Spice Kitchen” makes four to six servings:
2 cups plain yogurt
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne (red) pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds
1 small tomato, cut into small dice
About 4 inches of cucumber with small or no seeds, peeled and cut into small dice
Put yogurt in a bowl; beat lightly with a fork until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill until ready to use.
Cucumber with walnut miso
This Japanese appetizer recipe comes from Oriental Appetizers by Yukiko Haydock; makes about 40 appetizers:
2⁄3 cup walnuts, plus about 40 small walnut pieces
1⁄2 cup red miso
1⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)
2 tablespoons sake
1 English cucumber
Mince walnuts in a food processor, being careful not to make a paste. In a saucepan, combine miso, sugar, mirin and sake. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in the walnuts. Set mixture aside to cool. Cut cucumber into three-inch rounds and core, then cut each round into quarters. Spoon a little miso and walnut mixture on each section. Top with a piece of walnut and chill until ready to serve.
Cucumber boats with bay shrimp
Prepare this simple pupu no more than half an hour before serving. You can use regular cucumbers or the seedless ones. Recipe from “Hors d’Oeuvres” by Norman Kolpas; makes about 36 boats:
4 (8-to-10-inch-long) cucumbers
3⁄4 cup mayonnaise
6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
3 tablespoons lemon juice
21⁄2 cups cooked bay shrimp
Peel cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise. With a small spoon, neatly scoop out seeds to leave a deep groove along each cucumber half. Cut halves crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Stir together mayonnaise, 1⁄4 cup of the chives and the lemon juice. Add shrimp and stir to mix. Place a generous tablespoon of shrimp mixture on each cucumber piece. Garnish tops with remaining chives and arrange on a serving tray.
Thai ‘ajaad’ salad
Thai cucumbers are smaller and shorter than the Western variety, but used the same way, as an accompaniment to spicy meat dishes and chopped in salads such as ajaad. Recipe from “Thai Cooking” by Kurt Kahrs; makes four to six servings:
2 cups white vinegar
1⁄3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 small (5 inch) cucumber, quartered and sliced lengthwise
1⁄4 cup sliced shallots
2 fresh red chilies, sliced thinly into circles
Boil the vinegar, sugar and salt in a pan until reduced to about 1 cup. Remove from heat, cool, and mix with the cucumber, shallots and chilies. Chill salad until ready to use.