Who doesn’t love a cucumber?
Picklers, slicers, green or yellow, smooth or bumpy, thin- or thick-skinned, chubby Kirbys, little cornichons, English, Japanese, Persian. Good thing then that with the impending heat comes cucumber season.
They peak with the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and those other cucurbits, squashes and melons, but among all these, cucumbers are the most like Johnny Depp -- very, very cool. With their refreshing herbaceous flavor and their snappy crunch, cucumbers are exactly what we want to eat right now -- still (they’ve been cultivated for more than 3,000 years).
And they lend themselves to the way we want to cook right now too -- with a sort of easy abandon, pureed in soups, chopped into salsas, sliced into salads. A favorite two-sentence recipe for cucumber, mango and red onion salad from Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables” goes like this: “Peel and thinly slice cucumbers, mango and sweet red onion -- about the same of each, but exact proportions do not matter at all. Season to taste with freshly squeezed lime juice and salt, and garnish generously with cilantro leaves.”
Chopped into yogurt, you have raita for spicy Indian dishes. Or sliced, with a little white vinegar, sugar, salt and green onions, they’re more Hapsburg Empire, served with cold poached salmon or chicken.
Cucumbers’ flavor is often described as mild, yet it’s distinct enough to hold its own, slightly sweet and slightly bitter. It’s great featured in chilled soups such green gazpacho or Russian okroshka. Cool, creamy yogurt (or creme fraiche!) -- as with the raita -- is a no-brainer for cucumbers. (Dress sliced cucumbers with yogurt, stir in some dill, cilantro, basil, chervil or chives, and serve with cured salmon.) And for a chilled soup, cucumbers and yogurt couldn’t be better matched, spiked with a little garlic and a touch of white wine vinegar and garnished with crunchy radishes and grains of sea salt.
Their light sweetness really comes out in a beautiful and elegant cucumber and crab salad. The tender crab is a little sweet too and is tossed with herbs and shallots and a little lemon juice.
The cucumbers are sliced lengthwise into ribbons on a mandoline, and the slices are arranged architecturally -- forming layers between the crab, sort of like a napoleon, but looser, more floppy, more ... summery.
And what makes a better palate cleanser than a cucumber granita? Icy cool with a hint of sugar and some cracked black pepper, it’s perfect for a hot, hot day. The flavor of the cucumber shines through the sweet and the spice.
For dessert? If you were Providence pastry chef Adrian Vasquez, it would be a timbale of Greek yogurt and honey panna cotta with cucumber gelee and cucumber “noodles” with cantaloupe sherbet.
Break up any large pieces of crabmeat with a fork.
To make a lemon vinaigrette, combine the lemon juice and shallot in a small bowl. Whisk in the canola oil. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the chives and chervil.
Pour the lemon vinaigrette over the crabmeat and gently stir with a fork until evenly coated.
Slice the cucumbers lengthwise into very thin strips. (A mandoline works best.) Slice the cucumber on one side until you reach the seeds, then turn the cucumber and slice the second side down to the seeds. Discard the center of the cucumber with the seeds. You will want about 6 strips of cucumber for each serving, or a total of 36 cucumber strips.
For each serving, lay the 6 cucumber slices out flat and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice from a wedge of lemon over each cucumber slice, then grind a little black pepper over the cucumber.
To assemble, measure one-third cup crab salad for each serving. Place a cucumber strip on a plate, then some of the salad onto the cucumber, then top with a second slice of cucumber, rippling and folding the cucumber in an attractive manner. Repeat using the remaining cucumber slices and crabmeat. Repeat this procedure for the remaining servings.
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