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At an overpriced Tapas joint in Boulder, I took a chance on charred cucumber salad. The dish sounded counter-intuitive, to put it delicately, because everyone knows a cucumber should be cool to be at its best. Cooking a cucumber would be like giving Samson a haircut before the battle.
The best have tried, and failed, to cook a cucumber in a way that has caught on. I tried James Beard’s recipe for poached cucumbers. The limp slices that resulted were only rendered edible with cream, mushrooms, and a twist of black pepper he called for. I was not converted.
Yet there I was, ordering a dish that I knew would suck, on the long-shot possibility that the rules of culinary physics might temporarily bend. Perhaps it would be at the behest of some hot chef who can kiss the cucumber with enough heat to induce a measure of charred fragrance, without silencing the loudest crunch in the vegetable kingdom. Perhaps indeed. I got 16 bucks worth of sliced, blackened sogginess, plastered 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, cucumber slices often accompany the spicy gravy, at the ready to douse any flames. The synergy between cucumber and water, meanwhile, is the driving force behind a cucumber trend that, unlike cooked cucumbers, truly has caught on: 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 water is served. Cucumber slices soak prominently inside the transparent infusers, sometimes joined by berries, melon slices, or leaves of mint.
You don’t need a fancy fruit-infusing water dispenser in order to make cucumber water. All you need is water, something to hold it, and a system for not drinking the cucumbers and other flavorings that you add. Making cucumber water is like making sun tea, but without leaving it in the sun-it’s a cucumber, after all, and the sun is hot. Instead, use ice to hold the temperature where it needs to be. It won’t stop the infusion.
Wash a cucumber and slice it thinly, unpeeled. Discard the ends. Add mint, lemon slices, berries, or other cool ingredients, along with the cucumber slices, to the cold water. Wait. Drink. Feel cool.
The mild bitter 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.
The mild persistence of cucumber flavor is famously harnessed in another cool cucumber dish that is more popular even than cucumber water. Cucumber mixed with mint, garlic, and yogurt is a culinary universal found in many parts of the world. From Indian raita to Greek Tzaziki, few dishes are better able to capture and harness the essence of cucumber coolness. The mint enhances the cooling action, while the garlic balances the minty aroma with its sharp pungency. Here is a recipe for a Lebanese version called Kyar Bi Laban, or cucumber yogurt salad. The chunks of cucumber add their watery crunch to a flavor that’s like a dunk in the ocean in the middle of summer. Salty and refreshing.
Kyar Bi Laban
This dish can straddle the line between a dressing and salad, depending on what you serve it with, and how finely you chop the cucumber - larger pieces for salad, smaller for dressing.
I am not typically a peeler of cucumbers, but do so for this recipe to preserve the classic white look.
Makes 4 servings
3 cups peeled cucumber, diced into half-inch cubes, or smaller
1½ 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 the water from the cucumbers. Give it a gentle stir every ten minutes to help squeeze the water out. Meanwhile, mince or crush the garlic and mint together, and then stir them into the yogurt. Give the cucumbers a final squeeze and combine them with yogurt, garlic and mint. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve cold.