March 10, 2010

A cucumber a day will keep the need to use the stove away

— The cool, crisp feel of cucumber in the mouth is a soothing one on a hot summer night when cooking is the last thing anyone wants to do.

The light taste makes cucumber a versatile accompaniment to lots of bigger flavors. Cukes do have a reputation for bitterness, and buying healthy, umblemished, fresh specimens is the best way to avoid that. Leave the limp ones at the store.

I've also heard the wives' tale about cutting the tips of the cukes off to reduce harsh taste. But bitterness is rare in cucumbers directly from the garden. Just cool, sweet, juicy, light-flavored, pretty green flesh.

Some say cucumbers will bring up an occasional burp, hence the burpless varieties, which do actually live up to their name -- at least, that's the anecdotal report from several avid gardeners I know.

Whether you buy the longer, seedless English cucumbers or the more common American cuke is determined by taste. The English cucumber tends to be more watery with an even milder flavor than the American.

I prefer the fresh herbal notes and the crispness of the American cuke. And as always, cucumbers from the farmers' market -- or your own garden -- will have the best taste of all.

Cucumbers love heat just like their relatives, squash and melons, and are a slow starter in Maine gardens. Once you get it going, though, it's a generous plant that continues to give all summer long.

While you'll find only a few varieties at the grocery store, many different kinds of cukes are available by seed or seedling.

The skin can be tough, and store-bought ones will have a waxy coating, which helps them travel well. Remove half or all of this skin with a peeler, or rinse in hot water to remove the wax. Sometimes I use the peeler and remove only half of the skin, leaving stripes of darker green. I do this to add color, but in some dishes, such as soup, all of the skin needs to be removed.

If you're bothered by the texture of cucumber seeds, simply cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and, using a spoon, scrape out the seeds.

These recipes are designed for little or no cooking inside, and can easily be made into dinner. The bread could be made inside under the broiler if the grill is too much trouble. Combine grilled bread with the soup for a cool, nutritious dinner.

Add grilled chicken or pork and a bed of greens to the udon salad or to the cucumber salsa, and you have another dinner. The versatility of this common vegetable can keep you away from a hot kitchen for at least a few nights this summer.

CUCUMBER, UDON AND TOASTED SESAME SALAD

11/2 cucumbers, sliced into thin half rounds

1 pound udon noodles

1 bunch scallions, minced

1/2 red pepper, julienned

1 tablespoon black sesame seeds

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon lime juice, about 1/2 lime

Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Toss gently and serve immediately.

Serves four to six.

CUCUMBER AND CORN SALSA ON GRILLED BREAD WITH GOAT CHEESE

This salsa is excellent with either blanched or grilled corn. If you are using the grill for another dish, place three ears of unhusked corn over medium-high heat and grill for 8 to 10 minutes, turning to cook all sides. If the grill isn't handy, blanching is the easier method.

You could serve this salsa with the grilled bread for a hearty appetizer or top some greens with it for a light dinner.

11/2 cups corn kernels, about 3 ears of corn

1 cucumber, seeded and finely diced, about 2 cups

1/4 cup minced red onion

11/2 cups finely diced tomatoes, about one medium tomato

3 tablespoons lime juice, about 1 lime

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Several grinds of fresh black pepper

Bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Add the corn to the pot and cook for 1 minute. Drain corn immediately, reserving liquid for soup in another meal. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Can be made up to 1 hour ahead.

GRILLED BREAD:

This bread is wonderful with or without the goat cheese.

1 loaf baguette or other rustic bread

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Slice baguette on the diagonal into 3/4- to 1-inch slices. Use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the bread with olive oil and place onto a medium-high-heat grill. Sprinkle each slice with salt, pepper and goat cheese. Serve with the avocado and cucumber gaspacho, or top with the cucumber and corn salsa.

Makes 12 to 15 slices.

AVOCADO AND CUCUMBER GASPACHO

3 avocados, seeded and peeled

1/4 cup minced mint

1/4 cup minced basil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons lemon juice, about 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup lime juice, about 3 limes

4 cups chicken broth

3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and grated

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, mash the avocado with a potato masher or fork. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves four.

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of ''At Home, At Sea,'' a recipe book about her experiences cooking aboard the family's windjammer. She can be reached at:

recipes@athomeatsea.com

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