I grew up in a house where salad always meant iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, and cucumber. I assumed that salads everywhere were the same. When a friend in high school asked me what I'd just sliced into the salad, I thought he was kidding. How could he not know what a cucumber looked like? Despite their ubiquity in the produce aisle, I'm not sure that very many people buy cucumbers. The big question is not why; it's why not...
Cucumbers add a light, refreshing flavor to salads, and they're crisp. In a world where everyone's looking for crunch, they're often the perfect choice. Cucumbers are the celery of Middle Eastern cookery -- adding taste, color, and texture to tabouli, falafel-stuffed pita, and Greek salads. There are only a couple of rules I loosely follow when adding cucumbers to a recipe.
First, I always peel standard-issue, dark green cucumbers. They're often waxed, and I don't want to eat the wax, plus the skin has a tendency to be bitter. I usually seed those cucumbers as well, because the seeds are big and surrounded by watery (soggy) flesh. Second, I neither peel nor seed English cucumbers, commonly called hothouse cucumbers, because the skin is thin, generally unwaxed, and seeds are small. Last, cucumbers get weepy, so rather than make a watery mess of things I think of them as a last-minute ingredient. If I make a cucumber salad a little ahead, I drain off any water that accumulates before adding the dressing at the last possible minute.
I use cucumber for crunch in my tuna salad. Some orange segments, chopped onion and walnuts, plus a little salt and pepper round out my recipe. I use tuna packed in olive oil, so there's no mayo in my tuna salad -- but you could add dollop. I tend to eat my tuna as a sort of dip on potato chips, but as a sandwich or on top of half an avocado it's a pretty good option.
Tzatziki (spelled many ways) has roots in the Mediterranean, from Greece through the Middle East, and then in the northern parts of Africa. Sometimes it's a dressing and sometimes a salad. I like to combine thinly sliced English cucumber, yogurt, a mere teaspoon of honey, salt and pepper. At the last minute, I add some chopped fresh mint. I serve it as a stand-alone salad, but I also use it on fish tacos.
The combination of cucumber, red grapefruit, and a little onion, tossed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper is a quick crunchy salad that I make in some form or other during the warmest half of the year. Cucumber is refreshing, and it clears your palate, so it's a naturally good side for spicy food.
Chilled cucumber water is hands-down, the most refreshing thing you can drink on a hot day. I like to put sliced cucumber in water instead of (or in addition to) lemon. Ideally I put the slices into room temperature water and let them steep for 15 minutes. Then I add the ice. If you're in a hurry you can muddle the cucumber slices in the bottom of the pitcher and then add ice water. A sprig of mint makes it even better.
Somehow adding cucumber to water doesn't seem like it deserves full recipe status. It may be just half a recipe, but it rates a place at any summer table.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.