by Cathy Erway
(I have cooked cucumbers, and Ms. Erway is right: it’s kind of a mistake. – mb)
Ever cooked a cucumber? Neither have I. I think it would resist heat, in fact, repelling hot droplets of oil like the incandescent aqua suit of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin. I don’t think it would appreciate this blatant disrespect to its most vital asset, nor would its eater. Because no food is as cool as a cucumber.
How funny, then, that it only grows in considerable heat? My first cucumbers of the season have finally managed to push from the vine, after waiting out the spring in relative silence. As soon as seventy- and eighty-degree days burst onto the scene, elegant white blossoms appeared on the plants. And now, the stubs of what will be summer’s heatwave helpers.
But in the meantime, it’s ridiculously hot already, so it’s a good thing a few local farmers have chosen to grow their cukes in greenhouses, to sell at the Greenmarket already. I picked up a gangly, warted one a couple weeks ago in Union Square. It cost a handsome $2, but it was money well spent. With humidity creeping through the windows as I went to work on a salad, the smell of the just-cut cucumber quelled my stress. Along with this prize specimen I’d picked up a bunch of leafy watercress, another food known to carry excellent cooling powers in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, and most Eastern food thought. A drizzle of sesame oil and a splash of soy sauce went into the fresh mixture, and I grabbed at it with my hands a few times to toss. A welcome salad for hot days.
For even hotter days, you might find that version a bit too savory. So stepping it up, I made an even cooler, yin-er, milder-tasting salad the next day when temperatures peaked around ninety degrees. This one had the remaining half of cucumber, bunch of watercress, and slices of an avocado, bought on the spur. A half lemon’s worth of juice whirled with olive oil and a speck of sea salt was all that would dress this enormous batch. (It’s fun eating huge portions of something, and when it’s mostly a tangled pile of watercress, you really can’t go wrong.)
Of course, pickling is another way to enjoy cucumber’s crisp bite – year ’round. But by then, it’s not really a cucumber anymore. It doesn’t have the same certain “chill pill” power as one, and that’s something we all need sometimes.