Cucumbers are always with us, so we tend to take them for granted. But the peak season for local cukes is now, so it’s the moment to show these unglamorous vegetables some respect. Your summer salads are about to get a whole lot better.
Napa Farmers’ Market vendors have the skinny Japanese types, the pale green Armenians and sometimes the six-inch Persian cucumbers that are so sweet and juicy. All of these just-picked beauties have thin skins that don’t need peeling, and they actually have flavor, unlike those fat, watery, waxed cucumbers that supermarkets sell.
You know that moment at the end of the day when you’re making dinner and you’re starved? Maybe you’ve poured yourself a glass of wine and you think you’ll faint if you don’t find a snack. Instead of reaching for the nuts or the crackers, slice a cucumber or two into spears and sprinkle with a little sea salt. Crunch, crunch. They say you burn up more calories eating cucumbers than you consume. (Don’t fact-check that.)
With my vegetable slicer, I love to shave cucumbers into leafy salads. Try tossing shaved or thinly sliced cucumbers and sweet red onion with arugula or purslane (love that weed!). Add crumbled feta, toasted walnuts and a lemon and olive oil dressing. You can omit the greens and it’s still a great salad.
You certainly know how to make a Greek salad with chunks of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, Kalamata olives and feta. For a more substantial lunch, I’ll turn that combination into a hearty bread salad by adding chunks of day-old bread (such as Model Bakery’s pain au levain) that I’ve soaked in salted water briefly, then squeezed dry. A garlicky vinaigrette moistens everything. Sometimes I’ll replace the feta with canned tuna in olive oil. What a satisfying summer lunch.
But my favorite way to enjoy summer cucumbers is in yogurt. Greeks, Turks, Indians, Iranians—they all make the same salad but they season it differently. The Greeks call it tzatziki and add garlic and dill. The Turks like dried mint and a pinch of sugar in their cucumber-yogurt salad. Indian cooks make cucumber raita with toasted cumin, chilies and fresh mint.
You’ll find cucumbers in profusion at the Napa Farmers’ Market this week. Check with Big Ranch Farms, Long Meadow Ranch, J & M Ibarra and The Patch to find cucumbers worth celebrating.
Chef demo: Sandra Richardson, founder of the Constrained Gourmet, will be making panzanella, the Italian bread and summer vegetable salad, at the Napa Farmers’ Market on Saturday, July 15, at 11 a.m. The demonstration is free and a recipe will be provided.
Persian Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Golden Raisins, Walnuts and Mint
Cucumber and yogurt salad is part of the repertoire in every yogurt-eating country, but for me the star recipe is this one. I love the burst of sweetness from the raisins, the crunch of walnuts, the coolness of mint. The salad complements grilled lamb, or you could serve it as part of a meze assortment with pita bread. I like to use the crisp, thin-skinned, nearly seedless Persian cucumbers—also called Mediterranean cucumbers—that are about six inches long. Some Iranian cooks garnish the salad with dried rose petals. If you have unsprayed rose petals in the garden, they would make a pretty garnish, too. Break into smaller pieces and scatter on top.
I like this salad to have a thicker, creamier texture than I can get from plain yogurt alone, so I add a little strained or Greek yogurt for extra body.
From “Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press).
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1 cup plain strained yogurt (see Note below) or Greek yogurt (not nonfat)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh mint
Kosher or sea salt
2 cups Persian or Armenian cucumber, in ¼-inch dice (no need to peel)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
Put the raisins in a small bowl, add water to barely cover, and let plump for at least 1 hour. Drain.
In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurts, garlic, dill, mint and salt to taste. Add the raisins, cucumbers and walnuts. Stir well, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately, garnished with more chopped dill; or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. If you want to hold the salad longer, leave the walnuts out initially and add them just before serving to preserve their crunch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, line a sieve with a triple thickness of cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Put 2 cups of yogurt in the sieve, refrigerate and drain until it has reduced to 1 cup, about 4 hours.
Serves 4 to 6