Friday, August 05, 2005
Cool as a Cucumber, Even in August!
"I say, old chap, have you had your cucumber sandwiches today?" A quick glance at the clock indicated that, indeed, it was almost past the normal tea time.
"Rather, on such a warm day, it would be exceedingly lovely to pop over to the pub, don't you agree?" was the reply.
Hmmm, tea time or pub time. Cucumber sandwiches with tea OR chips with a pint of ale. How to choose -- on a scorching summer day in England's countryside.
In days of old, this decision dilemma may have prompted a lengthy discussion of the merits of each approach, followed by the ultimate selection of one or the other alternative. It seems reasonable to conclude that cucumber sandwiches' popularity may have suffered in the process! In today's world of fusion cooking (and eating), cucumbers have become mainstream. They MAY even be found, in their cucumber-sandwich format, in the very same establishment that offers pints of ale.
Hothouse cucumbers, in particular, have hit the culinary circuit in a big way. Also called European or English cucumbers, they have crisp, juicy flesh and thin, edible skin. They have only a few (or no) tiny seeds and are typically 12 to 24 inches in length. Some people report that hothouse cucumbers are easier to digest (as a result of the lack of seeds) than regular cucumbers.
Grown in a controlled, greenhouse environment, the fruit of the hothouse cucumber develops without need for pollination of the vine's blossoms. This is the reason that few seeds form within the fruit. Of course, in no time at all, this methodology could be quite limiting to the future existence of the variety! Seeds are still needed to plant new vines!
In order to produce seeds for future hothouse cucumbers, growers partition a selected group of vines that will be raised specifically for seed production. Flowers on these vines ARE pollinated. While the resulting cucumbers will not be of the same high flavor and crispness as the un-pollinated fruits, the bounty of seeds they yield will produce vines capable of producing the very same high-quality, unseeded cucumbers when grown in greenhouse conditions.
At harvest, hothouse cucumbers are packaged immediately in transparent, plastic film in order to retain their moisture, crispness and flavor. This method, rather than the application of wax approach taken with most cucumbers, allows the skin to be used -- no peeling required -- and significantly extends the usable, tasty shelf life of the cucumber.
Preparation options for hothouse cucumbers are also extensive. They are excellent for use raw, in salads, sandwiches, salsas, drinks, sushi and hors d'oeuvres -- and as refreshing dippables -- because of their crispness and eye-appeal (thanks to that usable border of thin, dark-green skin).
Because of their firm texture and subtle flavor, hothouse cucumbers also are well-suited to cooking and are often used in a similar manner to zucchini. Their delicate flavor when cooked pairs especially well with fish and poultry. Braising, sauteing and steaming are common preparation methods. They may also be halved and hollowed out to form"boats" and filled with meat, vegetables or breadcrumb stuffing before baking in a bit of stock or broth. The mild flavor of cooked cucumbers blends well with a post-cooking addition of herbs such as dill, mint, tarragon or basil.
As August begins, the Ingredient Sleuth is happy to provide a recipe for a spectacular chilled cucumber soup. It comes from the equally-spectacular new book, COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Harper Collins Publishers, June 2005, by Susan Herrmann Loomis.
This great new cookbook carries on Ms. Loomis' reputation for delicious cooking that manages to be down-to-earth sensible at the same time as elegant. How DOES she DO that? Many people make the trip to her home-based cooking classes in the town of Louviers, France, on Rue Tatin (Tatin Street), to find the answer to that very question. Others are simply thankful that she puts pen to paper, hands to computer keyboard, to share her culinary thinking with all of us who read her books from afar.
In COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Ms. Loomis provides much more than ingredients with associated assembly instructions. Recipes are paired with brief stories that relate to people, places and events from her own town and regions throughout France. As we read, we glimpse the interactions with merchants, growers, farmers, fishermen -- and most rewardingly, friends in all these categories -- that have inspired each dish and contributed to its enjoyment. We peek into the interrelationships that produce great food and good friends -- enhancing the entire food experience.
For more info about the book, Ms. Loomis' cooking courses and her other books, see http://www.onruetatin.com/.
THE CUCUMBER SOUP OF SUMMER
· 2 long firm European or Asian cucumbers (about 2-1/4 pounds; 1kg 120g total), chilled, peeled, halved lengthwise, any seeds removed, and coarsely chopped
· 4 small fresh onions, or 6 scallions, white part only
· 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream or half-and-half, preferably not ultrapasteurized
· Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
· ¼ cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
· 6 fresh mint leaves
1. Place the cucumber in food processor fit with a steel blade, and process.
2. Add the onion and process until the mixture is a frothy puree. Add the cream and process to blend. Transfer to a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Mince the parsley and mint together and stir them into the soup. Cover the soup and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, and up to overnight (8 hours).
*Copyright Note*: Susan Herrmann Loomis specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.
In a word, this soup is COOL! This is true in both the literal sense of the word and in today's lighthearted vernacular (as in "that's way cool soup, dude!"). Each and every ingredient has a cool and refreshing flavor component; the exquisite combination of the ingredients is brightly-refreshing and smooth, all at the same time.
Ms. Loomis says that the soup was inspired by a friend who readily admits that she doesn't like to cook -- but LOVES to eat! The recipe is simple, delicious and won't work up any extra heat in the preparation. Now THAT'S COOL!