Friday, August 21, 2015

Cool glam

I wanted to add that cucumbers can also be glamorous, especially at cocktail or tea time. 

For those who want to go retro, there is the infamous British cucumber sandwich: two pieces of soft white bread slathered with butter encasing thinly sliced and salted cucumbers. Crusts of the bread of course. A more colorful and crunchy variation is open face on dense German pumpernickel, sometimes called dark rye, atop herbed cream cheese or Boursin instead of butter.

Those long hothouse English cucumbers can also be vessels for other goodies. You peel and cut each into 1 1/2" pieces. Then you scoop out a small cavity on one side of each, easily done with the smallest melon baller you can find. Or else the bottom of a wide spoon handle. This cavity is now ready for herbed goat cheese or just plain creme fraiche, even mascarpone. It will also hold the Persian red pepper and walnut spread, muhamarra--very colorful indeed. Or hummus or baba ganoush. Extra yummy filled with salmon paté.

Which brings us to cucumber slices as canapé bases instead of crackers or bread. Elegant with a dollop of sour cream, a sliver of smoked salmon, a sprig of dill topped with a caper. Memorable with fresh crabmeat flaked with chives and bound by the slightest hint of mayonnaise flavored with fresh lemon zest. Interesting under a smoked mussel attached with a tad of flat leaf parsley pesto.

And finally, for the most festive mood, there's the traditional presentation of a whole poached salmon, served room temperature with cucumber slices arranged on top like fish scales.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Keeping your cool

In this searing sweat season that's upon us, you don't have to wait for water to hydrate. Mother Nature's offering cucumbers, a water vessel if ever there was one. They are, like us, over 90% pure water. Cucumbers are prized around the world for cooling and hydrating the body. And since they're mainly eaten raw, they are fast food.

Cucumbers come many ways: long and short, fat and thin, dark or light green, spiny or smooth, seedy or not. All serve differing purposes. You don't necessarily have to peel the light green pickling variety. You don't have to seed skinny, knobby Persians.

Here are a few ways the world treats cucumbers. And btw, you can add a cucumber to cold borscht.

Chinese Smashed Cucumber Salad

2 lbs thin-skinned cucumbers like pickling or Persian (8 to 10 mini cucumbers, 4 medium-size or 2 large English greenhouse)
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for cucumbers
2 tsp granulated sugar, plus more for cucumbers
1 ½ tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp  extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced or put through a press
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Small handful whole cilantro leaves, for garnish
2 tsp toasted white sesame seeds, for garnish

Rinse cucumbers and pat dry. Cut crosswise into 4 inches long pieces, then cut each piece in half lengthwise. On a hard work surface, place a piece of cucumber (or several) cut side down. Lay the blade of a large knife flat on top the cucumber and smash down lightly with your other hand. The skin will begin to crack, the flesh will break down and the seeds will separate. Repeat until the whole piece is smashed. Break or slice diagonally into bite-size pieces, leaving the seeds behind.
Place the pieces in a strainer and toss with a big pinch of salt and a big pinch of sugar. Place a plastic bag filled with ice on top of the cucumbers to serve as a weight and place the strainer over a bowl. Let drain 15 to 30 minutes on the counter, or in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to 4 hours.
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine salt, sugar and rice vinegar. Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Stir in sesame oil and soy sauce.
When ready to serve, shake cucumbers well to drain off any remaining liquid and transfer to a serving bowl. Drizzle with  olive oil and toss. Add half the dressing, half the garlic and the red pepper flakes to taste, and toss. Keep adding dressing until cucumbers are well coated but not drowned. Taste and add more pepper flakes and garlic if needed. Serve immediately, garnished with cilantro and sesame seeds.

 Cold Cucumber Soup

2 large European cucumbers (2 1/4 pounds), halved and seeded—1/2 cup finely diced, the rest coarsely chopped
1 1/2 c plain Greek yogurt
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 small shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove
1/3 c loosely packed dill
1/4 c loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tbsp loosely packed tarragon leaves
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Fresh ground white pepper
1/2 red onion, finely chopped

In a blender, combine chopped cucumber with yogurt, lemon juice, shallot, garlic, dill, parsley, tarragon and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Blend until smooth. Season with salt and white pepper, cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Season the soup again just before serving. Pour the soup into bowls. Garnish with the finely diced cucumber, red onion and a drizzle of olive oil and serve.

Chilled Cucumber Soup
 serves 4-6

4 c peeled, seeded, chopped cucumbers
2 c water
2 c Greek yogurt, plain
1 lg garlic clove, peeled
4-6 fresh large mint leaves
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp fresh dill
2 chopped scallions finely chopped for garnish

Put everything but the scallion into a food processor or blender and purée. Serve cold garnished with chopped scallion.

This yogurt "chutney" may be the world's favorite cooler. South Asians make it with dill, Mediterranean people with mint. You can do both.

1 pt very thick (Greek style) yogurt, plain
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 Persian or pickling cucumbers, halved, sliced paper thin or shredded or diced
½ tsp salt
1 tsp red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil (Optional if you use mint)
2 tsp chopped dill or 1 tbsp minced mint (your choice)

Mix everything in a glass or ceramic bowl and chill overnight so flavors mingle

Gazpacho (Cold Spanish Tomato Soup)
Serves 4-6

1½ lbs tomatoes
 2 medium cucumbers
1 green pepper, seeded
 ¼ cup wine vinegar
1 medium onion, peeled
 ¼ tsp dried tarragon leaves
1 cup tomato juice
 2 garlic cloves, peeled
Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in a blender or processor and process until nearly smooth with a few small chunks remaining for texture. Chill. Serve in bowls or glasses, garnished with bite-sized garlic croutons or chopped scallion and/or chopped cilantro.

German Cucumber Salad
 recipe from How to Fix a Leek, the book
serves 4

1 lg. or 3 sm. cucumbers
1 red onion, thinly sliced in rings
3 tbsp. oil 2 tbsp. freshly chopped dill
5 tbsp. vinegar Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. sugar

Using a mandolin or the slicer side of a handheld grater, very thinly slice cucumbers into a glass or ceramic serving bowl. Cut the onion rings in half and add. Season the vegetables with salt and fresh black pepper to your taste. Combine oil, vinegar and sugar and dress the salad, stirring to blend. Stir in the dill. Chill covered at least 2 hours before serving. (You can make this in the morning for dinner.)

Traditional Greek Salad
This is both watery and salty, double perfect for a sweltering day.
 serves 4

3 med pickling cucumbers
3 med/lg ripe tomatoes
1 sm crisp green pepper
1 sm purple onion
1 dozen kalamata olives
1/2 lb feta cheese
1 large lemon
1/2 c good quality olive oil
salt and pepper to your taste

Slice the cucumbers into disks, then half each.
Cut the tomatoes in half, then cut the half into large bite sized pieces
Slice the pepper into thin strips, then cut each strip in half
Slice the onion into very thin rings, then slice each in half
Chunk or crumble the feta.
Squeeze the juice of the lemon into a small bowl and combine with the olive oil into dressing.
Put all the vegetables and olives into a serving bowl, season with salt and pepper. Coat with the olive oil dressing and serve

Bhutanese Cucumber Salad
from Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking
a surprisingly colorful cooling salad with no dressing!
serves 4

1 English cucumber (the long skinny ones wrapper in cellophane)
1 sm red onion, peeled and finely diced
½ cup crumbled Feta or farmer’s cheese or Ricotta salada
½-1 small hot red pepper, seeded and minced (depending on your preference)
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Peel cucumber and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and cut the halves in half. Cut crosswise to make bite-sized pieces. Put into serving bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Add salt to your taste. Serve.

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's eggplant time again

The heat seeking nightshade is back in full force so now is the time. Skinny, fat, long, round, white, green, yellow, deep purple, light purple, variegated: have it your way. But do have it. Eggplants are full of active phyto-nutrients that can protect you. They also contain trace minerals and crucial vitamins like folate. 

All the cultures of sunshine cook eggplant. The ways are legion. It can be grilled, broiled, baked, fried, deep fried, sauteed. It gets mashed, stripped, sliced or diced, stuffed. It's eaten hot or cold--just never raw. It's very friendly to spices and its fellow nightshades: tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.  It soaks up and delivers oil just when your body needs a good lube job. 

Eggplant is a traditional meat substitute. Huge slabs of it are grilled or pan fried like steak. The Italians substitute thin slabs of sauteed eggplant for pasta, turning lasagna into eggplant parmesan. The Spanish pickle small ones; Thais turn them into hotly spiced curry.

A secret to making great eggplant salad is to char it either on the grill, a gas burner or under the broiler until it's soft enough to collapse.  This imparts a memorable tantalizing smoky flavor. Then mash it with whatever you like. In Romania it would be garlic, minced green pepper, salt and olive oil. In the Caucuses it would be garlic, minced onion, salt and cinnamon. In the Levant, it would be garlic, lemon juice and tahini. In Turkey, it could be garlic, tomatoes and mint. Some kitchens mix it with yogurt. 

Eggplant recipes are infinite. It's worth noting that popular moussaka is a Greek version of the traditional and lighter Arabic Musaqaa. Also noting that musaqaa means chilled, so it's a much lighter, room temperature dish. Here are two versions:


2 medium eggplants
3 medium potatoes
2 large tomatoes
1 red onion
1 cup oil (olive or vegetable)
½ T. oregano
½ fresh green chili pepper (if desired)

Peel eggplants and slice lengthwise. Soak in cold salted water.

Slice potatoes, tomatoes and onions into thin slices. The onion slices especially should be very thin. If using, also slice the hot pepper in very thin slices.

Dry the eggplant slices well and fry them a few at a time in oil until quite golden. Remove from oil and place on paper to drain. For a lighter version, the eggplant slices may be roasted in the oven.

In a shallow casserole dish, place one layer of eggplant strips followed by a layer of potatoes, a layer of tomatoes and a scattering of onion slices, as well as a scattering of hot pepper slices (if using). Add salt and oregano and repeat. Add salt and oregano to the final layer and cover casserole with aluminum foil.

Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes, then remove the foil. Bake for another 15 minutes and remove from oven to cool.

Dish should be served cooled or at room temperature.

In lieu of the potatoes, sauté 1 lb ground lamb with a minced onion, three minced garlic cloves, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ground cumin, salt and pepper.

Moussaqaa: eggplant with chickpeas
for 10

  • 1/4 cup and 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for pans
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • Sugar to taste
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
  • Thick yogurt for serving, optional

Heat oven to 450º and lightly oil two baking sheets (or use nonstick). Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and the peanut oil. Brush eggplant slices on both sides with the mixture, then place on pans. Roast, flipping once, until golden brown on both sides, about 15 minutes total. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, spices and molasses, and bring to a simmer. Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste. (The amount of sugar will depend on the tomatoes’ sweetness; there should be a hint of sweetness in the mixture.) Simmer until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Add chickpeas and cook until thick, 5 to 10 minutes more. Stir in half the pine nuts and set aside.
To serve, place a slice of eggplant on a platter and spoon tomato-chickpea mixture onto the wide end of the slice. Fold the narrower end of the slice over to cover the filling and place a mint leaf on top. Repeat with remaining slices and garnish with remaining pine nuts. Serve cold or at room temperature, topping each piece with a dollop of yogurt, if using.

Persian King of Eggplants
This lamb stuffed eggplant is a favorite fallback of mine.
this version serves 6.

2½ lbs small eggplants             ¼ c chopped parsley

¼ c olive oil                               ¼ tsp allspice & ¼ tsp cinnamon

1 lg onion, chopped                   Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lb ground lamb                       1  28 oz can chopped tomatoes

3 tbsp pine nuts                        2 tbsp lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350. Peel eggplants at intervals for striped effect. Heat enough oil to cover bottom of a skillet. Sauté eggplants on all sides until golden. Arrange in a baking dish and salt. Add oil to skillet and sauté onion until soft. Add lamb and nuts. Cook over medium heat until browned. Add parsley, spices, salt and pepper. Slit eggplants lengthwise ¾” deep and stuff with the meat. Cover with remainder. Mix tomatoes, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Pour over eggplants. Cover pan and bake 45 minutes. Uncover and cook 10 more if too juicy.

My version: southwestern spiced

 Serves 6-8
 1 lb firm eggplant (any kind will work except the small Thai egg-like eggplant)

1 lg Poblano or pasilla pepper, roasted* and skinned

3 lg tomatillos, roasted*

½ cup olive oil

1 tsp cracked or freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp dried oregano

1 bay leaf

Optional: pinch ground chipotle pepper (for smoky flavor)

1 lg red onion peeled and cut into thin disks

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into thin strips

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp ground coriander

2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

¾ lb yellow or crookneck squash, cut into ¼” thick disks

1¼ cup chopped tomatoes with juices (boxed is okay)

*Roasting here means in a toaster or regular oven at 450 degrees for 5-8 minutes (less time in the smaller toaster oven) until the skin cracks and starts to char.

Wash the eggplant.  Slice it into thin disks and if the disks are much larger in diameter than 1”, which they will be from the common bulbous eggplant, cut the disks in half.  Place on a baking sheet, sprinkle lightly with ¼ tsp salt and 2 tbsp olive oil. Cover and roast at 425 degrees for 10 minutes.

Seed the pepper and cut into thin strips. Cut extra long strips into 2” lengths.

In a medium heavy gauge casserole or large saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat.  Add black pepper, ½ tsp oregano, optional ground chipotle and bay leaf. Sauté 30 seconds.

Add onion disks in a layer and top with garlic, poblano and red peppers. Do not stir. Continue to sauté 3-5 minutes until onions are soft. Sprinkle 1 tbsp chopped cilantro on top.

Lower heat to simmer. Add eggplant as a layer. (Pieces might be two deep if the pot is not wide.) Sprinkle on ½ tsp oregano, ground coriander and ¼ tsp salt. Add 2 tbsp chopped cilantro. Cover pot and simmer 2-3 minutes.

Add a layer of yellow squash and half the remaining chopped cilantro. Pour tomatoes into the pot. Sprinkle ¼ tsp salt over the top layer. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the squash starts to soften.

Slice roasted tomatillos into thin disks or any small pieces you can manage. Add to the pot as the top layer. Cover and simmer 3-5 minutes until the squash is soft (not mushy) and the juices are bubbling. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf. Add remaining salt if desired.

Serve hot, at room temperature or cold, garnished with the remaining chopped cilantro leaves.