For much of my life, I thought I didn’t like cucumbers. I liked sour pickles and Sichuan-style smashed cucumbers, but in most other settings — especially bad renditions of Greek salad — cucumbers struck me as watery, slippery filler, the honeydew of the savory salad world. (I stand by my dislike of honeydew.) Why would you dunk a cucumber spear in dip when you could choose a carrot? Or a radish? Why?
But now I know the truth, which is that the cucumber is one of nature’s great coolants, a foil for both hot weather and chile heat. The best dishes that use it foreground its juicy crunch. And a heap of cucumbers, lightly dressed or quickly pickled, is a fast, single-subject salad that works with many meals. (It helps if you use Persian or English cucumbers, which are thinner-skinned and don’t have the big goopy seeds you find in standard garden cucumbers.)
Here are two new cucumber recipes to try. Because I know there are people who have not yet gone down the cucumber path — and I understand why — there's also a non-cucumber recipe to try as well.
SESAME CUCUMBER AND AVOCADO SALAD
(Recipe by Hetty McKinnon)
Crispy cucumber and creamy avocado perform a delicate dance with earthy notes of sesame in this most simple of salads. Thin-skinned varieties such as Persian or English cucumbers work best, as they are almost seedless with a robust flesh that stays crisp. But don’t worry if you only have access to seedy cucumbers: Peel them if their skins are thick, then cut them in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds before slicing. No-cook and ready in a matter of minutes, this elegant salad can be dressed up according to your mood. It is a satisfying meal on its own, but it can also be served alongside cold soba, or with brown rice and a fried or jammy egg on top.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 10 minutes
For the sesame dressing:
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
For the salad:
2 ripe avocados
1 pound cucumbers (such as Persian or English), trimmed and thinly sliced
2 green, red or purple scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) and black pepper
Toasted sesame seeds, for topping
Make the dressing: Place the sesame oil, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, sugar, soy sauce and red-pepper flakes into a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of water and whisk until emulsified. Taste, and adjust seasonings. (Dressing should taste acidic, a little sweet and salty.)
When you’re ready to eat, prepare the salad: Halve the avocados and discard the pits. Using a small paring knife, carefully score the avocado flesh into 1/2-inch cubes, avoiding cutting through the skin. Use a large spoon to scoop out the avocado flesh (in one spoonful, if possible), as close to the skin as possible. Transfer avocado cubes to a large bowl and add the dressing; toss gently.
Add the cucumbers and scallions and toss everything together. Season with salt and black pepper, top with more sesame seeds, and serve immediately.
GREEK CHICKEN WITH CUCUMBER-FETA SALAD
(Recipe by Ali Slagle)
This meal has the flavors of a Greek combination plate with chicken souvlaki, Greek salad and tzatziki, but it is streamlined for the home cook. Boneless chicken thighs are coated with herby, garlicky yogurt, then seared until tender inside and crusty and browned outside. Extra yogurt dresses cucumbers and tomatoes that have had a chance to drain with salt so they taste their most vivid. Feta and olives add briny bites to the creamy, crunchy salad, but feel free to incorporate other elements of Greek salad or tzatziki, like romaine lettuce, bell peppers, mint or dill, toasted walnuts or thinly sliced red onion. Eat with lemon potatoes or toasted pita.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt
3 garlic cloves, finely grated
Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1 teaspoon dried oregano or mint
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry
1 1/2 pounds cucumbers (preferably Japanese, Persian or mini, seedless cucumbers)
1 pound ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
4 ounces feta, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
In a large bowl, stir together the yogurt and garlic; season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer 1/2 cup of the yogurt to a medium bowl and reserve for Step 5.
Coat the chicken: To the large bowl, add the oregano and stir to combine. Season the chicken all over with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add the chicken to the large bowl and turn to coat; set aside.
Start the salad: Smash the cucumbers with the side of your knife until craggy and split. Rip into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces and transfer to a colander placed in the sink. Slice or chop the tomatoes into bite-size pieces. Add to the cucumbers along with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. (It may seem like a lot of salt, but most will drain away.) Toss to combine and leave to drain.
In a large nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium. Scrape excess marinade off the chicken, then cook the chicken in batches, adding oil to the pan if necessary, until it’s well browned and releases from the pan, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and cook until cooked through, another 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to plates to rest. (For grilling info, see tip below.)
To the medium bowl of yogurt, add the feta and mash with a fork until a chunky paste forms. Shake the cucumbers and tomatoes to get rid of any excess moisture. Add to the feta yogurt along with the olives and stir until coated. The balance is dependent on your produce and feta, so season to taste with salt and pepper until flavors are vivid. Eat alongside the chicken.
TIP: To grill the chicken, heat a grill to medium and clean and grease the grates. Grill the chicken over direct heat until it's well browned and releases from the grates, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and cook until cooked through, another 5 to 7 minutes. (For a gas grill, close the lid between flips.)
HALLOUMI WITH CORN, CHERRY TOMATOES AND BASIL
(Recipe by Melissa Clark)
Seared cubes of halloumi get melty and soft on their insides and dark brown and a little crisp on the surface, making it almost impossible not to devour them all as they come out of the pan. But try to resist, because they’re even better tossed with a quick sauté of summer corn and tomatoes, seasoned with basil. Slivers of red onions, folded in raw at the end, add crunch and sweetness, while a squeeze of fresh lime makes everything tangy and fresh. Although this dish is at its most sublime made with fresh summer corn and ripe tomatoes, it’s nearly as good in winter made with frozen corn. Serve it for a light, meatless dinner or a substantial side dish with roasted or grilled chicken or fish.
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
Total time: 25 minutes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
12 to 14 ounces halloumi cheese, diced into 1-inch cubes and patted dry
2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen and thawed (from 2 to 3 ears of corn)
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 jalapeño, seeded or not, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more to taste
3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil, more as garnish
1 lime, cut into wedges
In a large, preferably nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high until it thins out, about 20 seconds. Working in batches, add cheese in one layer, and cook until golden on one side, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip cheese and cook without moving until golden on the other side, about 1 minute longer. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat with remaining cheese.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan and heat it over medium-high. Add corn, tomatoes, jalapeño, cumin seeds and salt, and cook until corn and tomatoes have softened and everything looks juicy, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove pan from the heat and stir in the browned cheese, sliced onion and basil. Squeeze a lime wedge or two over everything and season with more salt and lots of black pepper. Garnish with more basil and serve immediately.