Cucumber’s clean, crisp flavour is a natural for summer cooking.

Japanese cucumbers found at Moss St. Market in Victoria, BC

Crunchy, juicy and refreshing, cucumbers are used around the world to make salads, soups, salsas, spreads and dips. And throughout the Middle East, yogurt often acts as a creamy counterpart to the cuke’s crisp, clean taste.

Tarator, a chilled soup similar to Bulgarian cucumber and walnut soup, is made with yogurt, garlic and cucumbers. Hazelnuts or almonds are used instead of walnuts, and mint instead of dill. It can be prepared as a thin sauce, a liquid salad, a soup or a dip for calamari or fried fish. Variations include Iraq’s jajeek, served with arak (an anise-flavoured alcohol) as a meze (appetizer), and Iran’s mast-o-khiar, which contains shallots instead of garlic. The tarator concept can be tweaked to suit your taste. Try yogurt cuke soup made with garlic, parsley, jalapeño peppers, green onions, dill, radishes and lemon juice.

Middle Eastern cacik, a thin sauce made with chopped cucumbers, yogurt, salt, olive oil, crushed garlic, dill, mint and lime juice, is eaten with meat and rice dishes. The mixture is diluted with water and garnished with crushed sumac. Persian cucumber   borani, made with yogurt, paper-thin cuke slices, minced onions, garlic, mint and lemon juice, can be garnished with chopped walnuts and golden raisins or minced marjoram and basil.

Greek tzatziki is a thicker riff on the cuke-yogurt theme made with strained sheep or goat’s milk yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, pepper and dill. Lemon juice, parsley and mint are optional. Tzatziki can be served as a dip for keftedes (meatballs) or grilled pita. Homemade tzatziki is much more flavourful than store-bought, so it is well worth the effort.

Raita, a chilled Indian yogurt condiment, is served with spicy dishes to cool the tongue. A variety of spices (cumin, cayenne pepper and coriander), minced  vegetables (cucumbers or carrots) or herbs (mint, cilantro or chervil) are added to thick yogurt.

The Lebanese salad fattoush features crisp fried pita triangles, seasonal veggies, (cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, bell peppers), and fresh summer herbs (mint, parsley and cilantro). Agurkesalat, a tangy Danish salad, is made by placing a weight atop salted thin cukes overnight. The cukes are drained and combined with water, vinegar, sugar and white pepper, marinated several hours, and sprinkled with dill.

Benedictine sandwich spread, invented by Kentucky restaurateur Jenny Benedict in 1893, is made by pulsing grated peeled cukes, cream cheese, grated onions, mayo, sour cream, salt and dill in a blender until it becomes a chunky puree.

Spice up grilled meat or fish with a Thai combo of mango, cukes, vinegar, sugar, salt, fish sauce, chilies, red onions, cilantro and mint. Ice-cold cucumber tomato gazpacho elevates the taste of seasonal veggies. Use cukes to add crunch to crab, shrimp or vegetarian makizushi rolls. For something completely different, sauté blanched julienned cuke “noodles” in butter with mint, salt, pepper, lemon juice and zest; serve with fish.

Don’t forget the pickles when you picnic on a golden summer afternoon. After lunch, you can lie in the shade with cuke circles soothing your eyes and chill out until you’re as cool as a cucumber yourself.

 – by Sylvia Weinstock

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