So many ways to chill

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Who doesn't love a cucumber?

Picklers, slicers, green or yellow, smooth or bumpy, thin- or thick-skinned, chubby Kirbys, little cornichons, English, Japanese, Persian. Good thing then that with the impending heat comes cucumber season.

They peak with the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and those other cucurbits, squashes and melons, but among all these, cucumbers are the most like Johnny Depp -- very, very cool. With their refreshing herbaceous flavor and their snappy crunch, cucumbers are exactly what we want to eat right now -- still (they've been cultivated for more than 3,000 years).

And they lend themselves to the way we want to cook right now too -- with a sort of easy abandon, pureed in soups, chopped into salsas, sliced into salads. A favorite two-sentence recipe for cucumber, mango and red onion salad from Alice Waters' "Chez Panisse Vegetables" goes like this: "Peel and thinly slice cucumbers, mango and sweet red onion -- about the same of each, but exact proportions do not matter at all. Season to taste with freshly squeezed lime juice and salt, and garnish generously with cilantro leaves."

Chopped into yogurt, you have raita for spicy Indian dishes. Or sliced, with a little white vinegar, sugar, salt and green onions, they're more Hapsburg Empire, served with cold poached salmon or chicken.

Cucumbers' flavor is often described as mild, yet it's distinct enough to hold its own, slightly sweet and slightly bitter. It's great featured in chilled soups such green gazpacho or Russian okroshka. Cool, creamy yogurt (or creme fraiche!) -- as with the raita -- is a no-brainer for cucumbers. (Dress sliced cucumbers with yogurt, stir in some dill, cilantro, basil, chervil or chives, and serve with cured salmon.) And for a chilled soup, cucumbers and yogurt couldn't be better matched, spiked with a little garlic and a touch of white wine vinegar and garnished with crunchy radishes and grains of sea salt.

Their light sweetness really comes out in a beautiful and elegant cucumber and crab salad. The tender crab is a little sweet too and is tossed with herbs and shallots and a little lemon juice.

The cucumbers are sliced lengthwise into ribbons on a mandoline, and the slices are arranged architecturally -- forming layers between the crab, sort of like a napoleon, but looser, more floppy, more ... summery.

And what makes a better palate cleanser than a cucumber granita? Icy cool with a hint of sugar and some cracked black pepper, it's perfect for a hot, hot day. The flavor of the cucumber shines through the sweet and the spice.

For dessert? If you were Providence pastry chef Adrian Vasquez, it would be a timbale of Greek yogurt and honey panna cotta with cucumber gelee and cucumber "noodles" with cantaloupe sherbet.


Chilled cucumber soup

Total time: About 20 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane.

2 European cucumbers (about 1 pound each), cut into 2-inch chunks

2 cups plain yogurt

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons slivered radish (1 to 2 radishes), reserved in ice water

Maldon sea salt

4 small basil leaves, cut into julienne strips

1. In a blender, puree the cucumber and yogurt together in batches until smooth. Pour each batch into a large bowl.

2. Stir in the garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper. This makes about 6 cups soup.

3. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight until well chilled.

4. To serve, top each serving with slivered radish, a sprinkle of Maldon salt and a few julienne-cut basil leaves.

Each of 6 servings: 76 calories; 5 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 1 gram fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 351 mg. sodium.


Crab salad with cucumber

Total time: About 1 hour

Servings: 6

Note: From Donna Deane

1 1/2 pound cooked Dungeness crab, cleaned (you will have about 1 1/2 cups crabmeat)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon minced shallot

1/4 cup canola oil

Pinch of salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon thinly sliced chives

1 tablespoon chopped chervil

3 Persian or regular cucumbers

1 to 2 wedges of lemon

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Break up any large pieces of crabmeat with a fork.

2. To make a lemon vinaigrette, combine the lemon juice and shallot in a small bowl. Whisk in the canola oil. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the chives and chervil.

3. Pour the lemon vinaigrette over the crabmeat and gently stir with a fork until evenly coated.

4. Slice the cucumbers lengthwise into very thin strips. (A mandoline works best.) Slice the cucumber on one side until you reach the seeds, then turn the cucumber and slice the second side down to the seeds. Discard the center of the cucumber with the seeds. You will want about 6 strips of cucumber for each serving, or a total of 36 cucumber strips.

5. For each serving, lay the 6 cucumber slices out flat and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice from a wedge of lemon over each cucumber slice, then grind a little black pepper over the cucumber.

6. To assemble, measure one-third cup crab salad for each serving. Place a cucumber strip on a plate, then some of the salad onto the cucumber, then top with a second slice of cucumber, rippling and folding the cucumber in an attractive manner. Repeat using the remaining cucumber slices and crabmeat. Repeat this procedure for the remaining servings.

Each serving: 155 calories; 14 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 45 mg. cholesterol; 260 mg. sodium.


Cucumber granita

Total time: About 10 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: From Donna Deane

3 regular cucumbers, about 1 3/4 pounds total

2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)

2 tablespoons superfine sugar

1/4 teaspoon cracked Tellicherry black pepper

Pinch of salt

1. Peel two of the cucumbers but leave the peel on the third cucumber for color. Rinse the cucumbers to remove any residue or dirt.

2. Trim the ends off the cucumbers and slice them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumbers into 2-inch chunks and puree them in a blender or food processor along with one-fourth cup water. Add the lime juice, sugar, pepper and salt.

3. Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker, and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions.

4. Spoon the granita into a chilled glass dish until it is firm enough to hold its shape. Serve a small scoop in a bowl as a palate refresher between courses.

Each of 8 servings: 24 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 19 mg. sodium.


Yogurt panna cotta with cucumber 'noodles'

Total time: About 1 hour, plus chilling time

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from a recipe by pastry chef Adrian Vasquez of Providence. Gelatin sheets are available at Surfas in Culver City. You will need four (6-ounce) ramekins.

Cantaloupe sorbet

1/4 large cantaloupe, seeded and peeled (about 7 ounces)

6 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons lime juice

1. In a blender or food processor, puree the cantaloupe until smooth. Set aside.

2. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and 6 tablespoons water to a simmer, stirring, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Add 2 to 3 teaspoons of the syrup to the cantaloupe puree, or more to taste, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Add the lime juice to taste. Remove the puree to a small glass loaf dish and place in the freezer, stirring every 20 minutes to half an hour until frozen enough to shape into quenelles, 2 to 3 hours.

Cucumber gelee

1 large cucumber

2/3 sheet gelatin

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1. Cut the cucumber into about 1-inch chunks and process in a food processor or blender until pureed. Strain the puree through a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer to extract the juice. You should end up with one-half cup juice. Discard the solids.

2. Soften the gelatin in a small bowl of cold water. Combine the cucumber juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until warmed, about 1 minute. Squeeze the gelatin sheet to drain and stir it into the cucumber mixture until dissolved. Stir in the lemon juice and season with a pinch of salt, or to taste.

3. Chill the mixture in the saucepan over a bowl of ice water, stirring occasionally, until the mixture just begins to thicken, about 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Oil the sides only of four (6-ounce) ramekins. Spoon the cucumber gelee evenly into the bottom of the four ramekins. Chill until almost set, about 2 hours.

Yogurt-honey panna cotta

1 sheet gelatin

1/4 cup orange blossom honey

1 1/4 cups Greek yogurt, at room temperature

1. Soak the gelatin in a bowl of cold water to soften. Meanwhile, warm the honey in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat just until it thins out, 1 to 2 minutes. Squeeze the gelatin sheet to drain any excess moisture and stir it into the honey to dissolve. Stir in the yogurt until blended. Chill the pan in an ice bath until the mixture thickens and mounds slightly, about 30 minutes.

2. Carefully spoon the mixture evenly into the 4 (6-ounce) ramekins over the gelee layer. Chill until set, at least several hours and preferably overnight.

Cucumber noodles and assembly

1 large cucumber

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

Chopped mint for garnish

1. Slice the cucumber lengthwise into thin "noodle-like" strips, preferably using the julienne setting on a mandoline. Slice the cucumber on one side until you reach the seeds, then turn the cucumber and slice the second side down to the seeds. Discard the center of the cucumber with the seeds.

2. Dress the noodles with lemon, salt and sugar. Let stand about 15 minutes for the flavors to blend.

3. Divide the noodles among 4 serving plates, arranging each portion in a small mound on the plate. Unmold the panna cotta next to the noodles and top the noodles with a small quenelle of cantaloupe sorbet. Sprinkle a little chopped mint over the sorbet and serve immediately.

Each serving: 280 calories; 9 grams protein; 56 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 9 mg. cholesterol; 120 mg. sodium.

PHOTO: COOL GREEN: Radish slivers add texture to a pureed soup of yogurt and cucumbers.ID NUMBER:20070530jiir7pncPHOTOGRAPHER: Eric Boyd Los Angeles TimesPHOTO: TIMBALE: Cucumber gelee shimmers atop yogurt-honey panna cotta with "noodles" and sorbet.ID NUMBER:20070530jikf0oncPHOTOGRAPHER: Eric Boyd Los Angeles TimesPHOTO: SEAFOOD SALAD: Strips of cucumber sliced on a mandoline curl between layers of crab tossed with herbs, shallots and lemon juice.ID NUMBER:20070530jiiqwyncPHOTOGRAPHER: Eric Boyd Los Angeles TimesPHOTO: (no caption)ID NUMBER:20070530jiir58ncPHOTOGRAPHER: ERIC BOYD Los Angeles Times

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