Cucumber soup

  (Photo by Bill Hogan)

Pity the poor cucumber.

Often relegated to the relish tray or salad bowl, or pickled and left to languish in the refrigerator, cucumbers deserve some respect.

Right now.

Why? They're refreshing during sultry weather; they're ripening in gardens now and filling bins at farmers markets. They can be more than an ingredient in salads. Just ask cooks around the world who use them in gazpacho, tzatziki and other dishes.

Even when cooked -- yes, cooked -- they can be delicious.

"When I attended La Varenne cooking school in Paris, we used to saute cucumbers in butter -- cut into tiny footballs -- and eat as you would zucchini," said Steven Raichlen, host of "Primal Grill" on PBS and the author of numerous cookbooks including "The Barbecue Bible."

Cookbook author and New York-based Indian cooking teacher Julie Sahni likes to cook cucumbers, with one caveat: "Never overcook them."

When incorporating them in recipes, remember their unique, moist yet-crisp texture: "There's a reason we say cool as a cucumber," said Raichlen.

Cucumbers come in dozens of varieties but are generally divided into two camps: slicers (smooth skin, large) and picklers (smaller in size, bumpier skin).

European cucumbers (sometimes called English) tend to have fewer seeds than other varieties and can be found in the supermarket wrapped in plastic.

Raichlen, who loves raw cukes, suggested looking "for varieties with a high ratio of flesh to skin and seeds." He cited Kirbys (a pickling type) and European cucumbers as well as the new unwaxed mini cukes sold in some markets by Melissa's/World Variety Produce.

Cut them in spears and add them to drinks. Use a mandoline to slice a seedless cuke, then alternate the slices with ice cubes, add water and sip. Or put a couple slices on your eyes, relax ... and consider the cucumber anew.

CUCUMBER APPETIZERS

Use cucumbers in place of crackers or bread rounds for appetizers.

Choose firm cucumbers, slice off ends. Remove several lengthwise strips of peel; do not peel completely. Slice into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Sprinkle slices lightly with salt; let stand a few minutes. Rinse, place slices on a paper towel; pat dry with a second towel. Top with 1/2-1 teaspoon of a favorite flavored spread such as smoked trout. Or spread with farmers cheese and top with a small curl of smoked salmon. Garnish.

Create a cucumber cup. Using firm cucumbers, slice off ends. Remove several lengthwise strips of peel; do not peel completely. Cut crosswise into 1 1/2-2-inch pieces. Carefully scoop out seeds (a small melon baller works well), but do not break through bottom of cup. Sprinkle cups lightly with salt; let stand a few minutes. Rinse and invert cups on paper towels to drain. Fill with a favorite seafood salad (crab, tuna, shrimp), thick gazpacho or couscous salad.

GLAZED CUCUMBERS WITH SESAME

Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 4 servings