Earlier this week in my first installment of “Why would you do that?”, I sautéed radishes. Radishes are crisp and fresh. Why would you cook them? Why indeed. They were unexpectedly delicious and I started thinking of other recipes I’ve seen over the years that left me perplexed. Like cooked cucumbers. Can you, and why in the world would you, cook a cucumber?
There’s a recipe in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 that has always thrown me for a loop, “Baked Cucumbers”. Cucumbers are blanched, left to sit it a salted vinegar mixture for 2 hours then mixed with butter, various herbs and baked for an hour. I read it when I was very young in my mom’s 1966 edition and didn’t understand it. I’ve read it several times since and still don’t understand it. I just cannot wrap my head around the concept of a cooked cucumber, much less the variation which involves a cheese sauce. It seems like something you would make for dinner when there was nothing left in the house to eat. Why would I voluntarily make this?
When Julie Powell had her blog that later became the novel, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, I read with interest the post where she confronts this recipe. I was actually looking forward to it, curious as to what she would think and I felt justified that the idea of a cooked cucumber stumped her too. I felt a kindred spirit. But we all know what happens next. She cooks them and discovers they are a revelation. I, however, wasn’t as easily convinced.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 has several cooked cucumber recipes: Baked Cucumbers, Baked Cucumbers with Cheese Sauce, Creamed Cucumbers, Cucumbers with Mushrooms, Parslied Cucumbers. Volume 2 has the same lineup with the addition of a soup. Baked Cucumbers seemed the way to go as I just couldn’t get behind the cheese sauce idea. But I couldn’t fathom turning on my oven and opted to cook the cucumbers on the stove top, rather than bake. It was hot and my apartment is not air-conditioned. An overly warm apartment forced my hand. Besides, a stove top braise worked so well with the radishes, why not? I’m not claiming to recreate a Mastering recipe. In my recent interest of trying unexpected things and flipping my perceptions upside down, I cooked a cucumber. And it wasn’t awful.
I used a simple recipe I found on epicurious.com that claims to be Julia’s though I’m not clear where it originally appeared. For all I know, the “Julia” referred to in the recipe title may be any random Julia, not Ms. Child. As I took my pan off the stove, I tasted a cucumber spear. Curious. Not bad, not great but curious. The texture was interesting, soft but with a bit of bite still, refreshing and juicy in an odd sort of way. I tasted another one. They had a soft crunch if that makes sense, reminiscent of a vegetable I tried in China for the first time, celtuce. I tasted another one. The lemon juice brightened, the salt accented and the bit of mint was a nice touch. I tasted another one. Sort of like a softer, milder celery. I tasted another one. These were growing on me. After some time, I looked down to spear another and the bowl was empty. How curious.
I’m still not sure what to make of these but I have to say, I really enjoyed them. Someone online said they tasted like a banana. I seriously question their palate. As a side dish, I’m not sure what I would serve them with but I bet adding cucumber to a stir-fry with some BBQ pork would be fantastic. You bet I’m going to try this one. It’s not French but in the spirit of “What Would Julia Do”, I’m certain she would approve.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: GOOD WITH A DASH OF STRANGE. Well, first off you’re mixing up the repertoire and that is always a good thing. Go beyond cucumber salads and try some braised cucumbers. Not exactly a summer dish but really interesting all the same and a good option when your garden or CSA box is exploding with cucumbers. Say it with me: it’s hot cucumbers and it’s delicious. A touch odd but delicious.
Seven years ago: Cajun Ginger Cookies
Six years ago: Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream
Five years ago: Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie; Lard Crust
Four years ago: Fresh Ricotta
Three years ago: Greek Meatballs
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Eton Mess
JULIA’S BRAISED CUCUMBERS – this recipe pretty much as written but next time I’ll use fresh instead of dried mint and a pinch of red chile flakes.
serves 4 as a side dish
2 regular size standard cucumbers
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
good pinch of coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon dried mint
- Peel cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a teaspoon.
- Quarter each half and cut into 1” batons.
- Over medium high, melt the butter in a sauté pan large enough to hold the cucumbers in a single layer and add the cucumber.
- Reduce the heat to medium cover and cook 5 minutes.
- Remove the lid, stir, recover and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes until tender but still a bit crisp.
- Stir in salt, lemon, and mint.
- Serve hot or room temperature.