Cumber-some delights

Not too heavy, cucumbers are a classy addition to your appetizers and salads.

cucumber salad 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cucumber salad 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A tasty cucumber caprese served to me at a California sandwich eatery was inspired by the popular Italian insalata caprese of fresh mozzarella cheese, tomato slices and basil. Along with diced cucumbers, it did include the classic tomatoes and fresh basil, but instead of mozzarella, it was made with queso fresco, a Mexican cheese that resembles a creamy feta but is much less salty. In fact, cucumbers and salty cheeses like Bulgarian or Tzfatit are good partners, too. Cucumbers match well with all sorts of pungent and assertively flavored foods, from olives to capers to smoked fish to hot peppers. I often add cucumbers to my Greek salad of tomatoes, feta, black olives and greens. Rob Leighton of Kardea Nutrition likes chopped cucumbers in a barley salad with Kalamata olives, capers and peperoncini peppers (pickled semi-hot peppers) in a lemon juice, grated lemon zest and olive oil dressing. Cucumbers are also great paired with spicy foods, as in the popular Korean cucumber salad dressed with hot red pepper, sesame seeds and sesame oil. Because of their light texture, cucumbers are a fine accompaniment for rich spreads. Instead of crackers, serve cucumber slices as a light base for hors d'oeuvres mixtures like meat pâtés or lox blended with cream cheese. To serve appetizers in cucumber boats, hollow out cucumber halves by removing the seed-filled center with a spoon, and then stuff them with savory fillings, like chopped liver, smoked whitefish salad with mayonnaise, or cream cheese mixed with fresh herbs or with finely chopped vegetables. When cucumbers are of top quality - slim, small and very fresh, cooks capitalize on their delicate sweetness and serve them with fruit. At parties at the homes of Persian friends, the hosts displayed small, slim cucumber wedges on fruit platters alongside berries and cherries. Aleyne Larner, an acquaintance of mine, turns cucumbers into a refreshing cucumber-grape smoothie by blending 2 parts green grapes to 1 part cucumbers with a little club soda, lemon juice and sugar, and serves the drink with ice cubes. Mexicans make a similar sweet beverage with cucumbers and lime juice, and without grapes. Others make smoothies with cucumbers, melon and mint. These combinations would make delicious sorbets too. Indeed, cucumber ice cream is sold at Rose Market, a Persian grocery store in Los Angeles. Mashti Malone, a Los Angeles ice cream company specializing in exotic ice cream with Iranian flavors, is planning to make cucumber sorbet or ice cream this summer. CUCUMBER SALAD WITH SWEET PEPPERS, CAPERS AND MINT Serve this colorful salad as an appetizer, or to accompany fish, chicken or vegetarian entrees. Makes 4 servings. 4 4 small cucumbers 4 1 sweet red or yellow pepper, cut in strips 5 cm. by 6 mm. thick 4 1⁄3 cup pitted black or green olives, halved 4 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 4 1 Tbsp. wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice, or more if needed 4 salt to taste 4 cayenne pepper to taste 4 1 green onion, chopped (optional) 4 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped mint 4 2 to 3 Tbsp. capers, drained Halve cucumbers and cut in thin slices. Mix in a shallow serving bowl with pepper and olives. In a small bowl whisk oil with vinegar, salt and cayenne. Add to salad and mix. Add green onion and mint and toss lightly. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more vinegar if you like. Serve sprinkled with capers. CUCUMBER CAPRESE SALAD This salad is at its best in summer, when basil is wonderfully aromatic and tomatoes are ripe and luscious. Use fresh mozzarella to follow the Italian insalata caprese theme, or choose feta, Tzfatit or Bulgarian cheese as delicious alternatives. Serve the salad as an appetizer or to accompany a sandwich at a light meal. Makes 4 servings. 4 3 or 4 small cucumbers, cut in small dice 4 4 ripe plum tomatoes or other small tomatoes, cut in small dice 4 2 Tbsp. slivered fresh basil 4 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 4 2 to 3 tsp. fresh lemon juice 4 Salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper 4 110 g. fresh mozzarella, Bulgarian or feta cheese Mix together diced cucumbers, tomatoes and basil. Add oil, lemon juice and pepper to taste. Dice cheese or crumble it in fairly large crumbs. Add to salad and mix very gently. Serve cold or at room temperature. GOAT CHEESE AND CUCUMBER CANAPES Good-quality Israeli goat cheese is easy to find and is exported to the US as well. Mix goat cheese with chives as a delicious spread for these easy canapes, which feature thin cucumber slices and goat cheese spread on baguette slices. For a lighter canape, you can omit the bread and instead cut the cucumber in thicker slices to use as bases for the spread. These canapes make tasty hors d'oeuvres at a party. You can also serve them as a first course at a meatless dinner, accompanied by sliced tomatoes or roasted peppers. Makes 10 to 12 canapes. 4 110 gr. creamy goat cheese, room temperature 4 3 to 4 Tbsp. sour cream 4 2 Tbsp. minced Italian parsley 4 2 Tbsp. snipped chives 4 Salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper 4 2 small seedless cucumbers 4 10 to 12 thin slices baguette or other good-quality bread Remove any dark rind from goat cheese by scraping gently with a knife. With a wooden spoon, beat cheese with 2 Tbsp. sour cream until smooth. Stir in enough of remaining sour cream to obtain a spreading consistency. Stir in parsley and 1 Tbsp. chives. Add a pinch of pepper; taste before adding any salt. Peel cucumber if you like, and remove center with a corer. Cut cucumber in thin slices; they will be ring-shaped. Spread them on paper towels to absorb excess moisture. If bread slices are large, use a round cutter of about same diameter as cucumber slices to cut bread in circles. Spread bread with goat cheese spread and set cucumber slice on top. Sprinkle remaining tablespoon chives in center of rings. Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.