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Cooling Off With Cucumbers

October 20, 1994|FAYE LEVY

Most people use cucumbers as pickles, or as a cool complement for rich foods, such as poached or smoked fish. But around the world, cooks have developed many other ways to take advantage of cucumbers' refreshing qualities.

In India, where cucumbers originated, they are tossed with yogurt and toasted cumin seeds to make raita , a dish designed to soothe the fires of hot curries. A cucumber-yogurt salad seasoned with garlic is popular in Greece and much of the Middle East. For the French concombres a la creme , the sliced vegetable is mixed with creme fraiche. My favorite version of these creamy salads comes from Afghanistan, where cucumbers are mixed with yogurt, walnuts and raisins for an intriguing appetizer salad.

Austrians, Hungarians and Germans enjoy cucumbers in a tangy dressing with plenty of vinegar. In Central Europe, cucumber slices are sometimes briefly sauteed like zucchini and sprinkled with chopped dill or parsley.

Tomatoes are a favorite companion for cucumbers all around the Mediterranean. Whether the vegetables are diced or sliced, all they need is a sprinkling of extra-virgin olive oil and either wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice to make a delectable summer salad.

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To peel or not to peel cucumbers is a matter of taste. I peel the common, short cucumbers found at the supermarket, but I usually don't peel the long European ones. With other cucumbers, if the peel is not bitter or waxed, I leave it on.

Some recipes call for salting the cucumber slices and letting them stand, to soften them and remove any bitter juices. These days, many people prefer cucumbers crisp and do not salt them.

Choose firm, fairly slender cucumbers with smooth skin. When the small, ridged cucumbers sold as either Armenian cucumbers, Iranian cucumbers or ghoota are available at our local farmers market, I grab them. I also like thin Japanese cucumbers, sometimes found in the exotic produce section of supermarkets. During the rest of the year I find the long European cucumbers that come wrapped in plastic and the small pickling cukes tastier than common cucumbers. Use any type of cucumber in the following recipes.

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This festive salad was inspired by a first course I enjoyed at an Afghan restaurant in Paris. A similar salad is made in Iran and is flavored with dill rather than the dried mint of the Afghan version. Usually the salad is made with a rich yogurt resembling sour cream that you can buy at Iranian specialty shops, but it's also delicious with low-fat and even nonfat yogurt.

AFGHAN CUCUMBER SALAD WITH YOGURT, WALNUTS AND RAISINS

2 medium cucumbers, coarsely grated

1 1/2 cups plain yogurt

1/4 cup dark raisins

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

6 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 green onions, chopped

1 to 2 teaspoons dried leaf mint, crumbled, or 2 to 4 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Drain grated cucumber in strainer. If there is water in yogurt, pour out. If raisins are very dry, soak in bowl of hot water until softened, then drain. Reserve 2 tablespoons raisins, 2 tablespoons walnuts and 2 tablespoons parsley for garnish.

Mix yogurt with cucumbers, green onions, mint and remaining 2 tablespoons raisins, 2 tablespoons walnuts and 1/4 cup chopped parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve cold in bowl, with reserved raisins, walnuts and parsley sprinkled on top. Makes 4 servings.

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With this zesty salad, cucumbers will never seem boring again. The olive oil, cilantro and mint dressing is a favorite match for cucumbers in North Africa.

ALGERIAN CUCUMBER, PEPPER AND OLIVE SALAD

1 large European cucumber

1 sweet red or green pepper, cut into 2x1/4-inch-thick strips

1/3 cup pitted and halved black or green olives

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar, or to taste

Salt

Cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint

Peel cucumber, if desired. Halve cucumber lengthwise and cut into thin slices. Mix slices in shallow serving bowl with sweet red pepper and olives.

Whisk olive oil with vinegar and salt and cayenne to taste in small bowl. Toss dressing with salad. Add cilantro and mint and toss lightly. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more vinegar if desired. Makes 4 servings.

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This salad is prettiest if you use plum tomatoes, so that the tomato and cucumber slices are the same size.

SPANISH CUCUMBER AND TOMATO SALAD WITH CAPERS

5 plum tomatoes, sliced

1/2 long European cucumber or 1 cucumber, sliced

1/4 red onion, sliced and separated into slivers

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons capers, drained

Mix tomatoes, cucumber and onion slices in shallow bowl.

Whisk olive oil and vinegar in small bowl and add to salad. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently. Sprinkle with capers. Serve. Makes 4 servings.

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