Green and Clean
Cucumbers are one of summer’s brightest, most beneficial foods.
Chef Charlie Hallowell loves the culinary drama that comes with the seasons. Go for cukes now.
Photos by Lori Eanes
It’s summer in Northern California, the region’s unparalleled farmers market bounty is peaking, and Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell is talking about … cucumbers? What’s so special about the simple cuke? To Hallowell, it is the cucumber’s very simplicity that makes it special.
“Cucumbers have a flavor that is clean, bright, and delicious,” said Hallowell, who owns Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe Service, and Penrose. “In summer, when the air in some areas is screaming with heat and the rolling hills are all dried up and thistly, you want food that is cool, moist, refreshing … like heirloom tomatoes, like watermelon, and definitely like cucumbers.”
Members of the gourd family, cucumbers are 96 percent water. But a cucumber’s rehydration powers also come from its surprisingly high vitamin and mineral content: magnesium, potassium, silica, manganese, copper, and vitamins C, B and K. It’s generally eaten raw, and cucumber’s flavor, crunch, and nutritional value all deteriorate as it loses moisture, so it should be refrigerated and eaten within a few days at most.
If the simple joys of cucumbers need no elaboration, their many varieties might. The common American garden cucumber, with its waxy skin and mild, chunky heft, is a classic choice, but for extra interest, branch out among the bins. Textures differ, from softer to very firm, with flavor differences that range, said Hallowell, from “subtle, almost ethereal, to vegetal.”
Petite Japanese cucumbers, for example are skinny-jeans slender, with dark-green skin, few seeds, impressive crispness, and a distinctive flavor. Light-green Armenian cucumbers have a variegated, ribbed exterior and nice, big crunch, while Persian and English cucumbers are almost interchangeable (except in length) with their thin skins and few seeds. Shorter Kirby cucumbers are good for pickling. All are grown locally among many other styles.
Grilled Levain With Cucumber Salad and Burrata
1 nub of fresh turmeric, grated/shaved (preferably using a microplane)
Champagne or white wine vinegar
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt to taste
4 slices of crusty levain country bread
2 spring onions, sliced
2 Japanese cucumbers, sliced creatively
1 cup cooked fava beans
Garden herbs (flowering cilantro, cilantro leaves, parsley, tarragon, and chervil)
2 balls of fresh burrata (about 4 ounces each)
Macerate the fresh turmeric in about 3 tablespoons of the vinegar and let sit. After about 15 minutes, whisk in about 3 times that amount of EVOO. Add salt to taste. This will be your vinaigrette for the salad.
Cut the bread into pieces about 3 inches square and brush with olive oil and a pinch of salt. If you have a grill going (maybe for the meat you’ll be cooking for the main course), grill the bread. If not, toast under a broiler until golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes (watch closely) on each side.
While the bread is toasting, toss the spring onions, cucumbers, fava beans, and herbs (except the cilantro flowers, which will garnish the salad) with the turmeric vinaigrette. Salt to taste. While you are tossing it, taste it at least four times. How is the balance of fat to acid? If it seems to be really bright, almost making your face pucker, add some olive oil. If it is too dull and a little boring, add some more vinegar and a little more salt.
When the toast is done, and the salad tastes delicious (trust yourself), smear half of a ball of burrata on each toast. Salt the cheese and drizzle a little EVOO on top. Sprinkle the salad on top of the cheese generously, imagining that the amount of toast, cheese, and salad will be about equal as you eat it. There will be no part left uneaten.
You want it to look as though it fell from the heavens onto the sweet cheese of the earth. Don’t think too hard; just let it fall. When you are happy with how it looks, finish it with beautiful cilantro flowers, and serve it up.
Hopefully, you will have some rib eyes on that grill and a bowl of chimichurri close at hand. The salad leftovers will marry perfectly with that and a big glass of red wine.