THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Cool as a cuke

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The fruit of Cucumis sativus is often relegated to a bit player on our dining tables. Sometimes it has a small role in America’s sandwich of choice, the hamburger, when it’s pickled and sliced. Sometimes it garnishes those finger sandwiches served at the customary British tea time. But its most frequent appearance is usually as a filler at all-you-can-eat salad bars. But because it’s mostly water — about 95 percent — loading your meal with the humble cucumber may prevent that dreaded battle of the bulge.

The Dissected Cucumber
The broad family of the cucumber, Cucurbitaceae, includes pumpkins, squash, zucchini, gourds, all types of melons, including the watermelon and the cucumber. As I mentioned, because it’s primarily made up of water, there aren’t a whole lot of nutrients, though it does contain most of the B vitamins in very small amounts, along with magnesium, manganese and Vitamin K. However, the beauty is in what it doesn’t contain … very many calories. Yet, it still provides a pleasing crunch and it bulks up your meal to give you a sense of satiety or fullness. For sensitive diners who have trouble digesting the pulp and skin, it can cause belching and gastrointestinal symptoms, hence the creation of burpless strains of cucumbers. The various cucumber aldehydes give “cukes” their characteristic aroma and flavor, while the cucurbitacins give it that slight bitterness.

Culinary Applications
My first culinary exposure to cucumbers was either sliced cucumbers in tuna sandwiches — because Mom never sliced the crust off of the bread, I don’t think she was trying to emulate High Tea — or simple half moon slices without the seeds served with shoyu. Mom felt that the seeds weren’t as digestible, so she removed them for salads, but left them intact when served in tuna sandwiches. She also taught me to slice the ends off of the cucumber then rub the cut ends until a white foam appeared. She said that her mother told her that it removed the bitterness. I think even Mom was skeptical about that, but she passed the information along to her children regardless. Sometimes the vegetable appeared as slices pickled along with carrots and daikon in the traditional Japanese namasu. We also had the traditional Western dill pickles in sandwiches, but cucumbers didn’t play a large role in the Tatsumoto diet.

Ethnic Salads
Other than pickled, cucumbers shine brightest in salads, as I’ve never sampled any cooked cucumber dishes, nor do I want to. And they do appear in many ethnic recipes, like one of my favorite local salads, the pohole (on Maui) or ho’io (the rest of Hawai‘i) salad, which refers to the young fiddlehead fern shoots, which are usually blanched along with sweet onions, tomatoes and often diced cucumbers and ogo (Gracilaria seaweed) in a dressing of fish sauce, shoyu and vinegar. I personally also add some smoked olive oil, though I leave out the customary o’pae (dried shrimp) as I feel the fish sauce gives it enough umami kick.

Of course, I’m pretty sure it’s difficult to find pohole/ho’io and ogo in the Bay Area, but you can still make a Greek salad with chopped cucumbers, red onions, tomato, Kalamata olives and feta cheese in an olive oil (Greek of course) and red wine vinegar vinaigrette spiced with oregano, dill and mint. And if you’re creating an authentic Middle Eastern meal with shawarma and gyros, add some finely chopped fresh cucumber, garlic, dill and lemon juice to Greek-style yogurt for the perfect dressing for grilled proteins, tzatziki. Opa!

Or how about my deconstructed gazpacho salad featuring everything found in that classic Spanish cold soup before it hits the blender?

Gazpacho Salad
1 large peeled cucumber, roughly chopped
3 medium tomatoes or 5 Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 small red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 small green bell pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 small sweet onion or red onion, finely sliced
1 small avocado, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped then tossed in 2 tsp lime juice
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh curly parsley

Gazpacho Salad. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

1/4 cup olive oil (Spanish of course)
2 tsp Sherry vinegar
2 tsp Balsamic vinegar
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp ground cumin
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Smoked salt to taste

Toasted croutons for garnish

The Green Envious Martini
Sometime after I hit the fifthdecade in life, I scheduled my appointment for that highly desired medical procedure that all “old folks” look forward to … the visit with the gastroenterologist and his sidekick, that flexible endoscope. So at discharge, they wheeled me out to the Mrs. who was waiting as my designated driver after my triple therapy of propofol, midazolam and fentanyl. I felt slightly groggy upon discharge, but could ambulate on my own, so the Mrs. asked if she could make a quick stop at Ala Moana Shopping Center and perhaps a light lunch, as my intestinal tract was as empty as Golytely makes it. The Mrs. read my discharge instructions — a light, non-greasy first meal — so as not to shock my intestinal tract back into action and no alcohol since I received the triple sedative cocktail. So I ordered a simple King crab salad approved by the Mrs. However, the cocktail special for the month was the Envious Green Martini with Hendricks gin, green Chartreuse, lime juice and cucumber. Because I was staring at the description of the Envious Green Martini, the Mrs. ordered one and allowed me a very tiny sip though promptly took the glass back and kept it out of my arms reach. So the next day, I tried to recreate it in my kitchen … and still haven’t perfected it … yet, and though I normally don’t really care for that pronounced cucumber flavor in Hendricks gin, boosting it with cucumber juice, herbal Chartreuse and a hit of lime was unforgettable. Of course, while the Mrs. excused herself to the restroom, I also snuck in an order of the mixed sweet potato and regular fries and pleaded my case when she returned … “when fries are done properly like here at Mariposa, they’re not greasy”… I still got “the stare”…

So hopefully, you’ll add more cucumbers into your regular diet if not to prevent that dreaded battle of the bulge that comes with age, then simply to vary your diet that accommodates a variety of ethnic dishes …

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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