Sunday, July 24, 2016

Recipes of the Month: Two more cucumber salads

Although the very dry weather we had this spring didn't agree at all with our asparagus, it seems to have done no harm to our cucumber vines. They have already produced 15 large cucumbers, ranging from 8 to 12 ounces in weight, and there's lots more where those came from. So, having already made several batches of pickles and one big batch of our favorite couscous salad, I decided it was time to start hunting around for some new cucumber-based recipes.

So I went digging in our Big Green Book (Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian) and found a "Barley Salad with Cucumber and Yogurt-Dill Dressing." This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Cooked barley with chunks of cucumber, served with a dressing of plain yogurt and fresh dill. The only other ingredients are chopped scallions, salt and pepper, and a bit of lemon juice. This was a much more substantial salad than either of the cucumber salads we tried two years ago, so we thought we'd be able to make a full meal out of it.

Well, it was certainly substantial; the problem was that neither of us liked it very much. We both managed to plow through the bowlful we'd dished out to start with, but the last few forkfuls took a certain grim determination. I think the problem was the yogurt dressing, which was just too sour for either of us. I thought maybe the same barley-cucumber combo would work better with some sort of vinaigrette or lemon-based dressing—perhaps with a touch of tahini, which somehow seems like a flavor that goes naturally with cucumbers. A little garlic, too, would probably kick up the flavor a notch. (This lemon-tahini dressing, found at Eating Well, might be just the ticket.)

So this is a recipe that we might experiment with a little in the future, but we certainly won't make it again as is. (Fortunately, Brian was able to get rid of all the leftovers—a tightly packed quart—a couple of days later, when he was so hungry at work that he just wolfed the whole thing down without really tasting it.)

However, as it happens, we hit on a much better cucumber-based salad a couple of days later. This came about because of a problem we ran into with a batch of nectarines we'd bought at our local supermarket. Actually, we've been having this problem with nearly all the nectarines and peaches we buy there these days: They're far too hard to eat when we bring them home, and it appears to be impossible to get them properly softened before they start to go bad. If we put them in the fridge, they just stay hard indefinitely, and if we leave them out of the fridge, they develop brown and moldy spots within hours. And the really frustrating thing is, when you cut out the moldy parts, the rest of the fruit is still too hard to eat. (This problem has showed up so consistently with the supermarket fruit that I've decided I'm simply not buying any more of it, even if it's supposedly local or organic. We'll buy stone fruits at the farmers' market, where they're actually ripe when sold, or we won't buy them at all.)

So we'd had a whole bagful of nectarines go bad in this manner, one after another, over the course of a few days. Brian had cut out all the bad parts and left the usable fruit in a container in the fridge, planning to turn it into a fruit crisp. But the weather was so hot this past week that the idea of baking anything really didn't seem appealing, and I thought how much nicer it would be if we could combine those nectarine parts with some of our cucumbers to make a nice, cool salad for dinner.

So I did a little searching online, and I found this recipe for a cucumber peach salad with basil vinaigrette. I figured it should work just as well with nectarines as with peaches, and we had all the other ingredients ready to hand (except the fresh lemon or lime juice, for which we substituted the bottled stuff). We used the optional crushed pecans on top, but left off the goat cheese, which neither of us cares for very much.

This salad was better in every way than the first one. The cool cucumbers provided bulk and crisp texture, and the sweetness of the nectarines and the bite of the fresh basil gave it plenty of flavor. It wasn't nearly as substantial a salad as the cucumber-barley one, of course, but it was interesting enough to serve as the centerpiece of the meal, with just some scrambled eggs and toast to eke it out. And since everything in it was healthful, we felt no compunctions about eating our fill of it, refilling our bowls again and again (something we weren't at all tempted to do with the other salad).

The only trouble with this salad is that, in order to make it again, we'll need more fresh peaches or nectarines—which we can no longer get at the supermarket. And the ones at the farmers' market are expensive enough that we may want to save them all for eating fresh and not just toss them blithely into a salad. But on the other hand, this salad is good enough that it might just be worth buying our peaches in bulk for. In fact, perhaps it would even be worth a trip out to the nearest pick-your-own farm to be able to make it again. After all, even if we end up with more peaches than we need for the salad, too many peaches aren't exactly a problem.
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