PARIS -- There's a reason the cuke is the star of its own cliche.
Slender and elegant, bumpy or smooth-skinned, cucumbers really do have a cooling effect on the body, which is why they're perfect in summer salads, soups and sides.
Part of the gourd family, which includes watermelon, zucchini, pumpkin and squash, cukes have a great nutritional profile: They're low-cal (just 13 per cup), and contain vitamins C and A, as well as potassium, magnesium, folate, dietary fiber and the mineral silica. Around for an estimated 10,000 years, cucumbers were used more recently by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for their skin-healing properties (they're known to prevent water retention and be good for swelling and sunburn, too).
Here in France, the much-loved monarch Louis XIV loved cucumbers, and when they're in season, not only are they abundant, they're also cheap, as in one euro for a 2-foot-long cuke. (I wouldn't dare call this an English cucumber -- not out loud, at least -- but that is exactly what this is.) So I buy up these cukes as long as baguettes, bring them home and slice them up for whatever I can think of. Sure, I put them in salads, but I'm always trying to give what's familiar a new twist.
For example, these two recipes: cucumber-avocado gazpacho and cucumber-fennel slaw. The creamy gazpacho has not one speck of dairy, yet is silky and smooth and, although cooling, also has a cowgirl kick at the end. (Read the recipe for the surprise ingredient.) The cucumber-fennel slaw might also be called cucumber spaghetti, because the long curls of cucumber are more easily twirled on your fork than they are simply scooped up, so it's fun to eat and surprising, too -- who knew cucumbers could impersonate noodles?
This is what happens when you play with your food.
Makes 2 regular-size bowls or 4-6 small appetizer portions
A couple of splashes of sherry vinegar and a bit of olive oil give this summer soup a Spanish accent.
You also may want to add crispy croutons to this, or a chopped, hard-boiled egg.
4 large cucumbers (or two English cukes)
2 large avocados
2 medium shallots
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Juice of one lime
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Drop or two Tabasco sauce (see cook's note)
Cilantro (for garnish)
Cook's note: You don't want to overdo the Tabasco, or you'll overwhelm the flavors of the cucumber and avocado.
Peel cucumber and cut off the ends. Cut in manageable pieces, about 4-5 inches long. Slice away the part with the seeds, leaving the flesh. Do this with all of your cucumbers and put in the blender.
Peel the avocados (remove pit) and add to the blender, too, along with the rest of the ingredients. Puree until smooth. Taste and adjust ingredients.
Refrigerate for 2-3 hours, at least, so the flavors can come together. Garnish with cilantro. Cowgirl tip: This is even better the next day, so it's a great do-ahead soup.
Nutritional analysis per serving: (based on 2): 326 calories, 29g fat, 17g carbohydrates, 4g protein, no cholesterol, 252mg sodium, 5g dietary fiber, 75 percent of calories from fat.
This was inspired by a Parisian cocktail made with the anise-flavored liqueur Pernod, along with lime juice and cucumber. I added mint to it for a bit more cool.
2 large cucumbers (or one English cuke)
1 large bulb of fennel
10 mint leaves
Lime vinaigrette, recipe follows
Peel the cucumber and discard the skin. With your vegetable peeler, make nice long ribbons of cucumber. Put these in a bowl.
With a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the fennel in thin pieces. Add this to the bowl. Tear the mint and toss in, too. Drizzle the lime vinaigrette over the slaw (you won't need all of it). Toss and serve.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 163 calories, 14g fat, 9g carbohydrates, 2g protein, no cholesterol, 206mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber, 73 percent of calories from fat.
Makes enough for 4 servings of slaw
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
Juice of one lime
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup canola oil, grape-seed oil or another light, flavorless oil
In a bowl or jam jar, put in everything but the oil and give a shake. Add the oil and shake some more. Note: This vinaigrette will keep for about a week in the fridge.
Nutritional analysis per serving (based on 4): 124 calories, 14g fat, 1g carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 172mg sodium, trace dietary fiber, 97 percent of calories from fat.