There seems to be a strange transition going in my life at the moment. In that I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy certain fruit and vegetables that I would ordinarily eat raw on my plate cooked. Celery springs to mind straight away. I love cooked celery and perhaps straight away, you are already thinking ‘Well, that’s not unusual. Celery goes into lots of things like stews and soups and undergoes a transformative effect due to heat.’ And yes, you would be right in pondering that but have you eaten celery, unadorned, bar just the simplest of braising in vegetable stock? It’s gorgeous.
The same goes for lettuce, little gems in particular, which are fantastic after a burst on the grill or a quick bath in butter. Or radishes, wrapped in foil with a bit of salt and baked in the oven for ten minutes. Transformative. And tomatoes! Have you tried to cook tomatoes before? They are amazing and go with just about anything.
OK, I am being extremely facetious with that last comment, and you will probably recognise that most of the ingredients mentioned thus far often feature in cold British salads. The real confession then is that I have been cooking my salad ingredients lately and the recent addition to this list has been the fairly innocuous cucumber. Much as I like them raw, with their herbal (think parsley) and fresh, juicy flavour, cucumbers to me do have a tendency to fade into the background on a plate. They only really seem to shine when raw, slathered with plum sauce and dolloped with Peking duck in a pancake, to provide that all important crunch.
When pickled, that’s when cucumbers really do come into their own, to sit proudly in buns atop burgers or wedged into slices of barbecued pork belly. To act as a brackish conduit, to help cut through fat. But then again that is a pity because the cucumber still loses its original identity and again turns it into just another condiment.
Cooking cucumbers however, is different. By taking them to the edge, in a pan of oil, lemon and garlic, along with some lovely caramelised fennel, they retain a certain character. That sensuous bite and touch of grassiness, which pairs up perfectly with white fish like cod. Coming back to the fennel for a second here, according to Niki Segnit’s ‘Flavour Thesaurus,’ a combination of cucumber and aniseed is one of the most arousing scent known to mankind (according to a study in 1998 by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago). Which is good to know. But most importantly, they’ll deliver a great surprise when guests tuck in.
‘Oooh, I’ve never thought of braising cucumbers before,’ they’ll say. And you’ll look very clever indeed.
So try cooking cucumbers, instead of eating them raw, or pickled. It’s the future.