22 Aug 2010

Cool as a cucumber (or cooking without heat)

I'm craving light, refreshing foods that can be brought to the  table without use of oven or burner and that brought to mind the king of cool - the cucumber. Mizuki and I have been talking about cukes and their versatility for days now and we decided to present our respective takes on this cool, crisp vegetable. 
The vegetable: Japanese cucumbers are long and slender with dark green, slightly prickly skins, and firm, crisp flesh. English cucumbers are longer still and have a considerably bigger girth; they're virtually seedless and have a tender skin and a flavor that tends towards sweet (as opposed to the bitterness usually associated with other varietals). Unlike their Japanese cousins, English cucumbers don't lend themselves to pickling, but they are the best variety to have in cucumber sandwiches, of course!

But first a soup. Yogurt soup is a Greek invention and conjures images of hot Mediterranean nights. If you want a creamier version add half an avocado, but then you'll need to puree this in a blender. You can also substitute the lemon juice with red wine vinegar, which will give the soup a quite different undercurrent of flavor. In Greece, the soup is garnished with fat, juicy raisins, so it really is entirely up to you how you choose to enjoy this dish. My recommendation: serve with crusty bread and a handful of walnuts. 

Chilled Cucumber Yogurt Soup
4 small cucumbers, grated
450g yogurt (roughly 2 cups)
1 large clove garlic, crushed
fresh mint leaves, chopped
fresh dill leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey
salt and cracked pepper, to taste
extra virgin olive oil
lightly crushed dill seeds to garnish

Combine the grated cucumber, yogurt, crushed garlic, chopped herbs, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stir well. Chill in refrigerator until ready to serve. Garnish with lightly crushed dill seeds and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
I couldn't get fresh dill in the supermarket today, so used ciboulette, which resemble chives in appearance and flavor instead. To make up for the lack of fresh dill, which has an intense flavor and really does provide the perfect zesty counterpoint to the mild, watery taste of the cucumber, I used dill seeds that I crushed between my fingertips straight onto the soup. 

"... Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?"
Jack, from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Cucumber sandwiches, meanwhile, are quintessentially English. I have my doubts as to whether any 'real' English people eat them, though they are apparently experiencing something of a renaissance due to the longer, hotter summers of recent years. Japan has it's own version of the cucumber sandwich: kappa-maki, or cucumber rolls (see Mizuki's post). They're called kappa-maki after the river imp in Japanese folklore, the kappa, which, according to legend, has a penchant for cucumbers. Unlike the cucumber sandwich, however, which is eaten ironically if at all, kappa-maki remain a perennial favorite among Japanese of all ages. What's surprising is the resemblance between the two, which begs a chicken-egg, which-came-first kind of question.
Sandwiches, per se, date back to 1762 and were famously invented by the Earl of Sandwich as one of the first meals-on-the-go, though I imagine he was far too rugged to have something as effete as cucumber put between his slices of bread (apparently he favored roast beast). Cucumber sandwiches had their heyday at the turn of the last century (but one? Am I counting this right?) and I imagine they first came into being during the decorous reign of Queen Vic. Sushi in its present form first rose to popularity in the 1800s, though the origins of kappa-maki are equally vague. So, who knows, though since kappa-maki are traditionally eaten to cleanse the palate between raw fish and other kinds of food, the two delicacies share a similar function. But I digress.
A good cucumber sandwich comprises bread, butter and wafer-thin slices of cucumber, and that's it, but there are several problems to reproducing that combination here in Japan, of which the cucumbers are only the first. 
It is virtually impossible to get what I call 'decent' bread here in JP. You can get an amazing array of 'kashi pan', or sweet breads, which are basically buns with fillings of various descriptions (and you'd be astonished at the range of things you find inside: curry, fried noodles, breaded cutlets, sweet bean paste, and all the usual suspects, including cream and jam and peanut butter). Kashi pan dates back to around 1874 when an inspired baker decided to recreate the traditional and popular steamed manju confections in bread form. What resulted was an-pan, and it proved so popular that an entire new industry developed as a result (there's even a cartoon character named after the bean-filled bread: anpan-man). But proper bread is a more elusive beast. Supermarkets stock quote-unquote English Bread and English Muffins, but I've never seen the like back home. Loaf bread comes in a standard size and your only choice is over thickness: an 8-slice loaf is roughly at sandwich thickness; you can also get 6-slice, 4-slice and 2-slice versions if you're after a really hefty helping of starch in one sitting. 
Still, white bread is de rigueur for cucumber sandwiches, and while the bread on offer at Japanese supermarkets lacks the substance of the customary Pullman loaf, it will have to do. I've also decided to go a bit fancy and add cream cheese and mint to offset the slightly bitterer taste of the Japanese cucumbers.

Cucumber Mint Sandwiches
1/4 cup mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons cream cheese
6 slices white bread, as thinly sliced as you can get it
1-2 small cucumbers
salt, lemon juice - a little of each

Combine the chopped mint, butter and cream cheese (it helps to soften these ingredients a bit first) in a bowl to make a herb paste. Slice the cucumbers to your preferred thickness, though with Japanese cucumbers it's less about thickness and more about shape. With an English cucumber you get delicate circular slices, four of which are enough to cover a slice of bread; if you went the same route with a Japanese cuke you'd end up with something resembling a game of tic-tac-toe. I went with long slices cut to the size of the bread. 

Salt the cucumber slices slightly, add a splash of lemon juice or white vinegar and place between two sheets of kitchen paper for about 30 minutes to remove any excess water. 
Spread the herb paste on the bread. Sandwich the slices together, two-by-two. Cut off the crusts, then cut the sandwiches into delicate, finger-shaped pieces, put the kettle on and call your most refined friend and invite them over for afternoon tea!

All this talk about sandwiches and makizushi got me thinking about a crossover, something that could bridge the gap between the two, and so I decided to up the ante with smoked salmon and cucumber pressed sushi (oshizushi). The salmon-cucumber combination is hardly revolutionary, but the cucumber cuts refreshingly through the saltiness of the smoked salmon, while the vinegar in the sushi rice adds an extra dimension and freshness. This would work equally well as a light meal or an elegant appetizer. 

Smoked Salmon & Cucumber Pressed Sushi
1 cup sushi rice (see below)
6 thin slices smoked salmon
1 small cucumber 
1-2 tablespoons salmon roe

To make the sushi rice, combine 1 1/2 tablespoons of rice vinegar, a generous tablespoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of white sesame seeds in a bowl. Add this to one cup of cooked rice and mix thoroughly. 
Line a pressed sushi mold (mine is 10.5 by 18 centimeters) with cling film, or use a pound cake tin of similar dimensions if you don't have a mold. 
Cut the cucumber to the same length as the mold and then use a slicer or vegetable peeler to cut long, thin slices. 
Place a strip of cucumber into the mold and then overlap with two slices of smoked salmon, end to end. Repeat, overlapping the cucumber and salmon strips until you've covered the bottom of the mold (three rows of each ingredient). 
Place the sushi rice on top and cover with a piece of cling film before fitting the top of the mold (if you're using a pound cake tin, cover with a piece of cardboard cut to size). Place a weight on top and leave for approximately 30 minutes to settle. 
Remove the pressed sushi from the mold and cut into bite-size pieces. Transfer to a serving dish and mound the salmon row on top.

A bit more trivia (I'm full of it today): in Japan, cucumbers are also used as the 'vehicle' of choice for escorting the soul's of deceased ancestors back to this world for the Obon festival (the festival of the dead; it's celebrated in mid-August); the cucumber is accompanied by an eggplant, both vegetables being given wooden stick legs (disposable chopsticks) to facilitate their transfer from the vegetable world to the animal kingdom. By all accounts, the cucumber is said to represent a fleet-footed horse, while the eggplant is a cow. The horse, being the faster of the two, is used to expedite the journey back from beyond, and since people want their ancestors to stick around for as long as possible, the unhurried cow is readied to slow their return journey. 
I'm not entirely sure that this is the customary arrangement, mind you! 

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