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Vegan Cookbook Club: A summer salad that's cool as a cucumber

Cucumbers, green chiles and peanuts combine for a cooling summer salad. Emma Ambrosi

"Keep cool, keep cool — cucumbers is the word." Herman Melville's Moby Dick, 1851

"Cool as a cucumber" is a common phrase, meaning steady and calm, even under trying circumstances.

What's so cool about a cucumber? Perhaps the cucumber is the symbol of mental and emotional "chill" because it is physically cool to the touch. The high water content of cucumbers keeps them around 10 degrees cooler on the inside than the ambient air temperature on the outside.

In terms of nutrition, cucumbers have more to offer than you might expect. If you look only at vitamins and minerals, you'll find that cukes are a decent source of vitamin K, and that's about it. But, according to the World's Healthiest Foods website, it is a cucumber's phytonutrients that make it so good for you.

"Phytonutrients" are simply substances found in plants that are believed to be beneficial for human health. Cucumbers are rich in three categories of phytonutrients: cucurbitacins, lignans and flavonoids. These plant compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Ongoing research indicates that they may also protect against cardiovascular disease and several kinds of cancer. To get every bit of this phyto-goodness, eat the peel and seeds of the cucumber too — that's where most of these beneficial nutrients are concentrated.

The best sources of fresh cucumbers are your own garden and the many farmers' markets in town. Cukes in the grocery stores are sometimes coated in wax to help preserve their moisture content and keep them crisp. I prefer to wash and eat the whole cuke — peel and all — if it is organic, as organic growers use non-synthetic waxes that are free of contaminants. I discard the peel if it's not organically grown. English cucumbers are typically wrapped in plastic instead of being waxed.

Here are two simple and adaptable summery recipes to help you use a basketful of cucumbers. Cucumber-peanut salad is a dish that is found in both Thai and Indian cuisines. In preparing this column, I looked at many recipes for cucumber-peanut salad, no two exactly alike. I tried out different nuts, seeds and herbs, and every experiment was delicious. So here's my own version, using the ingredients I like best. Curry powder gives the cucumber a beautiful yellow-green color. Earth Balance Buttery Spread stands in for ghee, which is used in Indian cooking.

Cucumber-Peanut Salad

Makes 4 cups (3 servings)

3 medium cucumbers

2 tbsp Earth Balance Buttery Spread

1 tsp curry powder

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1 4-oz can of green chilies, or 3 tbsp chopped jalapeños or other peppers of your choice

Juice of half a lime (about 1 tbsp)

½ cup shredded mint or basil leaves, or a combination

½ cup roasted peanuts (or cashews, hazelnuts or sunflower seeds)

Cut cucumbers into chunks and chop coarsely in a food processor. I use the whole cuke, but if you prefer, you can peel or partially peel them, and slice each one lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. In a small pan, warm the Earth Balance and add the curry powder, salt, sugar and chilies. Stir to combine and pour over the chopped cucumber in a large bowl. Use a rubber scraper to get every bit of spicy oil. Add the lime juice and mint or basil leaves, stirring to combine. If not serving immediately, refrigerate at this point. Add the peanuts or other nuts or seeds just before you serve the salad, so they stay crunchy.

Cucumber-Tahini Dip

Makes one cup. My Cucumber-Tahini Dip was inspired by Talya Lutzker in "The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen." The combination of tahini and parsley make it calcium-rich. You can add other herbs if you like, such as mint, dill or basil, and use it as a dip, a spread, or a salad dressing.

2-3 green onions

1 medium cucumber

1 orange, peeled

½ cup parsley leaves

¼ cup tahini (sesame paste)

½ tsp salt, or to taste

Remove root ends and tops from green onions, wash the remaining onions well. Trim ends of cucumber and chop the rest into 4 or 5 chunks. (I use the whole cucumber, but you can remove the seeds and/or peel if you prefer.) Combine all ingredients in a high-powered blender or food processor and blend until it's the consistency you want.

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Did you know ... Albert Einstein said, "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

Bonnie Ambrosi lives in Duluth and is an organizer of The Vegan Cookbook Club which meets at 11:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Mount Royal Branch Library. Contact Ambrosi at bonnieambrosi@gmail.com.

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