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Astonish the Crowd.
Cook a Cucumber

   by Kay Rentschler

 The king of cool has a warm side.

 The cucumber, icily verdant in a salad, becomes something entirely different when treated like a normal vegetable — that is, when put in a pot. Cook a cuke just enough, and it becomes seductive, slippery and melonlike, with a sweet, haunting, faraway flavor.

 Which of the three principal kinds of cucumber found in the United States are best for this mission?

 The warty little cukes are best left for the pickling barrel. The tapered, thin-skinned, barely-seeded greenhouse cucumbers, a k a European cucumbers, are nicely suited to architectural functions like layering.

 The fat slicing variety is meaty and flavorful once divested of its almost plastic seeds and waxy armor, and can go the distance in a braise. For baton and lozenge-shaped cuts, these large green field varieties are ideal.

 When pairing cooked cucumbers, many chefs think fish first. Delicate and touchy, the two complement each other perfectly. As for seasoning, cooked cucumbers welcome dill, vinegar and sugar, but grow expansive in the company of cream, butter, olive oil and even fruit juice.

 The trick to cooking cucumbers is a high-heat sear in butter to maintain their crunch, said Bob Kinkead, the chef at Colvin Run Tavern in Tysons Corner, Va. "They love butter," he said, adding that European cucumbers hold their firmness better than their slicing counterparts. He makes individual cucumber gratins by sautéing half-moon cucumber slices, tossing them with lightly reduced crème fraîche and lemon juice and layering the slices in porcelain ramekins. A couple of minutes in a hot oven finishes them. Mr. Kinkead serves them alongside grilled salmon.

 At Crofton on Wells in Chicago, Suzy Crofton creates a crust for a salmon fillet by arranging thin slices of European cucumber in a scale mosaic on the raw fish; a bit of garlic purée holds them in place. She pan sears the salmon cucumber side down, and finishes it skin side down in a hot oven.

 Across town at Tru, Rick Tramonto prefers the local slicing varieties. "This is farm country," he said. "Corn, tomatoes and cucumbers." For a dish accompanying black roasted sea bass, he sautés shallots in extra virgin olive oil, reduces orange juice and rolls thick cucumber batons (previously blanched in vegetable stock) in the reduction to glaze them. He finishes the dish with a mist of white wine and a pinch of tarragon or fines herbes.

 Mr. Tramonto has also been known to use his vacuum-pack machine to seal cucumbers with olive oil, garlic, citrus and thyme, poach them and serve them with halibut.

 Cucumbers, members of the gourd family and technically fruit, come to us by way of India. In a style befitting its origins, David Bouley, the chef and owner of Bouley in TriBeCa, blanches cucumber boats, sprinkles them with kaffir lime and bay leaves, coriander seeds, some thinly sliced cornichons and a bit of butter, then wraps them in foil and grills them.

 But that is not the only trick up his sleeve. He sprinkles a blanched hollowed-out cucumber boat with salt and pepper, fills it with Cantal, runs it under the salamander and dusts it with fresh flowering fennel seeds. The cucumber is part of a vegetarian tasting menu.

 Ben Barker, the chef at the Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., makes a warm cucumber sauce for pan-seared snapper by combining cucumber purée and a knob of butter in a double boiler, adding a hot broth charged with dill and vinegar and a touch of crème fraîche, and zapping it all with an immersion blender. "The cucumber adds surprising body to the sauce," Mr. Barker said.

 Their watery composition notwithstanding, cucumbers prefer moist heat. Blanched, then glazed in an apple or citrus reduction with a forgiving chunk of butter or a splash of fruity olive oil allows the cucumber to retain its integrity and oblige other flavors at the same time. When cooking cucumbers, there is a tendency not to take them far enough, but warm, essentially raw cucumbers have no appeal whatever.

 A court bouillon is a good way to get flavor into the cucumber itself, and proved stupendously good with French-fried cucumbers, a favorite dish of the chef Chris Schlesinger. At The Back Eddy, his restaurant in Westport, Mass., his chef de cuisine, Aaron DeRego, insulates cucumber sticks with breading and fries them in hot fat. They make a seductive appetizer served with a curry sauce, but they are also served alongside coriander-crusted striped bass. The court bouillon ramps up the flavor of the cucumber enough for it to take on crisp breading and a spicy sauce.

 As summer heads south, a light sweater, a plate of fried cukes and a cold American lager, outdoors on a deck, sounds just about right.

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