This recipe was conceived six months ago, when I began planting seeds for Armenian cucumbers interspersed with dill and a verbena tree. Or more of a verbena shrub, actually.
I had eaten this particular cucumber before. It is a little bit firmer than its Lebanese counterpart and has a lovely flavour similar to a melon.
I planted the dill with every intention of making a dill and cucumber salad, but was surprised when the dill started to flower instead of throwing fronds. I ended up using the flowers – especially their pollen – to work a floral note against the aromatic cucumber. It was a very happy surprise. The lemon flavour of the verbena works well in desserts and cups of tea, and in this salad I wanted it to bring a sense of tang without the acid of lemon juice.
By accident, I find myself gardening towards particular dishes. If I plant tomatoes, I also plant basil. I planted radishes, and so also planted upland cress. I planted leeks, so also tarragon. None of this is companion planting in any traditional sense, but it works when you go to harvest. This summer, I didn’t buy a single vegetable for six weeks – which is as satisfying a boast as it sounds.
But on to cucumbers: I rarely serve a cucumber that I haven’t salted first. It improves the flavour and the texture, and draws out unnecessary moisture. In the recipe here, a pinch of sugar also helps to lightly cure the cucumber. If the cucumber has thick skin, it is always worth erring on the side of peeling.
For the cucumber and whipped fetta recipe, I was thinking about bringing the sweetness of the cucumbers up against the salt of the fetta. The creaminess of the whipped fetta is quite luxurious against the crispness of the cucumber. The smattering of olives also brings overtones of a Greek salad.
The dish works as a salad. But – much as I am loath to admit this – the whipped fetta could also work as a dip. It’s difficult to say this – I hate dips – but I feel this is as close as one might get to a defensible exception to that rule.
Marinated cucumber with lemon verbena vinegar
– 100ml cider vinegar
– 100ml water
– 25 lemon verbena leaves torn
– 500g piece Armenian cucumber or large Lebanese cucumber
– ¼ tsp salt
– ¼ tsp sugar
– small handful dill or fennel flowers
In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, water and verbena leaves to the boil and simmer for one minute.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Leave the mixture to infuse for 15 minutes then strain the vinegar, discard the leaves, and set the vinegar aside until needed.
Peel and seed the cucumber and slice it thinly. In a bowl, toss the cucumber with the salt and sugar and leave it to marinate for five minutes.
Lift the cucumber out of any liquid it may have given off and pile it gently onto a serving dish.
Spoon some verbena vinegar over the top of the cucumbers, letting it puddle around them, and finish the salad with dill flowers.
Cucumber, whipped fetta and black olives
– 200g Persian-style soft marinated fetta
– 200g natural yoghurt
– 300g baby cucumbers (Qukes)
– ¼ tsp salt
– ¼ tsp sugar
– 100g black olives, pitted and finely chopped
– 1½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
In a bowl, whisk together the soft fetta and yoghurt until they are well amalgamated and smooth.
Trim the ends off the baby cucumbers and slice them in half lengthways. Place the cucumbers in a bowl and toss them with the salt and sugar to coat them well. Leave the cucumbers to marinate for 10 minutes.
To serve, spoon the whipped fetta onto a serving plate and stack the cucumbers alongside the fetta. Scatter the black olives over the dish and spoon extra virgin olive oil over the salad just before serving.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Gourd almighty". Subscribe here.