Cucumbers = summer. Every year, when I plan my garden, somewhere in the back of mind lives a picture of pickling and cucumber soup and gazpacho. Yet, somehow, this dream never translates to reality. In fact, in the now four years that I’ve been gardening, I have yet to successfully grow a cucumber. This year the plants died before they even flowered. And I don’t know why. But, while I have not yet realized my cucumber dreams, I did have to get busy when a friend at work was drowning in cucumbers, which apparently thrived this year in gardens other than mine.
Initially I was going to make cucumber soup. But that seemed impractical given that I had no plans for a dinner party and can only eat so much cucumber soup in two days. I wasn’t up for pickling. Plus I really needed some food food. So, as I often do, I looked to Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian for inspiration. And I found it: Barley salad with cucumbers in a yogurt dressing. Finally, a way to turn tzatziki sauce into a main course!
The original recipe sounded totally fine. But I decided it could be better, both more flavorful and more substantial. Although my little garden hasn’t been super abundant, I am getting a few tomatoes, so that was an obvious choice. Bittman’s recipe called for dill, parsley, and/or mint. It was a tough choice, because I love dill. But I had parsley and mint. And the freshness of both herbs sounded perfect in the summer heat wave we’re having right now.
As for adding substance, of course I knew I would add beans. But what kind? I briefly considered Mortgage Lifter and Scarlet Runner beans, two enormous heirloom varieties with a hearty texture that would contrast nicely with the chew of the barley and the crunch of the cucumber. Yet neither bean satisfied my mental taste buds. I wanted something fresh. Something summery. From past experience I knew that chickpeas make a perfect salad bean, soaking up flavors while maintaining a firm bite. Once they came up, I realized they were the perfect complement for the Mediterranean flavors of this light summer salad. And so it was. This salad is pretty perfect. Thank you, Mr. Bittman, for the inspiration. Oh, and if you want to make this gluten free, substitute wild rice or quinoa for the barley. (http://www.care2.com/greenliving/eleven-gluten-free-grains.html?page=1) If you go with wild rice, know that it takes about an hour.
1-1/2 c. cooked, drained chickpeas*
1 c. pearled barley
2 medium cucumbers
1 medium tomato, 2 small tomatoes, chopped, or 1 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 c. yogurt
3 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 t. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c. fresh chopped mint and parsley (more parsley than mint)
1. Rinse the barley. Place it in a saucepan with 3 cups of water and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes or until the barley is tender. Drain the barley and spread on a plate to cool. Or, if you’re in a rush, run the barley under cold water.
2. While the barley is cooking, cut the cucumbers into bite-size chunks. If you’re using a cucumber for the grocery store, I recommend peeling off the waxy skin. Otherwise, leave the skin on. Either way, put the chunks in a colander, toss with a tablespoon of salt (I used kosher salt), and let it sit in the sink for about 20 minutes. Rinse and drain.
3. Whisk the lemon juice, olive oil, and yogurt together. Combine the chickpeas, barley, cucumbers, and tomatoes with the herbs and the dressing. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed, and serve.
*Canned chickpeas would be okay in this. But in my experience, dried beans that you cook yourself taste infinitely better. And it really is pretty easy. For this recipe, I used about a half cup of dried chickpeas. I soaked them all day while I was at work. Then, when I got home, I cooked them for about 1-1/2 hours with a 1″ piece of kombu. When they were tender I added about a teaspoon of salt and let the beans cool in the cooking liquid. This process allows the salt to thoroughly season the beans. Once they’re cool, drain, rinse, and add them to the salad.