A quick note about Abra Berens: I first heard of her name four years ago when she was running a cafe called Stock, inside a locavore grocer/butchery in Chicago called Local Foods. Berens was one of the first people I’ve heard speak with any authority about combating food waste, and at Stock she was practicing what she preached.
But as Stock’s chef, Berens—who began her career at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan—also happened to be really talented at turning unassuming produce into something alchemical and delicious. The finest panzanella I’ve ever encountered, hands down, came from the hands of Beren, who took in-season tomatoes, charred croutons, basil, buttery olive oil, a deft touch of seasoning, and conducted it into one perfect summer concerto of a dish.
Berens now runs the dining program at Granor Farm, an organic farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago. She’s also authored a book called Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables that was named as one of The New York Times’ 12 Best Cookbooks of Spring 2019.
When I asked Berens what was the most surprising technique in her book, she said it was blistering cucumbers. I’ve heard of charring Brussel sprouts or cauliflower, but cucumbers? This was new to me.
Berens first learned of charring cucumbers from Tim Mazurek, the man behind the food blog Lottie & Doof. The advantage, Berens told me, was that the cucumbers develop “this dry crust that’s really darkly caramelized, a texture I don’t associate with cucumbers. But the inside is as juicy as a cucumber could be.” Berens also said if you cut the cucumbers large, you get this unique temperature contrast of hot on the outside with an interior that remains perfectly cool.
Berens prefers to char cucumbers over wood fire, but this can also easily be done on a scorching hot cast iron skillet—with one important caveat. There’s a lot of moisture packed away in cucumbers (especially English/American cucumbers, which is why Berens suggests Persians), and as soon as water droplets hit the hot oil, splattering will occur. If you have a splatter guard, I’d suggest using it here. Or, just step back and wear a long-sleeved shirt.
The end result is something I’ve heretofore not experienced in cucumbers. The crunch and subtle bitterness of the cucumber remains, but the char I find really delicious against its natural sweetness. Berens’ simple recipe adds shallots, parsley, and a sauce of yogurt and cumin which, no surprise to me, come together with the blistered cucumbers in a surprising, delicious marriage.
Recipe by Abra Berens
I tend to use Greek yogurt for this because I like the thick texture. If using traditional yogurt, it will be easier to drizzle. Pick your poison. If your onion is making you tear up while cutting, give it a soak in cold water to wick away some of the bite. Then drain and carry on as you would.
- 3 unpeeled cucumbers, cut into irregular chunks
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for frying
- 2 tsp cumin seed
- 1 cup yogurt
- 1/2 tsp. salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1 small red onion or shallot, thinly shaved
- 1 bunch parsley, stemmed, leaves whole or roughly chopped
Lay out the cucumber on paper towels, dabbing moisture away from the cut sides.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan until shimmering. Remove from the heat, add the cumin seed, and allow to bloom, about three minutes. When fragrant, scrape the cumin oil into the yogurt, add the salt, and stir to combine.
Heat the frying pan with an additional glug of oil until smoking. Sear the cucumbers (in batches if necessary) without crowding the pan, allowing enough space for the steam to evaporate. Hold your nerve and let the skin blister and burn slightly (watch out for splatter). Flip to sear the other cut sides.
Remove from the pan and sprinkle with salt.
Toss the cucumber with the onion and parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Dot with the cumin yogurt and serve.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Ruffage: A Practical Guide To Vegetables by Abra Berens from Chronicle Books, copyright 2019.