The humble cucumber is far more than just an ingredient in a salad. It can be jellied or pickled, turned into a soup or drink, and barbecued or stewed and served as a side dish for roast chicken or seafood
I used to feel ambivalent about cucumbers. I mean, I liked them well enough, but, well, yawn... I also couldn't help but associate them with sad service-station salads: you know, the sort with half a hard-boiled egg, a limp lettuce leaf and a solitary slice of drying cucumber. But this week I've realised that my prejudice was misplaced. After digging around a bit and coming across a whole new world (and old world) of ways with cucumber, I've come over all giddy for the stuff. Served raw, cucumbers are fresh, juicy, delicate and texturally interesting; when cooked, their texture is transformed, turning them into a fabulous garnish for chicken, duck and seafood. As a matter of fact, in times gone by, raw cucumber was thought to be indigestible, so it was more often than not served cooked.Grilled cucumber and walnut salad
Grill the cuke on a barbecue or stove-top griddle. This salad is excellent with fried, chargrilled or barbecued fish.
25ml white-wine vinegar
25g Dijon mustard
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
30g walnut halves, toasted at 180C for five minutes, roughly chopped
Light the barbecue/heat the griddle. Peel the cucumber, trim off the ends and cut into four roughly equal-sized cylinders. Roll the outside and each end of each cucumber barrel over the hot grill to char, then set aside until cool enough to handle and cut into 5cm-thick discs. Whisk the vinegar, mustard, salt and oil, to emulsify, then stir in the walnuts. Pour the vinaigrette over the cukes, stir and leave to sit for 10 minutes. Taste, add extra salt as required and serve.
There are all sorts of ways to pickle a cucumber. Fermented cucumber pickles are the most delicious, but they take up to a week to make. This pickle, conversely, is very quick and can be eaten straight away. It's perfect with pâté, rillettes, pastrami sarnies, pork pies, pickled herring, smoked fish and all sorts of salty things.
100ml white-wine vinegar
1-2 sprigs fresh dill or tarragon (optional, but recommended)
Put the sugar, water and vinegar in a saucepan, cover and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and leave to cool (keep the lid on, so you don't lose any volume through evaporation).
Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible (ideally using a mandoline). Once the liquor is cold, pour it into a clean plastic tub, and stir in the cucumber and herbs. The pickle can be eaten straight away, but it's best left to steep for an hour or so. Keeps for up to a week in the fridge.
Cucumber jelly goes beautifully with delicate shellfish dishes such as crab or lobster salad or cold smoked fish. It can be set in individual ramekins (on top of potted crab or shrimp, say), but I think it looks very pretty scattered in teaspoonfuls over a plate. Serves four to six.
Bronze leaf gelatine (in 4g sheets)/ powdered gelatine
Peel the cucumber and put it through a juicer (if you don't have a juicer, puree in a food processer, then squeeze the juice through a clean tea towel or piece of muslin). Weigh the juice: for every 600g of juice, allow half a 4g leaf of gelatine (or 2g powdered gelatine). In a small pan, steep the gelatine in a little juice for five minutes, then warm gently to melt, stir and add to the rest of the cucumber juice. Stir again, strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean plastic container, cover and refrigerate for two or so hours, to set.
There are few easier summer desserts, and few more refreshing on a hot day. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I would suggest adding a splash of spirit or liqueur, too. Serves four.
Lemon juice, to taste
Peel and juice the cucumber as in the jelly recipe. Weigh the juice and add 10% by weight of caster sugar, plus a scant squeeze of lemon juice, to taste. Stir to dissolve the sugar, pour into a shallow plastic tub and put in the freezer. Whisk every half-hour or so, until frozen and granular. Serve in chilled glasses, garnished with borage flowers, if you can get your hands on them (use any other edible flower if not). It looks adorable.
To ragoo cucumbers
The list of ingredients may seem uninspiring, but this is a lovely dish. Of the nine recipes for cucumber in Hannah Glasse's 18th-century cookbook The Art Of Cookery, only her pickled cucumber doesn't require cooking; the rest are all variations on the theme of cucumber and onions in a sauce (or "ragoo"), and Glasse is very keen on serving cucumbers treated this way with roast chicken or duck. Serves four to six as a side dish.
2 onions, peeled and sliced very thinly
2 cucumbers, cut into 0.5cm-thick slices
150ml chicken stock
50ml white wine
2g ground mace (or 1 blade mace)
10g plain flour
Salt and pepper, to taste
Set aside 10g of the butter, split the rest between two saucepans and put both on a medium heat. Gently brown the onion and cucumbers in the separate pans (the onions will take much longer than the cucumber), then combine in one pan. Add the stock and wine, bring to the boil and add the mace. Mash together the flour and the reserved butter, then stir into the simmering liquid little by little. Cook until thick enough to bind the vegetables together, season to taste and serve.
Serve hot or chilled. If serving cold, garnish with sour cream, yoghurt, crumbled fresh goat's cheese, crumbled feta, small pieces of grilled halloumi or shucked oysters, plus dill, mint or sorrel. If serving hot, top with roast crayfish or langoustine, a squeeze of lemon juice and perhaps a few chilli flakes. Serves four to six.
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste (you'll need plenty)
Gently sweat the onion in the butter until soft and translucent, without taking on any colour. Add the cucumber, sweat for a few minutes more, then add three-quarters of the stock and bring up to a simmer. Cook for four or five minutes, then turn off the heat, leave to cool slightly, then blend until very smooth - it may take up to 10 minutes or so to get the required silky texture; add stock, if required, to get the right consistency. Season to taste.
• Mary-Ellen McTague is chef/owner of Aumbry in Prestwich, Manchester.
Mary-Ellen McTague's grilled cucumber and walnut salad: 'Excellent with fried, chargrilled or barbecued fish.' Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian. Food styling: Claire Ptak