I think it's an American consensus that any dish covered with cheese is better. Steamed broccoli drowned in bright yellow processed cheese comes to mind. But what dinner table in America is without scalloped or gratinéed potatoes? Too bad we Americans can't claim the idea as our own invention. The French came up with gratiné, the method of topping ingredients with breadcrumbs, butter, and cheese and baking under a broiler. Potatoes are the most popular cooked in this method, but other vegetables also deserve this special treatment. Cucumbers, a vegetable that really never gets cooked, make the perfect gratiné.
Why cucumbers? In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child offers up her recipe for baked cucumbers and in Julie & Julia, Julie Powell discovers the deliciousness of Julia's baked cucumbers. While reading these books in anticipation of the movie, I couldn't keep cucumbers out of my mind. I just was unable to fathom cooked or baked cucumbers. Then on an episode of Julia and Jacques on PBS, I saw Jacques Pépin sauté cucumbers to serve alongside fish. So I had to try preparing something with cucumbers for myself.
I decided to follow Julia's initial steps for her baked cucumbers. By adding vinegar, salt, and sugar to the cut cucumbers, the excess liquid is drawn out. This step tenderizes the cucumbers, much like steaming or blanching would, and it also means less time spent at the stove. Then I diverge slightly from Julia's recipe and decided to make a gratin. Still there's lots of butter involved just like Julia would have it. The end result is a subtly flavored dish of tender cucumbers with a slight vinegary tang and a play on texture with the crunchy and cheesy crust. It makes a wonderful side dish for roast or grilled meats and white-fleshed fish, but it even holds up to being enjoyed on its own.
4 long English cucumbers
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
freshly ground black pepper
2 slices dry bread
1/3 cup grated Gruyère
Prepare cucumbers by peeling and cutting off ends, slicing lengthwise, and removing seeds. Cut into 2-inch-by-1/4-inch batons. Combine with vinegar, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Let soak for 30 minutes up to 1 hour.
Drain cucumbers and pat dry. In a large gratin dish, combine cucumbers with half the melted butter. Spread cucumber evenly. Season with pepper.
Break bread into breadcrumbs using a knife or a food processor. In a bowl, combine breadcrumbs with remaining butter. Spread mixture over cucumbers. Season with salt and pepper. Top with cheese. Bake covered with aluminum foil for 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake until top is brown and cucumbers are tender when pierced, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.