Simple starters are having a moment in Paris, and today I am featuring one of my favorites, cucumbers in cream. This tasty dish may be enhanced with the herb of your choice – cilantro, dill, chives or chervil – and served on its own, with another simple starter or two, as part of an assiette de crudités (mixed veggie plate) or alongside smoked salmon. And best of all for the everyday chef, it takes no more than five minutes to prepare.
Concombres à la crème / Cucumbers in cream
The trend toward simple starters began at Paris bistros a couple years back with the revival of another classic, oeufs durs mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs cut in half and bathed in sumptuous homemade mayo). It gets star billing at Le Desnoyez, a terrific bistro in the Belleville district, and many other establishments with young, innovative chefs. This is good news. Once a menu standard, the dish had fallen in stature to the point of becoming inedible, with cafes serving up overcooked, rubbery eggs with commercial mayo squeezed out of a bottle. No respectable restaurant would serve it this way. But now it’s back.
Another popular simple starter is avocado toast, a relatively recent arrival in Paris. A bistro down the street from me, Café Pola, serves it in the form of avocado and horseradish purée on toasted country bread garnished with slice radishes and cucumber ribbons, with or without smoked salmon alongside. Pola recently scratched oeuf dur mayonnaise from its menu in favor of a warm poached egg, but plans to restore it when summer arrives.
While we’re on the subject of starters, I’d like to mention the fact that they are known in France as entrées, which is confusing for Americans since ‘entrées’ in the States are main dishes. The French version is the accurate one, since entrée translates as ‘entry’, as in entry to the meal. How did this confusion arise? My understanding is that, back in the old days when elaborate meals featured many courses, the entrée was generally a warm dish, like a soufflé, that followed a soup or a cold hors d’oeuvre, for example radishes with butter or pâté, and preceded the main dish (plat principal). Over time, as menus simplified, hors d’oeuvre and entrée got conflated to mean any starter.
Returning to concombres à la crème, preparation involves simply peeling and slicing the cucumber, adding cream, salt, pepper, herbs and perhaps a dash of lemon juice. It is best prepared just before eating so that the cucumbers remain crisp. If you’d like to serve the dish with another simple starter, I can recommended grated carrots with lemon and olive oil, beet salad with walnuts, sliced hard sausage (saucisson sec) or cured ham, smoked trout or salmon, herbal tomato salad, warm lentil salad or … oeufs durs mayonnaise.