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Bottom left: funky stick chicken; top: cucumber salad; right: garlic bacon

Image: Megha Tejpal

Star Ingredient of the Season: Cucumber

During a Houston summer (especially now, in July), it is crucial to try and stay as cool as a cucumber. Whether you're in the house, in the car, or even in the pool, the heat will get you and drain you of your energy. Staying hydrated is key, and snacking on foods which are not only cool but also revitalizing can give you an instant pick me up on a hot day. For this reason, the cucumber, a star in more ways than one, is our star ingredient of the season. Its cooling effects and refreshing flavor make it a summertime favorite, often used in cocktails and salads.

Originating in Southeast Asia, the cucumber has been around for thousands of years and is now grown all over the world. A member of the gourd family along with melons and squash, cucumbers are available year-round but are at their peak from May through August (conveniently during the hottest months of the year for us in Houston!). Mild in taste with a crunchy bite, each medium-sized cucumber contains about 96 percent water and only 40 calories—another reason we tend to load up during bikini season. Used in a variety of ways and packed with Vitamin C, cucumbers add an invigorating component to any dish or drink.

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The view from the second-floor dining room at Mala Sichuan

Image: Megha Tejpal

In a Starring Role at: Mala Sichuan Bistro

As one who can relate to the George Costanzas of the world who must bring an outside cucumber into a restaurant that doesn't serve them in a salad, I have tried my fair share of cucumber dishes this summer. As a self-proclaimed cucumber fiend, I have no problem pairing my cucumber margarita with a cucumber salad with cucumbers over my eyes. While cucumber cocktails are always a hit and cucumber with ahi tuna is a popular combo, I was on the hunt for a one-of-a kind dish to really knock my cucumber colored socks off.

At Mala Sichuan Bistro (1201 Westheimer Rd., Ste. B, 832-767-0911) in Montrose, the menu boasts authentic Chinese cuisine with a generous selection of cold dishes. On my visit for dinner, a day when the temperature was no less than 96 degrees, I was more than intrigued by the list of cold dishes; one more than the rest which paired cooked and chilled pork belly with cucumber. Thinly sliced and rolled together, the garlic bacon—as the dish is called—is a gorgeous contrast of colors on the plate. The cucumbers, just as significant as the pork belly, exude star quality with their ever so slight crunch and bright green color. The dish is topped with a tangy garlic puree, a sweet and spicy soy sauce and plenty of red chili oil, giving it an extra kick. As Mala is known for its variety of very spicy dishes, I recommend opting for cold starters as they can be a refreshing addition to one of the many spicy hot pots.

This is the second location of the popular Sichuan restaurant, the first being on Bellaire in Chinatown. This much trendier locale is tucked in the corner near El Real Tex-Mex in Montrose, offering a casual yet eclectic vibe. The restaurant's unique decor highlights a multi-colored mural which spans the entire length of the two-story space. Even without liquor or wine, the restaurant is often packed, which says plenty about the food.

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