You know, when it comes to something as well known and under appreciated as a … it is helpful to revisit this lonely vegetable and pay it its proper due. Is there anyone who couldn’t supply the missing word in the title? Is there anyone out there who has had a meaningful encounter with a cucumber lately? It’s summer, and the crisp, cool cucumber is in its prime, ready for pickles, salads, dressings or simply munching.
The short, sturdy, usually highly waxed cucumber has experienced a foreign invasion over the past several years, what with its European, Armenian, Japanese and Persian relatives flooding in. This cucumber used to stand alone in salads and side dishes, its tough skin rendered all but inedible by a thick coating of food grade wax, its large seed chamber taking up space on the plate with seeds that supposedly caused the eater to “burp.” These cukes have bright white flesh and a dependable crunch, and its slices are the perfect size for fitting into tired eye sockets as a home spa treatment.
Customers have long been acquainted with the long, ridged European or Armenian cucumbers found at farmers’ markets. These are generally wrapped in a thin film to prevent water loss and preserve crunch. The Euro cukes are thin-skinned and have smaller seeds so there is more edible flesh available. Their large size makes them a somewhat daunting purchase for the customer, but a plethora of cucumber recipes can make short work of even the largest specimen.
More exciting is the emergence of the small, smooth-skinned Japanese and Persian cucumbers. These are so similar that farmers have a hard time telling them apart. They have an exceptional, tender crunch and delicious flavor, and thin skin that needs no peeling. These varieties can be used in any cucumber recipe, and since they contain less water than the larger varieties they will not thin out dressings. To prevent excessive water loss, cucumbers can be lightly salted after slicing and set in a strainer for ten minutes then wrapped and pressed in a clean towel. Diced cucumbers are the basic ingredient in a Mediterranean dressing called Raita – simply add two chopped and salted cucumbers to two cups of yogurt and a pinch of spice of your preference and serve on falafel, gyros or any spicy side dish that would benefit from something crunchy, creamy and cool.
Of course, pickles are one of the best uses of cucumbers, and there are many recipes available that are quick and delicious. The following is a recipe from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables:
3 – 4 pounds small pickling cucumbers
2 Tbsp. dill seed or flowering dill plant tops
3 cups apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
Optional: grape leaves, dried chiles, garlic, fennel
3 cups water peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds,
1/3 cup kosher salt cloves
Wash cucumbers in cold water, Heat the vinegar, water, and salt to the boiling point. Pack the cucumbers in sterilized jars with the dill. You can add a fresh grape leaf (grape leaves contain alum, which helps keep the pickles crisp); a dried hot chile, a clove or two of peeled garlic, fennel, peppercorns, mustard seed, coriander seeds and a clove. Fill the jars to within 1?2 inch of the top with the boiling hot brine. Put on lids, tighten the bands and allow to cool. During the cooling period you will hear the characteristic pop the lid makes when the vacuum seal forms. If you intend to store the pickles longer than six months, process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes after sealing. Store in a cool dark place and wait at least 2 weeks for the pickles to cure before eating.
When eating sliced cucumbers in sandwiches and salads, you can slice them as thin as possible and they won’t lose their crunch. They are a simple, portable replacement for lettuce and they are eternally cool.Buy lots of them and use them liberally. Be cool!