Although these seedy squashes thrive year round, the refreshing cucumber is the quintessential symbol of summer. It cools the palate with a thirst-quenching burst of fresh flavors reminiscent of melon and grassy herbs. This multi-tasking gourd works just as well in chilled soups and salads as in smoothies and sorbets. Here’s a primer to get the best out of this divine fruit of the vine.
Variety is the Slice of Life
Native to India, the cucumber has been cultivated for 3,000 years. Today cucumbers are classified into three varieties — slicing, pickling and burpless. Typically long slicing cukes are eaten in the unripe, raw stage with smooth green skins that are usually tough and waxed. Picklers are bred to be a uniform length (3-4 inches), and 1-inch wide, such as gherkins, cornichons and Kirbys. These warty, chubby stubs are soaked in brine and other spices to make crispy dills for deli fare and sandwich toppings.
Finally, burpless of Iranian descent (named for its relative ease of digestion compared to the other belch- and gas-provoking varieties) have thinner skins and sweeter flesh. Some are behemoths that can grow up to two-feet-long and are practically seedless (English or hothouse and Armenian), and have a delightful, tender peel. Others are diminutive (Persian, Lebanese) with similar sweet flesh and tender seeds.
This time of year you might spot a golden-yellow spheroid called a lemon cucumber. This delightfully sweet, crisp cuke can be eaten raw in green salads, cooked like a squash, pickled or juiced in cocktails and smoothies. It pairs well with tomatoes, citrus, cheese and olives.
Another Fine Pickle
The delicate cucumber, a mighty water reservoir is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. Packed with a full compliment of Bs to put the skids on stress, Vitamin C to rev up the immune system, calcium for bone health, magnesium, potassium, zinc and fiber (we know what that’s for), cucumber also acts like nature’s plastic surgeon with a host of phytochemicals performing miraculous feats.
For that beach bod, rub a cool slice on your thighs or other cellulite spots for a couple of minutes to tighten collagen, firm up the epidermis and lessen the appearance of the cottage cheese puckering. And for the face, whether you place those refreshing cuke slices on your tired and puffy eyelids or eat this cooling food, your skin will be treated to an anti-aging boost thanks to the high water and silica content.
Pick a Winner
Look for firm, flawless cucumbers with good heft (proportional to their size) and rounded ends. Discard any with soft spots and shriveled tips. The smaller more slender fruit also tend to be sweeter, more flavorful and have fewer seeds. Store unwashed in the crisper drawer of the fridge so the higher humidity will keep them firmer longer, and use within a week.
• Munch on cucumbers as a bedtime snack to put the skids on headaches and hangovers the next morning.
• To cure bad breath, rub or press a slice of cucumber on the roof of your mouth for about a minute.
• As a stress buster, boil a cucumber in a pot of water and breathe in the steam as it perfumes the room with a soothing scent.
It’s a Dilly
Cucumbers pair well with salt and vinegar, along with chives, dill and mint. You can, pickle or deep fry them Southern-style; slice them on sandwiches; chop them into salads (my faves Greek and Cobb); dice into chilled soups like gazpacho and vichyssoise; incorporate in sushi rolls, Vietnamese rice paper spring rolls, chilled low mein stir-fry, or a Tzatziki dip (Greek cucumber yoghurt) or you can slice Persians lengthwise and dip them in a dip.
For other uses: mince seedless varieties in a seafood cocktail, mango salsa, quinoa or bulgur wheat tabbouleh; grill or steam like squash; dice in a mixed vegetable curry.
You can dial-up iced tea or sparkling water by floating slices on top, or puree cukes in a frozen treat. Why not try my Polish grandma’s delightful sweet and sour cucumber salad she called, “mizeria,” which translates to “misery,” referring to the poor maligned peasants who created the dish. It jazzes up roasted chicken, grilled fish, sandwiches and burgers or can be eaten solo as a refreshing appetizer.
Grandma Eva’s Mizeria
1 English cucumber or 5 Persian cucumbers, sliced thinly
1/2 small sweet onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon apple cider or white vinegar
Juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Method: Strain cucumber slices in a colander to remove excess juice, and salt. Let stand 30 minutes. In a mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Blend in cucumbers and chill. Garnish with cracked pepper and extra dill.
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