Garden cucumbers are nothing like the limp, tasteless, standardized things found in most stores. Cucumbers come in many colors, shapes and sizes and are the fruit of the vine. Each variety has its own sweet, herbal, grassy, crisp, clean flavor. The four types are:
- common: slicing cucumbers with waxy (waxed) skins, best peeled and seeded
- gherkin: pickling cucumbers, often warty
- short: small (4 inches), sweet green, rust or yellow cucumbers with mild, edible skins
- long: also known as telegraph, English , continental or burpless green cucumbers, these grow as long as 18 inches and need not be peeled or seeded
Cucumbers are another superfood. Full of silica, a compound essential to healthy connective tissue throughout the body but especially the skin, cucumbers have been used to cure sunburn, dermatitis and wrinkles. They also contain ascorbic and caffeic acids which prevent edema. Others attribute cucumbers the power to unsteam mirrors, polish chrome and revitalize better than an afternoon nap.
Cucumbers originated in India about 5,000 years ago and quickly spread west to the Tigris-Euphrates during the Sumerian empire. From there, it became a staple of Mediterranean cultures, a special favorite of the Romans who first began cultivating them year round in portable greenhouses. Cucumbers are in the same family as melons and squash, also grow on a vine, and share some of the same diseases such as powdery mildew.
For the best flavor and texture, harvest cucumbers when they are small. Cut the fruit off the vine rather than pulling. (Pulling can bring stretches of vine away too.) Because cucumber vines will climb, they can be trained up a trellis or fence, making it easier to reach the fruits and a visually beautiful garden. This year I grew four heirloom varieties from Comstock Ferre & Co. : Sikkim (rust colored skins from Nepal), West Indian gherkin, Boothby Blonde (yellow, short) and a prickly cucumber (sweet and crisp). None is as prolific a producer as the common garden and pickling varieties I’ve grown in the past but their flavors are new, exciting and delightful eaten alone or in a salad.
My family’s summer favorite is Greek watermelon-barley salad (New York Times recipe) in which a cucumber features. (In this recipe, I substitute a yellow or orange bell pepper for the green pepper. An improvement to a great recipe.) We also grill salmon and then grill two cucumbers sliced in half and lengthwise. The cucumbers only take a minute or two before they are soft and slightly toasted. Once all is off the grill and on a serving plate, sprinkle crumbled feta, lemon juice and fresh, minced dill (also from the garden of course) over the fish and cucumbers. Salt and pepper to taste.
I often pair cucumber slices or chunks with feta, chevre or a goat cheese on a plate. When faced with a super-abundance of cucumbers and hot weather, any type of cucumber can be used for a delicious, cold soup. I adapt Mark Bittmann’s cold yogurt soup with nuts fromHow to Cook Everything Vegetarian:
1/4 cup shelled, roasted pistachios, crushed into pieces
2 cups Greek yogurt
1/4 cup milk or half & half for a thicker soup
1 cup chopped fresh mint (from the garden of course) plus sprigs for garnish (Or substitute parsley, chives, dill, ginger, sorrel or tarragon for fun. If using sorrel, adjust lemon juice accordingly.)
2 cups, finely chopped cucumbers (If common variety, peel and seed first.)
2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon of good curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
Vigorously stir the yogurt, milk and chopped mint together for a couple minutes until you smell the mint. Stir in salt. Strain into a bowl. Discard the mint and refrigerate the yogurt. In another bowl, combine the cucumbers, lemon juice and curry powder. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. To serve, taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Spoon the cucumbers into bowls and pour the yogurt mix over the top. Embellish with chopped pistachios and mint sprigs.