- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

If you have too many cukes in your garden, just be glad they’re not zukes. It’s not that there aren’t lots of great recipes around for zucchini. It’s just that, personally, when it comes to summer eating, the zucchini is hard pressed to compete with the crisp crunch, clean delicate grassiness and unmistakable perfume of a garden fresh cucumber.

For years I boycotted the cucumbers on display in my supermarket. Blimplike and sticky with wax, they were a sorry substitute for the delicious cucumbers I remembered from childhood.

Dad wasn’t much of a gardener, but come summer, he always planted a couple of cucumber plants along the side of the house. Prolific growers, we had plenty of cukes all summer long.

My mother typically cut them into long wedges and arranged them on a round platter like the spokes on our bicycle wheels. Napped with her signature tangy dried oregano and sharp wine vinegar dressing, we scarfed them down.

As children, we were encouraged to snack on cucumbers out of hand, warm from the sun or cold from the fridge. In retrospect, I wonder if our folks knew Dad’s cukes would serve us twofold: to quench our thirst and to teach us to appreciate the taste of freshly harvested produce. They were right on both counts.

Summer after summer we ate cucumbers, both sitting in the grass by the side of the house and at the kitchen table where they appeared — or so it seemed — meal after meal throughout the summer.

With these memories etched in my brain, I’ve kept up my search for cukes that taste like Dad’s. Fortunately, if both my local supermarket and farmers market are any indication, my perseverance has paid off.

Recently, I counted seven kinds of cucumbers in my neighborhood market, and there wasn’t a waxy blimp in sight. I found round yellow lemon cukes; American slicing cucumbers (no wax, thankyouverymuch); skinny and exquisitely crunchy Japanese cukes; short, rough-skinned pickling, or Kirby cukes; plastic wrapped seedless English cucumbers; and the Mediterranean cucumber with tender green skin, lots of juice and a bit less crunch than the Kirby or Japanese types. Sometimes called Persian or Middle Eastern cucumbers, they look like a miniature version of the English seedless.

On occasion, I also find a curvy, serpentine, pale green cucumber called the Armenian. Although it doesn’t look anything like the others — it’s from a different species — it has the same crisp texture and flavor.

Cukes are about 99 percent water, which accounts for their thirst-quenching capabilities. It also explains why the nutritional benefits are nothing to brag about. But if the skin is tender, you should eat it. Not only will it add crunch and color, it contains lutein, which may be good for the eyes.

Don’t obsess about the lack of health benefits. On the upside, cucumbers are a refreshing, satisfying, low-calorie and low-sodium food. All of these things combine to make them perfect for summer eating.

With only subtle differences in taste and texture among varieties, they are mostly interchangeable in recipes. The exception is for pickles. For pickle recipes, Kirby cucumbers, which are low in moisture, make the crispiest pickles. Otherwise, let your culinary imagination go wild.

The round, yellow, lemon cucumbers are beautiful in the classic summer cucumber, tomato and basil salad. The yellow skins tend to be a little thick; therefore, rather than remove the peel, I cut them into thin slices. Thin rounds of lemon cucumber layered with equally thin slices of red onion make a tasty salad when sprinkled with torn mint leaves or Italian parsley and drizzled with olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar.

For a refreshing summer snack, try an ice-cold Japanese or Mediterranean cucumber. Add a light sprinkling of brown or black sesame seed or grains of coarse sea salt to each bite. Or make a smoothie with chunks of cucumber pureed with cantaloupe or watermelon and some ice.

Cucumbers cut into thick slices — especially the stouter American, English seedless or lemon cukes — can be cracker substitutes dipped into cottage cheese, mashed avocado or hummus.

The cucumber has been around for thousands of years and is said to have originated in South India. The Romans cultivated cucumbers, but wrote at great length about their indigestibility. Nevertheless, the cucumber has prevailed.

Almost every cuisine worldwide has a cucumber specialty or two. The French gave us hot cream of cucumber soup, warm cucumber vegetable side dishes and sauces and cucumber tartare. I’m not sure who gave us the cucumber tea sandwich, but it may well have been the British.

The Turks make a cucumber and yogurt salad with mint, and the Greeks created tzatziki, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip. Raita, a condiment essential to any Indian meal, consists of shredded cucumber, yogurt and sometimes green chilies and spices. When it comes to summer eating, nothing truly beats a cucumber and tomato salad… just like the one Mom used to make with Dad’s cukes.

Crisp marinated cucumbers

This recipe is adapted from Marie Simmons’ “Fresh & Fast” (Houghton Mifflin).

2 to 3 large slender cucumbers

2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice

2 teaspoons sugar, or more to taste

1 garlic clove, grated or minced

Freshly ground white or black pepper

2 tablespoons mint or cilantro

Layer cucumbers and salt in a colander and weight with a saucer and something heavy, such as a can. Let stand at room temperature for about 1 hour. Drain off all liquid and pat cucumbers dry.

Combine vinegar, lemon or lime juice, 2 teaspoons sugar, garlic, pepper to taste, and mint or cilantro in a serving bowl. Add the cucumbers. Stir to blend; add more sugar to taste, if desired. Refrigerate until cucumbers are cold and crisp. Drain off some of the liquid and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Tomato, cucumber and olive salad with crumbled feta cheese

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut in ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves

2 cups diced cucumbers, unpeeled, if tender

½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, rinsed and drained

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, oil and oregano; toss to blend. Let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes, or until tomatoes release some of their juices. Add cucumber and olives. Sprinkle with cheese and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Cucumber and peach salsa

This recipe is adapted from “Lighter, Quicker, Better” by Richard Sax and Marie Simmons (Morrow).

2 cups diced peeled peaches or nectarines (do not peel)

1½ cups diced unpeeled cucumber, seeds removed if large

½ cup diced red bell pepper

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon minced canned chipotle chilies

Pinch of kosher salt

In a medium bowl, combine peaches or nectarines, cucumber, bell pepper, cilantro, lime juice, honey, chilies and salt. Stir to blend. Chill before serving. Makes about 3 cups.

Cucumber and avocado soup with tomato and basil salad

2½ cups buttermilk

2 cups (unpeeled if skins are tender) diced cucumber, seeds removed, if large

1 avocado, peeled and pitted

4 tablespoons chopped red onion, divided

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup diced seeded tomato

2 teaspoons lime juice

Combine buttermilk and cucumber in a blender or food processor. Chop 1/4 of the avocado and set aside in a small bowl. Chop remaining avocado and add to blender. Add 2 tablespoons red onion and half of basil to blender. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To the small bowl containing avocado, add remaining 2 tablespoons red onion, remaining 1 tablespoon basil, tomato and lime juice. Stir gently just to combine. Puree cucumber and buttermilk mixture until very smooth. Transfer to a bowl and chill before serving. To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle each with chopped avocado and tomato mixture. Makes 4 servings.

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