What's In Season: Cucumbers
What To Do With a Summer Bounty
If you're participating in a CSA or are a regular Greenmarket shopper, you've seen that the cucumber crop is arriving. If you've never made your own pickles, this could be the year to start. But there are other ways to eat and cook with Persian cucumbers and little kirbies.
But first, a little background:
The Poisoned Cucumber Myth
When I was growing up there was a neighbor lady who insisted that if you didn't run the prongs of a fork along the sides of a cucumber that it would be poisonous. Even as a kid I knew there was something unreasonable about this. Seeing how cucumbers were constructed, I couldn't see how a few shallow scrapes would remove anything toxic. I decided that this lady was either telling a tale or else we were all going to die if we ate her salads. I opted for the former and have always loved cucumbers.
What I don't like are their seeds. Especially with larger cucumbers, the seeds can be a little slimy and hard to digest. But the seeds are easy to remove. Just slice a cucumber in half the long way and use a melon baller to just scoop them all out, scaping the edge of the melon baller along the center, the full length of the cucumber. No melon baller? The tip of a teaspoon, especially if the metal is a bit thin, will also work because what you want is the combination of cutting and scooping.
You can also buy a seedless cucumber. These are alternately called hothouse or English or Dutch cucumbers and they're easy to spot in the produce section because they're longer, dark green, with tapered ends and they're always shrink-wrapped in clear plastic. This is because the skins are very thin -- thinner than that of a regular cucumber -- and without the plastic wrap they're quick to damage. Seedless cucumbers usually don't have to be peeled unless you just don't like the look of the skin. Seedless cucumbers have a slightly milder, sweeter flavor than the Common American cucumber but I think the difference is almost indistinguishable.
A third option is to use Kirbys. This an imprecise catch-all name for a variety of small pickling cucumbers -- gherkins, dills and cornichons. They're knobby, crunchy, juicy and have tiny seeds. Their light to dark skin can be thick so these smaller cucumbers may need to be peeled.
Buying and Storing Cucumbers
In our global produce world cucumbers are available all year but they're at their local peak in the summer. So please look for locally grown ones instead of those that may be from California or Florida or beyond. The difference in taste and texture will be huge.
There are two key buying/storing tips for cucumbers. First, regardless which kind you're buying, choose cucumbers that are firm from tip to tip. Avoid any that are soft or yellowed or shriveled as these are signs that the cucumber has started to deteriorate.
Second, remember that cucumbers have a high water content and are quick to spoil. Try not to buy them too far in advance of when you'll use them and refrigerate them in your crisper. Peel them only just before they're eaten.
Eating and Cooking With Cucumbers
Cucumbers have a mild, wet flavor and usually are partnered with other ingredients or seasonings. Traditional flavor combinations with cucumbers include yogurt, dill and tomato but other creamy and acidic ingredients are also a good match. As a kid I loved them just sliced in a dish of cider vinegar and lots of black pepper. Too plain for you? Here are some other, more refined ideas for using those summer cucumbers:
- Cold cucumber yogurt soup. See our recipe.
- Tzatziki -- a Greek yogurt/cucumber/garlic sauce that's fabulous with lamb. See below for a link to an appealing recipe from Bon Appétit magazine.
- Raita -- an Indian yogurt/cucumber sauce that's usually made with cilantro and cumin and served with curry.
- Asian cucumber salad. Made with rice wine vinegar. See our recipe.
- Cottage cheese cucumber and tomato salad. This makes an easy lunch that travels well for taking to work. It's really a non-recipe but here's how to put it together.
- Cucumber salad with mint and feta cheese. See our recipe.
- Cucumber can also be a simple addition to other salad ingredients you have on hand. A favorite of mine is a fresh relish of sliced cherry tomatoes, diced cucumber, tiny diced red onion and sometimes chick peas -- all mixed together with salt, pepper, and a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar and olive oil. I serve it alongside a simple piece of chicken or meat, adding vibrancy, flavor and nutrition to the meal with very little effort.
- Chunks of seedless cucumbers are also an appealing balance to slices of soft avocado. Add a little lemon vinaigrette for an easy pale colored salad.
- You can also use cucumbers as the base for hors d'oeurves, using a slice instead of a cracker to hold a piece of smoked salmon or a spoonful of salty tapenade. Or cut them into spears and serve with hummus. Their bland taste make them a perfect foil for other more forward flavors.