Veggie of the Week - Cucumbers
sponsored by Coleman Farms
I once came across a brief description of the declining state of Soviet youth, who "spent their days standing on corners eating cucumbers." The force of the criticism is still not clear to me: having nothing better to do than eat cucumbers could betoken lack of initiative; but it's not hard to think of times when there is nothing better to do than eat a cucumber, particularly in very hot weather.
Cucumbers are a kind of melon, and are technically (because of the seeds) a fruit, but since they aren't particularly sweet, they get treated as a vegetable so, like tomatoes, they're a fruitgetable or a vegeruit, for culinary purposes. Their fruity qualities are made apparent when they're eaten on their own: Soviet youth would've been unlikely to have stood around for long eating carrots, and would probably have regretted it if they had. Generally, though, cucumbers are thought of as a vegetable, and so used in salads, cold soups, a range of cooked dishes, and frequently pickled.
Raw cucumber is very refreshing. The light, slightly acid flavor with a hint of bitterness has something to do with this, but the fact that a cucumber is 96-98% water together with a significant amount of potassium makes it a good rehydrator. Add some milk, and you've got a natural 'electrolyte replacement fluid', so it's no accident that cucumber-milk dishes are popular, whether it's in a 'lassi' (buttermilk or yoghurt blended with cucumber) or a 'soup' (thick yoghurt blended with cucumber and mint, served with a dash of white and red peppers and a drizzle of olive oil). Cucumbers show up a lot in salads, too, providing a bit of texture and flavor contrast to a green salad or one based on tabouleh or couscous, or, if you've got a lot of them, providing the basis for a salad, perhaps with tomato, peppers, olives or bits of cheese or cubes of bread, dressed with dill or fennel, cracked peppercorns or chile flakes, and vinaigrette or yoghurt.
They're also found 'stuffed' with devilled meat or egg salad or covered with things like 'creamed camembert', which gives some insight into Midwestern cooking.
I have to confess to never having had cooked cucumber, but it appears in a surprizing variety of recipes, baked (in gratin) or fried (stirr-fry, breaded...). I imagine it's something like bland summer squash, though the finished texture would depend on whether the cucumber started out quite juicy, like a ripe salad cucumber, or with the apple-like texture of a pickling cucumber.
Pickling is a sort of halfway house between the raw and the cooked. Pickled cucumbers are sufficiently popular in the US, at least relative to other pickled vegetables, that 'pickle' generally referrs to 'pickled cucumber', and usually to dill pickles. Proper dill pickles take a special cucumber, shorter than a typical salad cucumber, with a warty surface and a drier, crisper texture. The other common kind of pickled cucumber here is the gherkin, or cornichon, which is pickled sweet in contrast to the vinegar-brine-spices pickling of dills. Strictly, the gherkin calls for a special West Indian cucumber, but small pickling cucumbers are often used instead. Pickling is a means of preserving the cucumbers of which, as in the case of cheese (preserved milk), the changed flavor was originally incidental but has become a feature attraction.
You can make your own 'fresh pickles' to get this flavor by slicing a salad cucumber very thin then putting it in pickling solution and chilling for four hours to over night. Typically a sweet and sour pickling solution is used (a light syrup containing vinegar, sugar plus herbs and spices to taste), but I see no reason to exclude a sour, dill-like solution, if desired.
Cucumbers have a long history of medicinal uses. The most common one in our current culture has to do with treating the skin, where, again, the cucumber is apparently a proven hydrator, refreshing dry or burned skin and providing a certain anti-ageing effect, if a temporary one. Cucumber can be applied by placing thin slices directly on the skin, or it can be incorporated into an emulsion and applied that way.
Now is a good time to find cucumbers in the Farmers' Market. Apart from the standard smooth-skinned salad cucumber, you'll find the small roundish lemon cucumber as well as a variety of variations on the long green kind, including Armenian, Persian and picklers. These have subtle differences in texture - creamier or crunchier, wetter or drier - and in their particular balance of acid and bitter flavors.
picture from Purdue University