Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Cucumbers

There are few guarantees in life, but among them are: Gray hair, death, taxes and cucumbers on display in every supermarket all across the US, 365 days a year.

As much as I savor the crunch of a slicing cucumber and marvel at its ability to defy both seasonal and geographic boundaries, I still long for the days of summer, also known as cucumber season. Like tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon and zucchini, the cucumber is a vine that can only climb, spawn blossoms and bear fruit in the presence of prolonged solar heat. It is a gorgeous process to watch vine plants make babies, one that is indelibly associated with the languid sultry romance of summer, not the neutered, climate-controlled aisles of any-town supermarkets.

With that, I propose a toast – Carpe Cucum-Diem – to seizing the moment with a backyard cucumber that still smells of the earth. Midsummer night’s dreams come true if you let them…

Brief History

A native of India, the cucumber is among the oldest domesticated plants, referenced in literature and art from antiquity.

Along with caper buds, figs, grapes and honey, wild cucumbers are mentioned in Gilgamesh, the epic poem written in Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets around 3,000 BC. and one of the earliest surviving works of literature.

The cucumber (or its wild ancestor) makes two appearances in the Bible: Along with garlic, the cucumber is mentioned in Numbers 11:5, when the Israelites reminisce about (and perhaps long for) the food they ate as slaves: “We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt for Nought, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.”

It’s mentioned later in the Book of Isaiah:
“Jerusalem [Daughter of Zion] alone is left a city under siege – as defenseless as a watchman’s hut in a vineyard or a shed in a cucumber field.” (Isaiah 1:8 )

By the first century AD, the cucumber had become the darling of Roman emperor Tiberius, who had greenhouses (specularia) constructed to satisfy his year-round cuke cravings. The lengths to which the emperor went for his beloved fruit were duly noted by Roman agriculture writers Pliny the Elder and Columella.

Fast forward 700 or so years, and the cucumber continues to be prized among the ruling class. Medieval emperor Charlemagne insisted that the cucumber be planted in all the gardens of his many estates.

The cuke made its way to England probably in the 1300s, under King Edward III, according to many historians, and “concumber” was on the to-do list of the gardener to the archbishop of Canterbury (1326-27).

According to legend, Christopher Columbus brought cucumber seeds from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola during one of his major oceanic voyages in the late 1400s, the beginning of its travels throughout the Americas.

In a letter dated Nov. 29, 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote Ohio governor Thomas Worthington requesting “half a dozen seeds of these mammoth cucumbers.”

Factual nibbles

The expression “cool as a cucumber” is older than we may think; it was coined by 18th century British poet John Gay in his comic ballad “A New Song for New Similes”:

Pert as a pear-monger I’d be
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.

From the 16th to 19th century, the cucumber aroused great suspicion among Britons who dubbed it “cow-cumber” for its thick, bitter skin and reputation for causing indigestion, food considered only fit for cows.

The cucumber tree, an ornamental deciduous North American native, is a member of the magnolia family, not cucumis, and is named for its fruit, which resemble cucumbers when unripe.

Cultivation

Meet Cucumis sativus, a member of the extensive creeping vine Cucurbitaceae family, which includes watermelon, muskmelon, and summer and winter squash.

There are several different types of cucumbers in the marketplace with varying availability, depending on where you shop.

The supermarket produce aisle is home to the American slicing cucumber. Available year-round, it tends to be heavily waxed and lacking in flavor. (I think of it as the iceberg lettuce of the cucumber world.) More recently, the American slicer shares space with the burpless/seedless cultivar, also sold as the hothouse or English cucumber. Long and sometimes curvy, sometimes with a nipply end, this thinner-skinned, self-pollinating cuke is often wrapped in plastic to maintain freshness.

The choices get more interesting at local coops, ethnic and farmers’ markets, and roadside farm stands. Here’s where you’ll find Asian and Middle Eastern slicers, the short, stubby and slightly warty pickling cucumbers, as well as a slew of heirloom varieties, including the lemon cucumber. You might also come across the Armenian cucumber, a close relative to the muskmelon (C. melo var. flexuosus) and the gherkin, a pickling cucumber native to Africa (C. anguria). For a visual of all the offerings, this list will help put names to faces.

Georgia is the top cucumber producing state, followed by Florida, North Carolina and California. In 2012, the US imported more than 1 billion pounds of cucumbers from Mexico.

Seasonality

When the air is good and warm, the cucumber thrives; it is a summer item through and through. In fact, the cucumber dislikes even the slightest dip in temperature below 70 degrees F. 

Environmental Impact

The conventional American slicing cucumber is ranked #9 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, earning it a spot on the Dirty Dozen Plus list. Because it’s highly perishable, commercially grown cukes are coated with a food-grade wax or resin, to prolong shelf life and retain moisture. The coating can be vegetable, shellac or petroleum based. Look for labels indicating the type of wax applied, but the question of safety remains. In her book What to Eat, Marion Nestle says this of waxed fruit: “I cannot help but think the foods must be old. Why would they need wax if they were fresh?” Wax is not on the menu at farmers’ markets, FYI.

The conventional American slicer has also been the subject of food safety concerns. Earlier this year, a salmonella outbreak linked to cucumbers imported from Mexico sickened 84 people from 18 states.

Characteristics

As mentioned above, cucumbers come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Pickling cucumbers are typically about four inches long, with a thin, slightly prickly skin and small or minimal seeds. The self-pollinating cuke is, thin-skinned, seedless, and at least eight inches long, sometimes with a curled end. And the American slicer, starting at six inches, has a smooth, thick skin with a repository of seeds.

What to look for

Since the cucumber is mostly water (about 96 percent water by weight),  its cell walls quickly break down and turn the fruit into mush. Regardless of cultivar, a cucumber fit for eating should be firm with no signs of mushiness and no discoloration. For unwaxed cucumbers, head straight for the farmers’ market.

Nutrition

Thirsty? Eat a cucumber. Although a respectable source of potassium and vitamin C, the cucumber is a superb thirst quencher.

The cucumber is rich in lignans, a type of phytoestrogen with anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. (Other lignan-rich plants are: flax seed, sesame seed and oat bran.) Lignans continue to be studied for their link to lowering the risk of hormone-related cancers.

What to Do with it

Cucumbers come with a FAQ that precedes the first bite:

To peel or not to peel?
It’s a personal preference, but I peel all waxed cukes.  I find a wax coat, particularly in salads, unpleasant.

And what about those seeds – should they stay or should they go? 
Again, this comes down to cook’s choice. Some argue that the seeds increase the bitterness; I say they make for a watery mess, which might also dilute a vinaigrette.

To salt or not?
Some cooks absolutely insist on salting cucumbers to help release water and make for a crispier result. In my experience, this is helpful when making pickles, but an extra, time-consuming step for a simple salad.

Storage

The cucumber is temperature sensitive – too hot and it turns to mush; too cold, and it will shrivel up. Keep refrigerated and use within a few days. If your crisper drawer runs cold, wrap the fruit in a dish towel.

Cooking tips

There’s a contingent that likes their cukes cooked, but I’ll take mine raw, thanks.

Drink it: Throw a seeded cucumber (or three) into the blender, along with your favorite herbs, as a gateway to beverage bliss. I love the sound of this agua fresca flavored with ginger, lime and sweetened with a simple syrup.

Add a cucumber to a future batch of gazpacho, which keeps well in the refrigerator for days and is one of the best things to take the edge off a sweltering day.

Dress it:  Mild thing that she is, the cucumber is an amiable playmate of vinaigrettes and all kinds of sauces. One of my favorite hot-weather last-minute suppers is a sliced cucumber tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce, lime, chili flakes and chopped fresh cilantro, if I have it. I put the whole thing over a mound of brown rice, and might share if you’re lucky. If my husband is running the kitchen, he’ll probably scrounge for some fresh dill or mint and yogurt, along the lines of a tzatziki or raita.

Preserve it:  If you’re like me and can’t get enough of in-season cucumbers, consider the pickle path. With cucumbers, you’ve got a few options: water bath canning, refrigerator-style and lacto-fermentation.

Recipe

Cucumber Salad with Chile and Roasted Peanuts

Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison

1 long cucumber, English or Armenian
1 bunch scallions, including ½ ; inch of the greens
1 chile pepper of choice, seeded and minced
Grated zest and juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
4 teaspoons safflower oil (other options: sunflower, peanut, grapeseed)
1/3 cup unsalted toasted peanuts, chopped
6 mint leaves removed from stem, chopped
6 leaves of your favorite variety of basil

Peel the cucumber, halve it lengthwise and cut into long strips.

Wash the scallions, remove the root and cut into thin slices.

Place the cucumber slices, scallions and minced chile pepper into a medium-size bowl.

In another bowl, combine the lime zest and juice, soy sauce, sugar and oil, and stir to mix.

Pour the dressing on top of the cucumber mixture, tossing to coat, then add the peanuts and herbs, tossing again.


 

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