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Cool Off with Refreshing Cucumbers

Fine Cooking Issue 87
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Cool, crisp, and juicy, cucumbers are always a welcome addition to my summer kitchen. When the temperature soars above 80°F, I find few things as refreshing as a snack of raw cukes with a tangy, savory dip. They’re also ideal for chilled soups (see my Green Gazpacho), and they add a bright, fresh note to any number of salads.

Cucumbers’ mild, sweet flavor makes them a good match for almost anything. I like to pair them with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and any summery herb, as well as with fish and shellfish, chicken, pork, and lamb. Creamy dairy products like yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream, feta, and goat cheese give them richness and a welcome tang, while aromatics like capers, olives, garlic, lemon, and lime add a little punch.

Firmness is your best clue to freshness when shopping for cucumbers. Avoid limp or shriveled ones. I also look for fruits that seem slender for their size. This means they’re younger, so chances are they’ll have either undeveloped or fewer seeds. Store cucumbers in the crisper drawer, loose or in an open plastic bag, and use them within three or four days of buying. Kept longer, they’ll get slimy on the outside and mushy inside.

Peeling and seeding are not always necessary. When prepping cucumbers, some cooks remove the seeds as a matter of course. But if they’re tiny and cling tight to the flesh, you can leave them. It’s only when they’re fully developed that they become intrusive and unpleasant to eat and should be removed. To do this, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon or a melon baller. Whether to peel cucumbers or not depends on how you intend to cut them. Most cucumbers have thick, tough skins, so if you’re cutting them in big chunks, it’s best to peel them. If you’re slicing them thinly, the skins are more palatable—and prettier—so you can leave them on. Cucumbers with naturally thin, tender skins, like the English variety, don’t need peeling.

A World of Cucumbers

There are dozens of cucumber varieties, all of which can be used pretty much interchangeably. Here are some of the most common types available:

Picklers: Picklers (leftmost cucumber in photo) are short and blocky, with blunt ends and bumpy skins. Their firm texture makes them perfect for pickling, but you can use them raw as well.

Slicers: Slicers (middle cucumber in photo) are your basic, all-purpose cucumbers. They’re about 8 inches long with round ends and smooth to slightly knobby dark-green skin. The ones you buy at the supermarket are often waxed to protect them during shipping and to extend their shelf life. Scrub them well or peel before using.

English: Also known as greenhouse, European, or seedless cucumbers, English cucumbers (rightmost cucumber in photo) are 10 to 12 inches long and slender and are usually sold in plastic sleeves. With their thin skins, undeveloped seeds, and uniform shape, they are ideal for slicing into salads and garnishing appetizers.

Grow Your Own Cucumbers: It’s Easy

Cucumbers are among the easiest crops to grow. Plant the seeds directly in the ground in spring, after the soil has warmed. They sprout within days and grow quickly into vines with tendrils that wrap around whatever they touch. Although you can grow cucumbers on the ground, you’ll harvest prettier, cleaner, and straighter fruits if you let them climb up some sort of trellis. Once cucumbers start bearing (usually about six weeks after planting), pick them regularly to keep production going.

Quick Ideas for Raw Cukes

I don’t usually cook cucumbers. To me, it’s the crunchy texture and fresh flavor of raw cucumbers that’s most appealing. Here are some of my favorite ways to use them:

  • Whip up a zippy garnish for grilled meats. Stir thinly sliced cucumbers and chopped shallots with plain Greek yogurt and lots of chopped herbs.
  • Make a bread salad. Combine chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet pepper, and onion with cubes of day-old artisan bread or pieces of lightly toasted pita. Add aromatics like olives, capers, or chopped preserved lemon and douse with a zesty vinaigrette.
  • Update tea-time cucumber sandwiches. Spread whole-grain bread squares or pita triangles with cream cheese mixed with feta, finely chopped herbs, finely minced shallot or grated garlic, and lemon zest. Top with thin cucumber slices and watercress.
  • Toss together a cool Asian noodle salad. Stir cooked rice or soba noodles with diced cucumbers and sweet pepper, chopped cilantro and basil, and a creamy peanut dressing with minced jalapeño. Garnish with chopped toasted peanuts.
  • Make a simple salad. Sliced cucumbers take to an impressive variety of dressings:
    Drizzle with olive oil and a little lemon juice and sprinkle with salt and chopped fresh oregano.
    Toss in a creamy buttermilk dressing with lots of chopped fresh dill.
    Go Asian with a mix of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, grated fresh ginger, and a squirt of lime juice.

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