Thursday, July 29, 2010

Focus: CUCUMBER (cucumis sativus)

If  you are looking for something special to do this weekend, come to Lanesboro on Saturday, July 31 for our Farmers Market Kids' day and also for a special area tour - including a tour of Featherstone Farm -  sponsored by Lanesboro Local.  Sign up details here:

Back to our regular programming:
 "The cucumber is beloved the world over for its cool, crisp, thirst-quenching flesh and clean flavor when raw and for its capacity to absorb salt, vinegar, water and spices as a delectable pickle."  Mi Ae Lipe, The Featherstone Farm Cookbook

Cucumbers are indeed popular the world over.  Most people believe they are native to India, where they have been enjoyed for thousands of years.  Cucumbers made their way to the Romans and to Europe in general and then the Spaniards brought them to America in the 1500's.  They appear in the cuisines of India, Scandinavia,  Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan and the Middle East.

Nutrition and health
Cucumbers are not the most nutritious vegetable (they are technically a fruit)  in the world, but they do contain vitamin C, dietary fiber, potassium and magnesium.  They are over 90% water - and they also contain silica and caffeic acid, all of which benefit the skin.  That is why sliced cucumbers are recommended for puffy eyes or topical burns.
My eyes are not any puffier than usual, but here I am trying out the cucumber on the eye thing.  Don't I look just cool as a cucumber?  I have to say after about 15 minutes of this I felt pretty refreshed even if my eyes didn't look much different.  Maybe the lying down is more magical than the cucumber?  Whatever works.  Do you like the embroidery on the pillow case.  My Grandma's handiwork.

Choosing a cucumber
Good old Irma Rombauer, the Joy of Cooking queen,  said it all with her inimitable style:  "A cucumber fit for use is rigid."  No flabby cukes for you, ok?  If the cucumber is yellow it is too old (unless it is a special yellow variety).  Too big and chances are they are bitter.

Pickler or slicer?
Even though there are many varieties of cucumbers, there are basically two types - picklers and slicers.  Picklers are usually smaller, with spines or warts on their skins.  Slicers are bigger (8-15 inches) with smooth dark green skins.  The modern varieties do not generally have spines.  For this blog post, I am going to focus on slicers, although you could probably make most of the recipes with picklers in a pinch.

To peel or not to peel?
Virtually all cucumbers sold commercially in stores are waxed and really need to be peeled.  For CSA or farmers market or homegrown cukes, peeling is optional and a matter of personal taste.  You might decide that the peel on a particular cucumber is just too tough or bitter for your purposes - then by all means peel.  If you are very thinly slicing the cucumber, usually it is fine to leave the skin on.  Sometimes I just peel off strips - leaving a striped effect and taking off about half the peel.  Another technique is to draw a fork down the sides, creating a scored effect.

To salt or not to salt?
Recipes are all over the map on this question.  If you are making a salad and you don't want the cucumber to be too watery, then it is a good idea to sprinkle on some salt (about 1 t. per cup) and let the sliced or chopped or grated cucumber drain in a colander for at least 30 minutes.  I like to rinse the salt off and then squeeze or pat the cucumber dry.  For some recipes the extra liquid is desirable.  And for others, if you add the cucumber fairly soon before eating, the cucumber won't have time to get watery.  My advice is to lightly salt, drain and dry cucumbers if you are using them in a recipe where you don't want a watered down effect.  Also, if the cucumbers you have seem a little bitter, salting and draining is a good technique for reducing the bitterness. 

To seed or not to seed?
If the cucumber and the seeds are fairly large, it is probably a good idea to seed the cucumber.  This picture shows how to do it.  But if you are just going to throw the cucumber in a blender anyway, I don't see the point of seeding.  Do what makes sense given the recipe you are using and the condition of the cucumber before you.  Many recipes are specific on this point - they will tell you to seed if the author thinks it is a good idea.

Many recipes call for "paper thin" slices of cucumber.   If you like cucumbers and cucumber salads, that may be reason enough to invest in even a basic food processor.  Most will do a much better job than you ever could at making very thin slices.  Some people use a mandoline (all chefs did before electricity and the Cuisinart) but that is something I have yet to master.  The feed tube on my processor isn't quite big enough to handle most whole cucumbers, so I just tuck in two halves. 

Cucumber affinities
Many recipes - especially for salads or soups - recommend using one or more of the following herbs or spices with cucumbers: mint, parsley, dill, garlic, or cumin.  It is very common for cucumbers to be prepared with a sweet sour combination of vinegar and sugar in varying proportions.
Cucumbers are often combined with yogurt, cream, sour cream, creme fraiche or buttermilk.  And cucumbers and beets go very well together.  Thinly sliced cucumbers, beets and onions make a very nice salad, marinated in a little sugar, salt and wine vinegar, then drained and dressed with a mixture of yogurt and sour cream and sprinkled with dill weed.  If you want to go wild, add some toasted walnuts and blue cheese crumbles and a little sliced apple or pear or even prune garnish.  Divine.

Cucumbers can be cooked - but all these recipes use raw cucumber.  Cucumbers cannot be frozen.  If you want to preserve cucumbers, pickling is the way to go.  I will talk about pickles in another post some day.

Cucumber lassi (this can be served as a cooling drink with Indian food, or in a bowl with an ice cube for a refreshing summer meal or appetizer.  You could even drink it for breakfast.
Molly Katzen, whose recipe this is, says this "is the cleanest tasting drink imaginable."
It can be multiplied.
Combine in a blender:
1 1/2 cups of cucumber chunks (peeled and seeded)
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt thinned with a little milk or water
1/8 t. salt
2 t. honey or sugar
1-2 T. fresh mint
1 chopped scallion or 1 T chopped onion (optional)
This will keep about a week in a covered jar in your refrigerator.  You could add 1 1/2 cups chopped cooked beets,  1 T red wine vinegar or lemon juice and some more yogurt or butter milk to this and have a eye popping magenta drink or cold soup.  Beet lassi.  Why not?

Raita - excellent served as a condiment with Indian curries
Mix two cups plain yogurt,  one cup finely chopped cucumber, 1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper and one teaspoon garam masala (an Indian seasoning - available where Indian foods are sold)
You can also add salt and garlic to taste.  If you want to make this many hours before serving, it would be best to salt, drain, rinse and dry the cucumber so the raita does not get too watery from the cucumber juice.

Cacik (Turkish) or Tzatziki (Greek) 
These are very similar if not identical dishes that can be used as a dip, side dish, appetizer or accompaniment to pita and meat sandwiches such as gyros.
They consist of a combination of 1 cup plain yogurt; one peeled, seeded and grated cucumber; one clove garlic, 1/4 t. salt and chopped fresh mint and olive oil to taste.  Sometimes cumin is added.  Can be multiplied.

Greek salad
Coarsely chop: cucumber, sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes.  Add Greek olives and crumbled feta cheese.  Dress with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, red wine vinegar and oregano.  Optional: add white beans.

I added both dried mint and dill to this Scandinavian style salad

Scandinavian style salad
For each two cups of cucumbers (unpeeled and sliced paper thin) add the following: 1/2 cup each sugar and white wine vinegar, 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. white pepper, 2 T fresh or 1 T dried dill weed.  Refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours before serving.  Drain.  Optional - add sour cream.


  1. do you ever watch the scandanavian cook show on TPT? tina nordstrom made a cucumber and sweet pickled herring salad that looked really yummy too..thanks for all the great tips!! really am enjoying your blog!

  2. TPT? What channel is that and at what time?

  3. twin cities public television - and I would like to know what time too