Savor the crisp summer crunch of cucumbers

August 4, 2023

At this time of year, it’s easy to appreciate the expression “cool as a cucumber.” With recent temperatures hovering near triple digits, there is nothing quite as refreshing as a chilled cucumber salad. When just picked from the vine, cucumbers are crisp and juicy, an ideal ingredient in a range of summer dishes, such as the simple salad in the photo.

With a history that spans over 4,000 years, cucumbers are a member of the gourd family Cucurbitaceae. Cucumbers are related to hundreds of different plants, including the numerous varieties of watermelon, cantaloupe and squash. These all share a slightly bumpy exterior, sweet flesh and centrally located seeds.

Cucumbers originated in ancient India, where they grew wild until brought under domestication, and ultimately the crop was traded to countries across the Middle East and Europe. As with many foods, the Roman Empire was largely responsible for the growth in popularity of the cucumber as both a food and a medicinal remedy. In the 15th century, Columbus brought cucumbers to the New World, where they have flourished ever since. 

In current usage, cucumbers fall into three types: slicing, pickling and burpless. Species in the first variety are long and dark green, including the thin-skinned American, the almost-seedless European (also called hothouse), and the long, slender Japanese. The types in the second group are much shorter, with rougher exteriors, and have been bred to maintain a crisp texture and absorb liquid.

The last type, burpless, was hybridized to reduce the amount of a naturally occurring compound called cucurbitacin. This is a defense mechanism for the plant, making it unpleasant or bitter for animals to forage and causing many people to burp after eating it. If your cucumbers are not one of this variety, you can actually remove most of the bitterness by “milking” the cucumber. Simply cut off one end and rub the two pieces together in a circular motion, cut edge to cut edge, until a foamy white substance begins to leak out from where it is stored in the skin.

Another secret to better-tasting cucumbers is how you select them. They should be firm, without any soft spots, bruises, cuts or sections of withered skin. Once they’re harvested, they should be kept at room temperature and consumed within a few days. If you place them in the refrigerator (or keep them chilled the way many grocery stores do) they will incur cold injury, causing the flesh to decay as they become watery and pitted.

Most recipes call for paring the skin from the flesh using a vegetable peeler. For a decorative effect, you can peel the skin in strips, creating a striped pattern. For chubby cucumbers, you may want to remove the seeds: Slice the entire cucumber in half lengthwise and use the tip of a spoon to scrape them out.

Fresh cucumber slices can be served raw with just a sprinkle of salt. They pair well with sour cream, yogurt, onion, dill and vinegar. For the salad in the photo, we used a mandolin to create paper-thin slices of cucumber and shallot, then tossed the mixture with rice wine vinegar, salt and pepper. I’ve included the recipe for that dish, as well as a creamy salad and a crisp soup that’s perfect for a summer lunch.

Cucumber Salad

1 cucumber
1 shallot
1 t sugar
1/4 C rice wine vinegar
salt & pepper, to taste

Trim off the ends and peel the skin from the cucumber. Thinly slice the flesh into rounds using a mandolin. Place the slices in a serving bowl. Remove the papery skin from the shallot, trim off the ends, and thinly slice with the mandolin; add to the bowl. Sprinkle the sugar into the bowl and add vinegar; toss to combine. Cover and chill for an hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper before serving. Yield: 4 servings. 

Creamy Cucumber Salad

2 medium cucumbers
2 t salt
2/3 C sour cream
1 t lemon juice
1 t fresh dill

Trim ends and peel cucumbers. Thinly slice into a colander. Sprinkle with salt and toss to combine. Allow to drain for 45 minutes. Press out any excess water and transfer cucumber to  a serving bowl. Stir in sour cream and lemon juice. Garnish with dill and serve. Yield: 4 servings.

Minty Cucumber Salad*

2 large cucumbers
1/4 C fresh mint leaves
1/4 C chopped parsley
zest of 1 orange
1/4 C olive oil
2/3 C red wine vinegar
2 T sugar

Trim the ends from the cucumbers and peel the skins. Cut in half lengthwise and slice into half-moons. Place slices in a serving bowl. Add mint, parsley and orange zest; toss to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour dressing over cucumber mixture and stir to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Yield: 6 servings. *Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Cucumber Soup

1 lb cucumbers, peeled, seeded & chopped
1/2 C plain yogurt
3 T lemon juice
2 T olive oil
1 T chopped dill
salt, to taste
lemon zest, for garnish

Combine cucumbers, yogurt and lemon juice in the bowl of a blender or food processor. Pulse while gradually adding the olive oil, processing until incorporated. Transfer to a serving bowl and stir in dill. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour. Serve garnished with lemon zest. Yield: 4 servings.

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