It’s September, and farmers’ markets are brimming with fresh veggies. There, next to the humble squash, is the cucumber.
Cukes belong to the same vegetable family as pumpkins, zucchini, watermelon and other squashes. But while squashes are native to the western hemisphere, cucumbers are an Old World food.
Native to India, they have been cultivated in the Middle East for more than 3,000 years. Egyptian pharaohs enjoyed them, the Jews took them along for their journey to the Promised Land, and the Roman Emperor Tiberius ate them every day in winter. Today, they’re part of ethnic cuisines from Europe to Asia.
Garden cucumbers, or those locally grown and available at the farmers’ market, are a far cry from their store-bought counterparts. Yes, today you can find cucumbers at the supermarket year-round. They’re watery and lack the flavor of those freshly picked. They are waxed for better storage. Vine-ripened cucumbers in season are so delicious, they need little tampering.
Cukes are a dieter’s dream: one medium cucumber contains just 24 calories. A good source of fiber, they also contain most of the vitamins you need every day: B complex (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), folic acid and vitamin C. Minerals in cucumbers include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
Yes, cucumbers can be cooked as you would cook zucchini. But around the world, they’re mainly eaten raw as salad staples. Add them to potato, pasta, grain and green salads.
But cucumbers really shine when they’re the main ingredient in a salad. That’s why in Mediterranean and European cuisines, cucumbers form the base of many salads.
Greek Angourodomatosalata me Feta is made with cucumbers, feta cheese and tomatoes. Tzatziki is another well-known Greek cucumber dish. It can be served as a cold soup, a dip or a sauce.
Polish mizeria is a cucumber salad flavored with fresh dill and dressed with sour cream. The Russians love a similar salad made with cucumber, dill, and yogurt. Sopszka salta — made with cucumbers, scallions, a white brine cheese (sirene), parsley, tomatoes and roasted peppers seasoned with sunflower oil — is popular throughout the Balkans. Hungarian Uborska Salata is a simple dish of thinly sliced cucumbers, dill and salt. Another Hungarian salad adds sour cream and vinegar to the mix.
In India, kachumber is made with cukes, onions, tomatoes and cabbage seasoned simply with salt, coriander and chili. In Thailand, thinly sliced cucumbers and red onions are dressed with fish sauce, rice vinegar, red chili and cilantro. Algerian Salatat Khiyar is made with cucumber, bell pepper, green olives, mint and coriander seasoned with a light vinaigrette.
When shopping, look for firm cucumbers without soft spots. The ones that bulge in the middle may have been picked too ripe, in which case they have a lot of seeds and watery flesh. They must be kept cool or they become limp and withered; however, if your refrigerator is too cold and they freeze a bit, they may turn to slush. They lose moisture easily, so keep them covered.
Much of the flavor and nutrition is in the skin. Simply wash and use in your recipe. However, cukes that have travelled long distances to our supermarkets are often waxed for longer storage; they need to be peeled. Warty, pickling cukes have a tough skin you may want to peel if you are using them for eating fresh rather than pickling. When buying fresh, local cucumbers at the farmers’ market, you do not need to peel the skin.
You may also want to remove the seeds from older, larger cucumbers. Simply cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a spoon.
Cucumbers are very versatile. They can be eaten raw or cooked; when cooked, their delicate flavor compliments fish or poultry. They make a cool, refreshing meal or snack on a hot summer day. Cut them into sticks and serve with your favorite dip. Or slice thin, salt lightly, and eat on buttered bread, as the English do, or on top of soft cheese like chevre, brie or cream cheese.
They go well with seasonings like dill, mint, garlic, onion and shallots. They are good with a light vinaigrette as well as with yogurt, sour cream or cottage cheese. They pair well with a white, salty cheese like feta, tomatoes, potatoes and corn.
Greek-Style Cucumber Potato Salad
1 pounds small yellow or red-skinned potatoes (4 cups, cooked and diced)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pounds cucumbers, preferably with skin (4 cups, diced)
1 clove garlic, optional
1 cup fresh minced dill
1 cup minced sweet onion (or 1 – 2 cups scallions, white and green parts)
2 Tablespoons fresh mint or fresh parsley (or some of each) optional
1 cup plain yogurt (Greek or regular) or sour cream or combination
1/3 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 Tablespoons finely minced sweet red bell pepper, for garnish (optional)
In small saucepan, cook potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain and set aside to cool.
While potatoes are cooking, chop cucumbers into 1/2-inch dice and place in salad bowl. Cut off the ends – the stem end is bitter. Peel if the skins are tough; otherwise leave skin on. Remove any big seeds with a spoon or your finger.
Peel and mince the garlic, chop the dill, wash and slice the scallions. Chop mint. Stir into the cucumbers.
Fold in yogurt and feta.
When potatoes are cool, slice in halves or quarters (depending on size) and stir in.
Taste and adjust seasonings; add a little salt and pepper, if needed.
Option: For a main dish salad, add a couple chopped hard-cooked eggs or a cup of garbanzo beans.
Serves 4 to 6.
Main Dish Cucumber and Corn Salad
Crisp cucumbers with sweet summer corn… what could be more delicious?
3 ears of fresh corn
1 large cucumber
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup fresh minced dill
1 ripe avocado
1 Tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 Tablespoons sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, or some of each
Husk the corn, then with a sharp knife remove the kernels. You want about 2 cups corn kernels. Place in a bowl.
Quarter the cucumbers. With a spoon, remove any large seeds. Slice into small dice. (You want about 2 cups diced cucumber). Add to the bowl.
Hard-cook the eggs. Peel and chop into the bowl.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper; mix.
Chop the dill. Fold into the veggies. Reserve some for garnish.
In a small bowl, mash avocado with lemon juice. Add sour cream and/or yogurt; fold in.
Sprinkle with feta cheese and additional chopped fresh dill, for a garnish.
Makes 4 1-cup servings.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.