Exploring Cucumbers: More Than Just Pickles
Cool as a Cucumber
Crisp, mild-tasting, and refreshing, cucumbers have been consumed for thousands of years. Apparently, they are so wonderful that even the Israelites in 1450 B.C. favored slavery in Egypt if freedom meant a life without cukes.
The 2016 Statistics Portal reports that cucumbers are the third most produced vegetable in the world at 80.62 million metric tons per year. Let’s take a brief look at their history, learn some facts about the plant and how it is used today, and then explore some imaginative recipes.
Now the people complained about their hardships. The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this (miserable) manna!’— Numbers 11: Verses 1, and 4-6
Once Upon a Time
Its beginnings were in the foothills of the Himalayas, perhaps 4,000 years ago. The gourd was lovingly tended and cultivated by the peoples of present-day India where it assimilated into their spicy cuisine. From there it spread to Ancient Greece, Rome, and China. The Romans imbued it with almost magical medicinal powers, using it to treat scorpion stings, improve eyesight, and even increase fertility.
Indeed, he was never without it; for he had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the cucumbers were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirrorstone.”— Pliny the Elder of Roman Emperor Tiberius daily demand for gherkins
And Then They Went to the New World
On his second voyage to Hispaniola Columbus brought seeds of the cucumber plant. Three decades later in 1539, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto reported that the plant was being cultivated in Florida.
Growing Them Is Easy
First, you need to know that there are two forms of plants, bush and vining. The bush plants are compact so work well for small-plot gardening. Vining plants climb up fences and trellises and are less prone to disease or infestation because they are up off of the ground.
They can be started indoors for transplant into the garden when all danger of frost is passed, but the roots can be finicky. They would prefer to not be disturbed (much like you don’t want to leave your cozy bed when the alarm clock sounds).
- Light: Full Sun (at least 8 hours)
- Depth and Spacing: Sow seeds 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart in mounded hills that are 3 feet apart. Plan on 4 to 5 seeds in each hill. When plants emerge thin to the 3 strongest plants
- Soil: Well-drained, rich in organic matter
- Water Requirements: at least 1 inch of water or rain every week. It is better to soak the soil rather than light frequent watering.
- Soil pH: Neutral
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 2 to 11, best results in zones 4 to 11 (see below)
If you aren't sure where your climate zone is, here's a really cool (as a cucumber) interactive link from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just type in your zip code and it will tell your climate zone number.
There are thousands of varieties of cucumbers, but all of these can be divided into 4 distinct groups.
- Middle Eastern and Asian are small and thin.
- American pickling are small and have a thin skin (so that the brine will penetrate more easily).
- American slicing are short and thick and have been bred to endure lengthy transport. They have large seeds and a strong flavor.
- European (mostly grown in controlled environments in greenhouses) are long and slender, with thin flesh and small indistinct seeds, mild flavor, and no bitterness.
- Also known as cowcumber, cuke, or sikuos (Greek)
- Botanically related to the gourd, watermelon, and edible squashes
- The largest recorded cucumber (59 pounds) was found in Australia
- Cucumbers are 96 percent water
- Almost half (47 percent) of people in the U.S. who raise vegetables plant cucumbers.
As Cool as a Cucumber
Definition – unflappable and in control
And there is actually a scientific basis for the adage. Cucumbers are cool to the touch, and in 1970 scientists found that the internal temperature of a cuke is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius). These findings by James M. Lyons and John K. Raison were peer-reviewed by scientists from the American Chemical Society.
It's time to start cooking and baking (yes, I said baking). Everyone knows how to slice a cucumber and toss it into a salad, so I won't bore you with those recipes. Let's look at some more imaginative ideas.
- Blackberry cucumber caprese skewers
- Chilled cucumber soup
- Cucumber coconut lime popsicles
- Frosted cucumber cookies
- Garlic dip baked chips
- Cucumber hummus
- Pineapple cucumber salsa
- Cucumber sorbet
- Stir-fried smacked cucumber
Blackberry Cucumber Caprese Skewers
There's something about food on a stick that is just so darned enticing. These skewers are the perfect pick-up food for a backyard barbecue or potluck or just one more sneaky way to get your kids to eat something healthy.
Cyd (TheSweetestOccasion) developed the recipe and uses fresh blackberries, but I can also imagine using strawberries, melon balls (honeydew would be amazing), or cherry tomatoes.
Chilled Cucumber Soup
This chilled soup is made without any cooking (what a blessing for those blistering hot days). Yogurt and lemon provide some tang, Dijon (just a touch) adds a pop of heat, and dill provides a floral note that reminds me of fresh limes.
ClosetCooking is one of my favorite food blogs for out-of-the-ordinary ideas. Yes, the kitchen really is closet-sized, so don't whine that you have no room to cook.
Cucumber Coconut Lime Popsicles
Kayley (TheKitchenMcCabe) is a culinary graduate, freelance recipe developer, and takes the most beautiful food photographs. Her work is stunning, and these popsicles are as wonderfully refreshing as they are easy to make.
Frosted Cucumber Cookies
Have you ever thought of baking with cucumber? Before you scroll down to the next recipe, just bear with me for a moment. Pumpkin appears in just about everything (bread, cakes, cookies, muffins, and on and on). The cuke is in the same family. The English (no seed) ones have a very mild flavor. Imagine how soft and moist these sugar cookies will be.
Garlic Dip Baked Chips
Who doesn't love chips? Potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips—but all of them are loaded with carbs, overly salted, and most are deep fried. Indulge in your pleasure without the guilt. You can make baked chips that are flavorful, crunchy, and good for you by using cucumbers. Thank you to Kyndra Holley (PeaceLoveAndLowCarb) for this imaginative recipe.
Hummus is a flavorful, healthy dip for chips or fresh veggies, but you can make it even healthier. VeganFamilyRecipes shares the easy recipe here. From start to finish it takes less than 5 minutes.
Pineapple Cucumber Salsa
Jennie (OneSweetMess) makes an easy and pretty salsa that is a real party in your mouth. Sweet pineapple, cool crisp cucumber, and just enough heat with red onion and fresh jalapeno. This is incredible with grilled chicken or fish (halibut!!)
Maryanne is the "LittleEpicurean". The little part is not a reflection of talent—she stands only 5 feet tall (like me). And she is certainly worthy of the title epicurean. She is a graduate of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) Napa Valley and French Pastry School in Chicago.
Her sorbet is simple (only 3 ingredients) but has been crafted with precision. Too little sugar and you end up with an icy granita, too much and your mixture will refuse to freeze. Maryanne knows how to achieve the proper balance and gives you the perfect recipe here.
Stir-Fried Smacked Cucumber
The Olive is a monthly food magazine published in the U.K. It's packed with stunning recipes, the latest restaurant reviews, and food-inspired travel ideas. It was there that I found this recipe for smacked stir-fried cucumbers. That might sound a bit odd to you, but it's a well-known Hong Kong–style bar snack. Serve some the next time your friends come over to watch a ball game. They just might think that you are a world-traveling culinary genius.
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© 2018 Linda Lum