by Chef Jenn Farmer
Cucumbers don’t get enough recognition. They are one of the most versatile ingredients in food and drink, and nobody ever seems to speak of them. Did you know that they are a fruit? Everyone seems to know that tomatoes are a fruit. Why not the cucumber? Nutritionally they are great, cosmetically, they are nice or so I have been told. I have never had enough time to lie back with the cool slices on my eyes like the glamour girls in the movies, in fact I think if I had that much time, I would end up falling asleep with them on my eyes, and wake up with rancid pickle slices on me, as well as fruit flies. I have a friend that has assured me they work wonders on puffy eyes, and are a natural moisturizer for the skin, I will take her word for it.
At least the Romans knew a good thing when they ate it. The emperor Tiberius was quite fond of the cucumber, and required it be served to him, daily, regardless of the season. Interestingly enough, they learned how to artificially cultivate it by placing the plants in rolling carts that were placed in the sunshine during the day and put indoors to keep warm at night. They put the carts into solariums, or framed structures, that were covered with oiled cloth (called “specularia”), or sheets of relatively clear crystal called selenite, these were some of the first greenhouses. It seems like a whole lot of trouble for a tiny little “fruit.” I do mean tiny, they were very small in comparison to our varieties today. In fact the cucumber was more like the little cornichons, than the slicing or pickling varieties that we are familiar with.
A cornichon is a small gherkin pickle. Interestingly enough they once were primarily produced in Appoigny, France, but a few years ago that all changed. One of the largest cornichon producers (located in the region) stopped buying from the French farmers. They began to purchase the gherkins from countries like India (the home of the cucumber) for a fraction of the price. The few cornichon farmers left in that region of France have been selling their produce to processing plants in Germany for sale in Eastern Europe. From all this chaos began a nice little grass roots campaign: many French chefs have refused to serve or eat the imported pickles, and many restaurants have resorted to purchasing the cucumbers from the local farms and making the pickles themselves. Many traditional French recipes contain cornichons, so it is not just a matter of local pride, but necessity for many recipes.
Cucumbers are related to gourds, and squash, and even muskmelon (which are similar in flavor and appearance to cantaloupe melon). There are many varieties of cucumber, some are better for pickling, some for eating raw, and some are quite popular hot in stir-fry, or other savory cuisine.
Years ago when I was living in Reno, Nevada, I would go to farmer’s market/swap meet. As if that was not interesting enough it was always held at an old drive-in theatre. I looked forward to it, and usually purchased the best produce there. One of my weekly purchases was what they called a lemon cucumber. They were about the size of a lemon, and the color-hence the name. They really did have a slight citrusy quality, and I loved to make an Indian salad with them. Lemon cucumbers, strawberries, yellow mango, mint, lemon and lime juice, and a little almond or hazelnut oil, then garnish with a whisper of cayenne powder. It is probably my all- time favorite recipe, since it is so refreshing, easy, and a great compliment to nearly any meal.
Cucumber is comprised of about 90 percent water, so it is low in calories, but that information aside, they taste good. I think they are refreshing, and a lovely palate cleanser between meal courses. I have also noticed that certain foods really shine with the addition of a little sliced cuke. Melon, tomato, caviar, spring onions, and even juniper berries come to mind.
- One and one half pounds cucumber (any variety)
- Half a cup local rose petals
- One half cup 888 gin
- Juice of one lime, freshly squeezed
- Two tablespoons simple syrup or agave syrup
- About one cup ice cubes
- 4 lime slices
Reserve four nice slices from the cucumber for garnish, peel and chop the rest of them and transfer to a blender or food processor, and puree until very smooth. Pour the mixture through a strainer, and press it until most of the juice is extracted. Discard the pulp. Mix the cucumber juice (should be about one cup) with the gin, lime juice and syrup into a pitcher, add the ice and stir until well mixed. Strain into four small glasses, garnish with the cucumber and lime slices. Enjoy. Serves 4
TRADITIONAL CUCUMBER TEA SANDWICHES
- 1- 8 oz package Neuchâtel cheese, softened (cream cheese can be substituted)
- One half stick of butter, softened
- One package Italian dressing mix (dry)
- 1 loaf rye cocktail bread
- 2- 3 cucumbers
- Fresh dill sprigs
- Smoked salmon (optional)
Wash the cucumbers well, and peel a few slices of the skin from each lengthwise, creating stripes, before slicing each (this makes them pretty). Slice the cucumbers to about one quarter inch thickness, and set aside. In a bowl mix the cheese and butter, and using mixer whip it together well. Add the dry seasoning, and mix well. Smear a bit of the mixture on each slice of bread, and add a slice of cucumber, smoked salmon if using, and a little sprig of dill on each. If you are really fancy, get a little caviar and crème fraiche to garnish them with. These are served open faced. Serves several party goers.
- 2 pounds small pickling cucumbers (fin de meaux are traditional)well chilled
- One half cup kosher salt, divided
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon white onion, small diced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
- One teaspoon fresh dill, chopped
- One and one half teaspoons whole black peppercorns
- 2 cloves
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed, divided
Wash the cucumbers in ice water, and keep them very cold until ready to use. One quarter cup plus 2 Tablespoons of kosher salt should be mixed with the cold, dry, cucumbers. On a sheet pan, layer clean kitchen towels, and lay the salty cucumbers out, allow the salt to draw the moisture out of the pickles and drain onto the kitchen towels. This should take about 90 minutes, and they should be kept chilled if possible. Meanwhile prepare two pint jars, rings and lids for sterilizing. Rinse the salt from the cukes.
In a saucepan heat the vinegar, 2 cups water, and rest of salt to a boil. Get the jars and lids sterilized and keep them hot until ready to fill. Divide the onions, garlic, dill, eppercorns, mustard seed, cloves and bay leaf between the two jars, and pack the cucumbers into the jars. Leave one half inch headspace from the top of the jars, and carefully fill each with the hot vinegar mixture, leaving one quarter inch headspace from the top of the jar. Tap the jars carefully to remove any air bubbles. Cap them and process in boiling water canner. Cool the jars slowly, and place them in a cool, dark place for at least 4 weeks before opening. Check to be certain they were sealed properly before eating them, if they are questionable, throw them out, it is better to be safe than food poisoned. Makes 2 pints.