Saturday, June 28, 2008

Know Cukes

I have a love-hate relationship with cucumbers. There is no real drama behind the story; its actually very simple. In June, I love cucumbers. By the end of July, I am much less fond of them. Or, put another way, I love the first 149, but I feel considerable angst about the 763 that follow.Cucumbers are just one of those things for me, for our whole family actually. They are beautiful and refreshing and deliciously delicately-flavored when they’re crisp, cold, and of a normal size. It never seems to be long though before I find myself with a pile that are going soft in the peel, have grown to annoying proportions, and are more seedy than I would like.

I try not to hold it against them. After all, most things grow old after a while, especially vegetables that just won’t quit. Everyone in the South gets grumpy about yellow squash by the end of the growing season, you know, and most of us have no trouble admitting that there are only so many ways to enjoy a zucchini. Tomatoes are never a problem, and I’ve never heard a complaint about too many blueberries or too many strawberries. Remember last year when the entire peach and blueberry crops in Georgia got killed by the Easter freeze? While we never run out of ways to celebrate a fruit, we can feel a bit differently about some of the vegetables.

But, really, what can you do with a cucumber? Well, let’s count: you can make pickles (yum), you can slice them and put them in a bowl of vinegar in the fridge (one of my favorite summertime treats), you can eat them out of hand, you can put slices in a sandwich, and you can chop them and throw them in a salad. That’s it. Oh, sure, you’ll find cookbooks that claim you can sauté them, but that’s just whacked. I know. I’ve tried. And I don’t really want to talk about it.

Whacked, I tell you.

I suppose this is where I should admit that I don’t know how to make pickles. I know it can’t be all that hard, but I just, oh, I don’t know, get BORED before I finish reading instructions on pickling and I just move on. There are some things a girl feels like doing, and there are some things that just feel like a colossal waste of time when I have so LITTLE time to start with. Maybe when the kids are older…

In the early years of our marriage, when we still lived in town in that cute little pink rental house that didn’t have air conditioning, we were cucumber fools. The Carnivore made sure we never ran low, and would always have a giant casserole dish in the fridge filled with slices of red onion and cucumbers swimming in vinegar and cracked black pepper. During those steamy months when we would open the freezer door just to stick our heads in so we could stop sweating for a brief moment, we lived on those cucumber slices. They were bracingly cold and acidic, the ideal refreshment to sate our short-lived hunger (who can eat when it’s that hot?) and to make our lips pucker.

But then, you know, we grew up. We moved out to the country, restored an old house and added central air conditioning. Three separate units to be exact, with programmable thermostats and crazy energy-efficient systems that mean we can keep this entire house cool without batting an eye at the electric bill. Granted, The Carnivore owns a heating and air business, but still…

The thing is though, we have since tried filling our refrigerator with those lovely vinegar cucumbers, but, well, it just wasn’t the same. Maybe it’s because we aren't hot and sweaty anymore, or maybe our palates have, dare I say it, become more mature, but we just weren’t interested in them anymore. I was a little disheartened. It was a little like giving up yet another part of our youth. No longer did we sit on the front porch in the evenings, talking with neighbors as they walked by. No more did we lay around languidly on sweltering Saturday afternoons, talking and laughing and drinking iced coffee because it was too doggone hot to enjoy it any other way. Gone were the days of living on vinegar-soaked cucumbers for dinner followed by frozen fruit cocktail for dessert.


Needless to say, I guess, when I picked up the third or fourth box from our CSA this summer, I was more than a little chagrined to see the first cucumbers show up. Even though I knew I had actually been craving some cukes, I was already feeling a bit negative about the whole thing because I was wary of getting to that point when I would shudder to find them in the bottom of the box. I did what I always did with the first one though: I cut it in half right down the long side, dribbled it with coarse salt and balsamic vinegar and ate it out of hand, fighting The Big Boy for the last bite, but I chomped away a little half-heartedly and then I tucked the rest of them in the crisper and moved on to the beets (something I will never tire of).

But then I pulled out my binder of recipes that I had clipped in anticipation of the new CSA season. All year long, when I came across recipes that seemed to be intriguing uses for eggplant or squash or any of the other summer veggies, I put them in this binder, knowing full well that as the glow of June waned, I would be desperate for new ways to cook kale or turnips or eggplants or any of the other stumpers that the farm would throw my way.

It was one of those fabulously serendipitous moments as I opened the binder to find a teeny-tiny little piece of paper, no more than one column-inch in length and in a pale, hard-to-read font, for an Asian twist on the good, old-fashioned Southern marinated cucumber. This one called for rice vinegar and sesame oil and crushed red pepper. The idea was the same, but the flavors would clearly be vastly different.

Having nothing to lose, I gave it a shot. All the ingredients were ones I keep on hand anyway, and goodness knows I wouldn’t be lacking for cucumbers through the summer so even if worse came to worst, I could toss the whole thing into the compost heap without shedding more than a tear or two.

Ah, but there was not only no ‘worse,’ there was no ‘worst’ either. We all loved the results, even Little Miss Piggy, who likes to suck out the vinegar and the seeds and then throw the sliced cucumber carcasses under the kitchen table where they end up sticking to our poor little dog.

These flavors are unexpected in marinated cucumbers, but not so unusual that they qualify as a kitchen experiment, and all the blessed qualities of the traditional recipe remain the same, namely the crisp texture and the refreshing acidity. The scant bit of oil balances the vinegar though, and adds a nutty tone that I love.

NOTE: there is a little bit of sugar in this, mom, so you will need to bear with me – remember that there is sugar in bread-and-butter pickles as well, and keep an open mind.


MARINATED CUCUMBERS (from Cooking Light)
  • 2 cups sliced cucumbers (as thinly or thickly as you like)
  • 3 Tbs rice vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.
  2. Shake bowl to redistribute marinade before serving (or before reaching into the fridge to grab a slice or two for a quick snack).


Holly said...

this is by far my favorite cucumber recipe (Israeli Salad): the herbs really make this salad!

i'm really excited about the recipe you posted today. i can't wait to try it!

Anonymous said...

Please don't let pickle recipes keep you from pickling -- the difference between a store-bought pickle and one you've made at home is the difference between a home-made cheesecake, and a pre-packaged, frozen one. No comparison. Not to mention, pickling is as easy as boiling the spices in the liquid and pouring it over the vegetable victim of choice. And once you've got pickled cucumbers down, you can move on to pickled cauliflower... pickled baby carrots... and of course, pickled beets (of which I currently have four jars in the fridge, calling my name in the wee hours of the night).

All I am saying, is give pickling a chance.

As for cucumbers, well, there's nothing better than tzatziki on a whole-wheat pita with tomato slices. Grate one cucumber into 2 cups of plain yogurt, with a few tablespoons of fresh dill and one minced clove of garlic. (I'm approximating since I never measure anything.) It's also supposedly good with lamb, but I don't eat meat so I can't testify to that.

Sarah Beam said...

Mmmm, pickled cauliflower. Oh, how I love a cauliflower. Matter of fact, I've never met a cauliflower I didn't like - well, except for that one that was served to me by an ex's mother, lukewarm and dripping with Velveeta. Argh. N.A.S.T.Y.

Shari said...

Cucumbers seem to be one of the few things I can successfully grow. My son lives on this during the summer. Also good for doubling for larger families:)

Barley-Bean Salad

2 cups cooked cold barley
2 tsps greek spice blend
1-2 cups cooked cold kidney beans
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 cucumber, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
handful of chopped parsley
1 Tbsp dijon mustard
1/4 cup Italian dressing

Combine, chill and enjoy.

Lisa said...

Sounds wonderful! Can't wait to try it. The blackberries in NE GA are the same as yours. Drought starved so I might give the cobbler a try.
Here's a fav cucumber salad recipe that's great on a hot day. I don't measure but you really can't go wrong no matter how much you put in.

sour cream
kosher salt/fresh cracked pepper to taste
little bit of onion
Lots of fresh dill.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I stumbled upon your blog when reading someone elses and thought you might enjoy another cucumber recipe if you are still over loaded with them.

Cucumber Salad
Combine in bowl and let sit an hour to draw juices:
1 med. cucumber, thinly sliced
1 T minced onion
1/4 to 1/2 t salt
Whisk together:
3 T mayonaise
3 T cider vinegar
2 T white sugar
Combine drained cucumbers, dressing, and 1 tomato, chopped up.

This is my husband's favorite way to eat cucumbers...enjoy!