General Description: The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is commonly an oblong, dark green, seedy vegetable with flesh that is more than 90 percent water. One of the oldest cultivated vegetables, the cucumber is believed to be native to India and has been cultivated in western Asia for 3,000 to 4,000 years. Cucumbers were brought to the New World by Columbus in 1494, first arriving in Haiti and spreading to Canada. Cucumbers were being grown by the Iroquois when the Mayflower arrived.
All cucumbers have crisp texture and mild flavor. Common American cucumbers, usually 8 inches long, are bred to have thick skin for protection during shipping and longer shelf life. Their smooth, dark green skin is often waxed. Unwaxed local cucumbers may have tiny spines that should be rubbed off.
Many slicing cucumbers are grown in greenhouses. Originally grown in Holland, they’re sometimes known as Dutch cucumbers. They are invariably shrink-wrapped. These super long (12 to 15 inches), smooth, lightly ridged dark green cucumbers are uniform in shape and length and are practically seedless, making them more easily digestible. Extremely thin-skinned, they taper at the tip (where they will spoil quickest) and have a mild, sweet flavor.
Pickling cucumbers, such as gherkins, American dills, and French cornichons are small. Gherkins and cornichons are about 2 inches long; American dills, about 4 inches long. American pickling cucumbers have knobby warts or spines, pale stripes, and skin that ranges from light to dark. They have solid crunch, evenly distributed juiciness, and sweet flavor. They are often called Kirbys, though this is a misnomer, because the original Kirby is no longer cultivated.
The name gherkin also refers to the West Indian gherkin (Cucumis anguria), related to the cucumber. These are 1 to 3 inches long, light green with prominent spines, and filled with tiny seeds. They are used mainly for pickling.
Middle Eastern or Beit Alpha cucumbers probably came from Israel in the early 1900s and are also called Persian cucumbers. Thin-skinned and smooth, they are slightly ridged, slim, small, and slightly curved. The pale green flesh is crunchy, juicy, and fine-textured, perfect for diced Middle Eastern cucumber and tomato salad.
Armenian cucumbers (Cucumis melo) are grouped botanically with melon although they look and act like a cucumber. They are long, thin-ribbed, chartreuse-colored coils with downy, almost nonexistent skin and mild flavor. The flesh is pale and very crisp.
Asian cucumbers have concentrated crispness and deep flavor. They exist in a dramatic range of lengths, colors, and flavors, from mild to bitter, and may have conspicuous dark or light spines, which are easily brushed off. Their flavor is rich, slightly earthy, and not sweet. The Japanese cucumber is a mild, narrow, thin-skinned variety with few seeds.
Season: Slicing cucumbers are available all year but peak season is in the summer months. Most pickling cucumbers are sold only during the summer months. Florida provides the majority of the U.S. crop and ships almost year- round except for July. Mexico ships November through May. Hothouse cucumbers are available year-round but peak March to November.
Purchase: Choose common cucumbers that are well shaped and firm with deep green color. Choose hothouse cucumbers that are firm all the way to the tip with no soft spots.
Avoid: Cucumbers are quite perishable because of their high water content. Avoid exceptionally large cucumbers or those that are yellowing, puffy, or shriveled. Examine cucumbers for any soft spots or soft ends, indicating spoilage. If the cucumber flesh is yellow rather than pale green, it has started to deteriorate.
Storage: Refrigerate cucumbers in the crisper for up to 1 week.
- Pickling cucumbers should be scrubbed to remove loose spines. Greenhouse cucumbers do not need to be peeled or seeded. If unwaxed, outdoor varieties may be peeled and seeded or not, as desired. Waxed cucumbers should be peeled with a vegetable peeler.
- To seed a cucumber, slice in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a small spoon.
Serving Suggestions: Slice, chop, or grate cucumber and dress with yogurt and vinegar or lemon to make Indian raita, Turkish cacik, or Greek tzatziki. Slice, salt, and rinse firm cucumbers then sauté in butter and add chervil, dill, or tarragon. Use like citrus slices to garnish mixed drinks, lemonade, or sparkling water.
Flavor Affinities: Buttermilk, chervil, dill, mint, salmon, scallions, tarragon, tomato, yogurt.
from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com