Making The Most Of A Retiring Vegetable
I love cucumbers. Fresh, crisp, slightly bitter, even more slightly sweet, they have a refreshing calmness about them that provides balance and contrast for bolder flavors. I use them mainly in salads, where they bring a pleasing crunch to softer greens, or mixed with plain yogurt, chopped herbs, and red onion for a subtle sauce for fish or fowl.
My oldest cookery books have plenty more to suggest. I was interested to learn the other day that the term ‘cookery’ is being withdrawn by library catalogers (they who make decisions about how books can be found in library catalogs). It seems that these days, people search under ‘cooking’ or ‘cook books’, terms libraries have not traditionally used, and can’t find what they want, which is frustrating. Thus, cookery is vanquished, which it too bad, since it is such a homely, comforting sort of word, or so I find. Ah well.
Cooking With Cucumbers
Anyway, my most elderly cookbooks treat cucumbers mainly as a cooked dish and rarely even mention their possible use in salads. Indeed, salads themselves were something quite different a hundred or so years back, being chiefly mixtures of cooked vegetables bound with mayonnaise or sauces. Weirdly, lettuce was usually served gently cooked in a little butter, often with new peas. To my modern mouth, that is not a very tasty dish, since cooked lettuce tastes like stringy nothing (the peas are good, though).
Still curious, I decided to see what the cooks of yesteryear were doing with the humble cucumber. I found recipes for baked, stewed, fried, wilted (?huh?) and stuffed cucumbers and since I had a profusion of cukes, I spared a few for experimentation. With a bit of adjustment, some proved quite pleasing, including these below:
Fried Cucumbers And Green Tomatoes
This crispy-crusty treatment makes plain cucumbers ambrosial.
1 large cucumber, peeled
2 large green tomatoes
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons corn meal
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, well whisked
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Slice cucumber and tomatoes into 1/4 inch slices, set aside. In a wide, flat bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper. Whisk egg in a similar bowl. Dredge vegetable slices in flour mixture, dip into egg, then return to flour mixture to cover well. In a heavy iron skillet, heat half the oil and butter over medium high heat and fry half the slices, not crowding the pan, until well browned, about 4-6 minute per side. Replenish pan with remaining oil and butter and repeat with remaining slices. Serve hot. Serves 4-6.
A favorite condiment in late Victorian times, chowchow involves a variety of vegetables, always including cucumbers, pickled in a spicy-hot brine. This is a great way to use green tomatoes, always available at summer’s end. It’s a bit like less-sweet chutney and goes beautifully with fish or fowl, over rice or on roasted vegetables.
4 cups cucumbers, chopped
4 cups green tomatoes, chopped
4 cups celery, chopped
4 cups cauliflower, broken into florets
4 cups whole green beans
2 cups summer squash, chopped
2 cups onions, chopped
2 cups sweet peppers, chopped
1/2 cup sea salt (NOT table salt)
Combine vegetables in a large saucepan. Bring half a gallon of water to a boil, add sea salt, pour over vegetables and let stand for 15 minutes. Rinse in a colander with fresh water and drain well. In a large pot, combine:
2 quarts cider vinegar
1/4 cup whole brown mustard seed
2 tablespoons turmeric
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cardamom pods
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Bring to a rolling boil, add vegetables, return to boil and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Prepare 12 sterilized pint canning jars and lids and a large canning pot of boiling water. Pack chowchow into jars, leaving an inch of headroom, and seal in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes about 12 delicious pints.
Crisp Cucumber Mushroom Salad
This salad makes a very refreshing side dish on a warm, summery evening.
1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced
2 large mushrooms, stems trimmed, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons vinaigrette
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
Cover sliced cukes and mushrooms with 1 cup ice water to which you have added salt, gently stirring to dissolve. Let sit for 15 minutes, drain well, pat dry and gently toss with vinaigrette. Serve at once, sprinkled with celery seed. Serves 4-6.
Garlic Dill Pickles
Young cukes, 3-4 inches long, make the crispest pickles. Use whole spices, not ground ones, and sea salt, not table salt, to keep pickling brine from getting cloudy. These are zesty, with a pleasing bite of garlic.
25-30 small cucumbers
3 cups apple cider vinegar
8 dill seedheads plus sprigs of dill foliage
8 whole cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup sea salt (NOT table salt)
Cover cucumbers with cold water and soak for 2-3 hours. Drain and pack into (about) 8 sterilized pint canning jars, adding dill and garlic to each jar. Bring vinegar, sea salt and 6 cups water to a boil and pour over cucumbers, leaving an inch of headroom, and seal in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes about 8 pints.