Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cucumber Coterie

When I saw the season’s first cucumber forming beneath a thick mass of leaves and vines (which I haven’t succeeded in attaching to a trellis), I thought it would take a long time for that finger-sized object to get big enough to pick. In just a few days, however, the cucumber grew to blimp-like proportions. When I cut it in half, its seeds were almost the size of cantaloupe seeds, slick and fat. No matter—I enjoyed eating it anyway. I sheared off the thickening skin, scooped out the seeds, and sliced the flesh lengthwise. I inserted the slices in a roast beef sandwich and took a big bite. The cucumber flesh, still warm from the garden, was as tender and rich as butter, and had a creamy, rich sensation wholly unexpected in a vegetable.

Since that day, some two weeks ago, I’ve harvested perhaps fifteen more cucumbers. They are all lovely, but I’ve begun to wonder if I should learn how to pickle. Not that these are pickling cucumbers, exactly; they’re the burpless variety, which means they’re valued for their thin, chewable, not-so-bitter flesh and their supposedly smaller-than-average seeds (and for their supposed digestive properties, including the quality of producing less burping in the burp-susceptible eater), rather than for their keeping properties. Conventional wisdom holds that “slicing” varieties of cucumbers, unlike traditional pickle cucumber like Gherkins, are liable to lose their crispness in the pickling process. So the best thing to do is to enjoy them as much as possible, and to spread the wealth by giving away what remains.

The good thing is that cucumbers, with their mild flavor and soft flesh, are among the most versatile of fresh veggies. I’ve used them in salads and sandwiches, sliced in rounds, squares, and slivers. A few nights ago, I made a cucumber salsa with diced cucumber, some hot peppers (the Aurora variety, from my garden), garlic, cilantro, salt, and lemon juice. I’ve also had them on their own, either with a homemade vinaigrette dressing or as fresh pickles, softened with salt.

My mother used to make fresh pickles by slicing the cucumbers as thin as potato chips, salting them down, mixing them with pieces of lemon rind, and placing the mixture in a big bowl. She then covered the whole with a small plate weighed down by a pitcher full of ice. I used to enjoy the citrusy, salty, slightly crisp slices that emerged from this process, several hours later, but I haven’t had the patience to try making them myself.

This has been my first experience, as an independent gardener (that is, in managing my own garden rather than helping out with the family’s plot), of taking a bountiful cucumber crop. Last year’s cucumbers were rather disappointing: stunted by the lack of nutrients in the soil, the few fruits that appeared were small and thick-skinned. Two of them were ball-shaped—rather pretty and comical to look at, but also sad reminders of the general failure to produce. I wonder when the cucumbers will stop producing as much. My great hope is that the cucumbers will continue to yield for a good while after the tomatoes start turning red. A garden cucumber alone is magnificent, but a home-grown cucumber with a real, honest-to-goodness, juicy, fresh tomato is a slice of paradise.

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