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Cucumbers

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

As you will quickly recognize when you bite into one, cucumbers are not only crisp, but also cool and moist--attributes due to their exceptionally high water content. The cucumber belongs to the same vegetable family as pumpkin, zucchini (a close look-alike), watermelon, and other squashes. First cultivated in Asia in ancient times, it was brought to America by Columbus, and was eventually grown by both Native Americans and colonists from Florida to Canada. Today, "cukes," as they are popularly called, grow in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from the 1"-long ones sold as gherkins to mammoth greenhouse varieties that can reach 20" or longer.

Varieties

There are two basic types of cucumbers, those eaten fresh (called slicing varieties) and those cultivated for pickling. The slicing cucumbers most commonly seen in supermarkets are field-grown varieties that are usually 6" to 9" long and have glossy, dark green skin and tapering ends. After harvesting, the skin is often waxed for longer shelf life.

In recent years, slicing cucumbers grown in greenhouses have become widely available. Most of these varieties originated in Europe (they are sometimes called European or English cucumbers), and they tend to be thin, smooth skinned, and one to two feet in length. The majority are also seedless, or nearly so. For that reason, many people find greenhouse cucumbers easier to digest (hence another of its names, the "burpless" cucumber). They also tend to be milder in flavor--or blander, depending on your taste buds--than field-grown varieties. Greenhouse cukes are usually more expensive.

Other less common slicing varieties include Armenian (pale green skin, curled end, soft seeds), Sfran (compact cukes from the Persian Gulf), and Japanese (long and slender with warty bumps). Most distinctive is the lemon cucumber, which looks like a large lemon with pale greenish-yellow skin.

Pickling varieties are smaller and squatter, and have bumpy, light green skins. Most are processed into pickles, but one type--the kirby, which is used to make commercial dill pickles--is also sold fresh (and usually unwaxed). Cucumber-lovers appreciate fresh kirbies for their thin skin, crisp flesh, and tiny seeds. Occasionally, gherkins are available in local farmers' markets.

Availability

The familiar dark green slicing varieties are produced in all states (the majority of the crop comes from Florida) and are available throughout the year. However, they are at their best (and least expensive) from May through July. In fall and winter months, the domestic harvest is supplemented by imports from Mexico. Greenhouse cucumbers are also available year-round, as are Armenian and Japanese cucumbers. Other specialty cucumbers tend to be seasonal.

Shopping

Cucumbers and coolness are natural partners--at least in the sense that the vegetable must be kept cool, or it will quickly wilt to soggy limpness. (Overchilling or freezing, however, will reduce the inside of a cucumber to slush.) At the supermarket, cucumbers should be kept refrigerated. At a farmers' market or roadside stand, they should always be displayed in the shade.

No matter what kind you buy, look for cucumbers that are very firm and rounded right to the ends; avoid any with withered, shriveled tips. Although the overall size varies with the type, slender cukes typically have fewer seeds than thick or puffy ones. Beware of cucumbers that bulge in the middle, since they are likely to be filled with large seeds and have watery, tasteless flesh. Waxed or not, their skin should be a rich green--not extremely pale and definitely not yellow. Watch out for bruises or dark spots.

Unwaxed greenhouse cucumbers are usually shrink-wrapped in plastic.

Storage

Store cucumbers in the refrigerator crisper. Uncut, waxed cucumbers will keep for about one week. Check unwaxed cukes every day or so and discard any that show signs of decay. Wrap cut cucumbers tightly in plastic wrap and use within a day or two of purchase.

Preparation

If a cucumber is unwaxed, you can leave the skin on, but rinse it well before eating it. All waxed cukes should be peeled; slice off the ends first, to make the job easier.

Even if the seeds are small, some people prefer to remove them before serving cucumbers. Simply halve the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with the tip of a teaspoon. Then slice, dice, julienne, or grate the flesh.

There are several ways to remove the bitterness cucumbers sometimes have. Try cutting off the ends and peeling the skin. If that does not work, sprinkle the peeled cucumbers with a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a few drops of vinegar, and let stand for 20 to 30 minutes.

The delicate flavor of cooked cucumbers nicely complements fish and poultry. Season the cukes after cooking with herbs--dill, mint, tarragon or basil, for instance--lemon juice, or a favorite dressing or sauce.

Braising: Peel the cucumbers and halve them lengthwise; scoop out the seeds. Cut into thick crosswise slices. Bring about 1/2" of broth to a boil in a skillet, add the cucumbers, cover and cook over low heat. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Sauteing: Peel, halve, and seed cucumbers, then slice them about 1/4" thick. Saute over medium-high heat in a few tablespoons of broth, stirring constantly; cook just until crisp-tender. Cooking time: two to three minutes.

Steaming: Peel, halve, and seed cucumbers. Thickly slice cucumber halves or leave them as they are. Place the cucumbers in a vegetable steamer and heat over boiling water. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Cucumbers/1 medium, peeled

24
Total fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
1.4
1
Carbohydrate (g)
5
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
4


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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