The Crisp, Sweet Asian Cucumber

August 10th, 2009


Asian cucumbers Cucumbers are a close cousin to zucchinis; both these summer staples start out as golden yellow blossoms born on vigorous vines. But the zucchini has a habit of growing up to become that overbearing guest who stays too long and begins to bore you. The cucumber, on the other hand, ripens into a versatile vegetable that never wears out its welcome.

Here in the US, most of the cucumbers we cultivate wind up as pickles, but it’s high time we started to think outside the jar. In England, cucumbers get top billing in an elegant tea-time sandwich, and the Victorians enjoyed them in ice cream, too. Cucumbers are a favorite ingredient in Greek, Indian, Japanese and Eastern European salads and soups.

And they’re easier and faster to prepare than ever, thanks to the growing availability of low-or-no-seed cucumbers with crisp, sweet flesh and skin that’s so thin you don’t need to peel it. Many cucumber recipes not only tell you to peel and seed, but to salt and drain your cukes, which helps to reduce the watery, occasionally bitter quality of standard store-bought cucumbers.

But you can skip all these steps when you choose these new carefree cukes. The cucumbers at the supermarket have a thick, waxy coat that prolongs their shelf life, but it doesn’t do you any favors; it renders the high-fiber, nutrient-rich skin inedible.

When you buy your cukes fresh-off-the-vine at the farmers’ market , it’s a win-win: you’ll save time by not having to peel them, and you’ll get a great dose of silica from their skin. Silica is the mineral that helps build your connective tissues: muscles; bones; tendons; ligaments; skin. That’s why eating cucumbers–or drinking cucumber juice–does wonders for your complexion.

I’m addicted to the Asian cucumbers grown by one of my favorite local farmers, Nevio No of Yuno’s Farm, whose gorgeous produce has a loyal following that includes sustainable superstar chefs Dan Barber and Peter Hoffman. The seeds for these choice varieties are expensive, so the cukes command top dollar, but they’re well worth it. And they’re easy to grow in your own garden, too.

More and more farmers are growing these specialty cukes to meet the rising demand; in addition to the Asian varieties, there are other new hybrids with similar attributes that have origins in the Middle East or Europe. Whatever variety of cucumber you choose, look for cukes that are young, on the small side, freshly picked, and free of wax–they’ll have the best flavor and texture and the fewest seeds (if any).

There are so many superbly simple ways to enjoy cucumbers. Here are just a few of the best I’ve found online: Sweet Orient Express Cucumber Salad; Creamy Yogurt-Dill Cucumber Salad; Chilled Cucumber Soup; and Cool Cucumber Avocado Soup.

Pickles are perfectly fine, but the cosmopolitan cucumber deserves to be oh-so-much more than a mere sidekick to the sandwich. Find yourself a few of these fresh, fuss-free cukes, whip up a salad or soup, and join the post-pickle party.

Kerry Trueman is an edible landscaping advocate who writes about real food, low-impact living and sustainable agriculture for the Huffington Post, AlterNet, the Green Fork, Air America, and EatingLiberally.org. Her latest project is Retrovore.com, a website for farmers, gardeners and eaters who favor conservation over consumption.