Cucumbers drove my father to distraction. He was an accomplished kitchen gardener, proud of his tomatoes and beans, who made a ritual of the picking of his sweetcorn and created a fine and productive asparagus bed. But his cucumbers curled. This didn’t affect their taste. But to my father’s aesthetic standards, that vegetable comma signified failure.
It really wasn’t his fault. The condition is common enough to have its own name: crooking. It’s caused by any number of things, from pollination to poor growing conditions and pest interference. The situation was slightly improved when he began to plant these creeping vines not outside along the ground but in his greenhouse, in pots, to hang down heavily from stakes.
Curly or straight, their shape didn’t affect their flavour. Uniformly, his cucumbers were exceptionally cucumber-y, which was why, until recently, I loathed them.
What was the point of these watery vegetables - 95% water, in fact - that leaked all over the mixed salads of my childhood. That water does contain electrolytes, however, which is useful if you’re dehydrated, and cucumbers provide various nutrients.
Where they score, if you’re struggling to slither into your bathing attire, is they’re low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. Plus, having lain too long in the sun, you can smother yourself in crushed cucumber to soothe the skin and reduce the inflammation. A taxing night on the tiles? Slices of cucumber laid over the eyes decreases morning-after puffiness. For even more beauty applications, cucumber blended smooth in a processor and left on the skin for half an hour then rinsed off makes a natural toner that can help clear the pores. Apparently, equal quantities of cucumber juice and yogurt makes a face mask that helps dry skin.
So what of their qualities as a food?
They’ve a lovely crunch but an illusive flavour that some compare to the melon. This is not such a stretch when you learn that the cucumber, being part of the same Cucurbitaceae family as the melon, is a fruit. A pepo, in fact, a type of berry with a hard outer rind and no internal divisions, just like the melon. I prefer the melon. Left to ripen to yellow, cucumbers become unpleasantly bitter and are good for nothing, though there are some deluded people who consider them fit for soup in this state.
18th century English essayist Samuel Johnson had a good recipe for cucumbers: “Cucumber should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out”, although that’s exactly how my mother and her generation served them with poached salmon.
While cucumbers at their peak are a key component of gazpacho, left to feature on their own there’s not a lot to commend them. With, in my humble opinion, one exception: the cucumber sandwich.
Along with strawberries, in my family cucumber sandwiches signified Summer. My father would very thinly slice a malted granary loaf and spread it with soft butter. He’d peel a cucumber and slice that as finely as he could, layering it over the buttered bread. Sea salt was sprinkled over before it was covered with another buttered slice of bread. Then he’d cut off the crusts, divide the sandwich across in two and then into slender fingers.
Aside from grating a cucumber into Greek tzatziki with a generous tablespoon of finely chopped mint and minced garlic, those sandwiches were about the only way I could be bothered with cucumber.
Until recently, that is, when I discovered Smacked Cucumber Salad. It’s a Chinese dish, which is no surprise given that cucumbers originated in South East Asia. It’s best made with small courgette-length Middle Eastern cukes such as these
but a regular ‘English’ cucumber is fine. However, if you’re using one of those, slice it lengthways down the middle and scoop out the watery seeds with a teaspoon.
about 300g/10 oz of cucumber (1 large English, or 3 or 4 small Persian)
½-1 tablespoon salt
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon red chilli flakes or more to taste
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Slice the cucumber lengthways in half and lay the two halves cut side down on a board. Smack them hard along their length with a rolling pin or meat cleaver to provide more and rough surfaces to absorb the sauce. Slice the slightly crushed halves diagonally into 1cm/½ in pieces.
Put the slices in a sieve or colander, toss with salt, and set above a bowl to exude their water for 20-30 minutes.
In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Shake the cucumber to eliminate any remaining liquid then decant into a serving blow, pour over the sauce, mix thoroughly and serve at once.
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Julia, small world! I had just finished reading Bruno, Chief of Police, for my Ojai book group and left it on the pool chair, when Pam Melone and Connie and Bailey came over to cool off in the pool and noticed it! The rest is history and now I'm one of your subscribers! Can't wait to try your recipes and read your delicious blogs! All best, Carolyn Bennett
I have to try the sandwich now that I know to use butter, not mayo. No recipe for a cucumber soup? I tried one that ended up too garlicky.