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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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Ah, cucumbers. This phallic fruit is plentiful right now and gardeners all over the midwest are trying to pawn them off on unsuspecting friends who will chop one or two up in salads and let most of them just go soft in the crisper before throwing them away.

They're not like zucchini which have a multitude of preparation methods. You could make cucumber bread, but I don't know who would eat it. You could freeze it to throw into soups later, but you probably wouldn't eat that, either. So what's an overburdened gardener to do with cucumbers? I whipped open my books and my browser and set out to find a solution to the prickly green abundance sitting on my counter.

There are a variety of types of cucumbers you can purchase in most stores. Slicing cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, and gherkins are the most popular. They're pretty much the same cucumber, just harvested at different times. Gherkins are very tiny and are often pickled, pickling cucumbers are about half the size or less than slicing cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers aren't well suited to traditional pickling methods (like the one Anne Holub described last week for One Good Meal), but they are great for eating in salads and sandwiches.

The skin of the cucumbers is incredibly high in fiber as well as magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A and C. The high water content of cucumbers make them perfect for rehydrating skin. So if you've got those puffy sore eyes, placing cucumbers on your closed lids really will help you out. Or if you've burnt a finger, placing a cucumber slice on it will help keep it cool and possibly reduce scarring.

Cucumbers are said to have originated over 10,000 years ago in southeast Asia. They were taken to India before they spread to Africa, Rome, Greece and Spain. Not only did several Roman emperors consider them a delicacy, Louis the XIV of France also liked them so much he required his gardener to grow them in the royal greenhouse so he could enjoy them year round.

Cucumbers aren't fond of heat so it's best to choose ones that have been refrigerated whenever possible. Make sure they're firm, rounded at the ends and their color should either be a bright medium or dark green. If they appear yellow, or puffy, or are wrinkled at the tips pass them over for other produce. The thinner the cucumber, the fewer their seeds. The thinner the cucumber the more likely they were to be grown in a greenhouse and not in a field.

Once you get them home, store them in the refrigerator where they'll keep for several days to a week. If you use only half of a cucumber, either wrap the remaining half tightly in plastic wrap or put it into a sealed bowl and use it within one or two days. Since most cucumbers have a very thick wax coating, you'll want to remove that before eating the skin. Wash it in very hot water and consider using a softish scrubby to remove the wax, being careful not to remove the skin as well. Or peel the skins off to prevent the consumption of wax and any chemicals and pesticides. If you're allergic to milk casein, you may want to purchase organic cucumbers or always peel them, since the protein linked to many milk allergies is used in many vegetable waxes.

Now that you've picked out pretty specimens and you have them cleaned and ready to eat, what are you going to do with them? May I suggest: Grandma Webb's Cucumber Salad, Cucumber and Pepper Relish, Cucumber Sauce and Cucumber Soup.

Grandma Webb's Cucumber Salad
My friend spent a good portion of the summer trying to get her sister to eat more vegetables. This meat and potatoes girl resisted until she remembered how much they loved their grandmother's cucumber salad. So my friend improved on it just a little and smirked as her sister asked for seconds.

3 large cucumbers
1/2 teaspoon of celery salt
3 tablespoons of white sugar
1/4 cup of cider vinegar
1/4 cup of finely chopped raw red onion
1/4 cup of low-fat sour cream

Peel the cucumbers and slice them as thinly as you're able to. Sprinkle them with the celery salt and let this sit on the counter for about a half hour before squeezing the cucumbers to get as much of the water out as possible. (This step is optional, but if you're going to store this for a few days and skip this step, you'll notice that your salad gets very watery.) In a separate bowl combine the sugar, cider vinegar, red onion, and sour cream. Toss the cucumbers in this, stir well to combine, and refrigerate for one hour or up to three or four days. Serve as a salad, place on slices of toasted pumpernickel rye bread as sandwiches, or serve on top of hamburgers.

Cucumber and Pepper Relish
1 cucumber chopped into small cubes
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley
1/2 of a small yellow onion chopped finely
1/2 of a yellow bell pepper chopped finely
1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Large pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons of olive oil

Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and let sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Pour over grilled chicken breasts, burgers, or combine with 1/4-cup of mayonnaise and a can of tuna or three chopped hard-boiled eggs to create sandwich filling.

Cucumber Sauce This goes great with falafel, or as a dip for vegetables.

1 6 ounce container of plain yogurt (greek yogurt is my favorite)
1/2 cucumber which has been peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon of dried dill, or 1 tablespoon of fresh dill
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise

Combine all of the ingredients together in a bowl, adding salt and pepper to taste. Let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour before serving. This recipe is easy to double or triple and is better (and cheaper) than buying dip for veggies at a party.

Cucumber Soup This was one of the few ways that my mother could get us to eat soup during the summer. On those days when it was so hot she couldn't bear to warm up the kitchen, this made a kid-friendly dinner. We loved it because cold soups were enough of a novelty that we ate it without complaining. The fact that it contains a billion calories and grams of fat certainly didn't hurt either.

1 cucumber that has been peeled, seeded, and shredded
2 tablespoons of grated onion
2 cans of condensed cream of celery soup
1 cup of buttermilk
1 cup of milk
2 cups of cottage cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Grate the cucumber and onion into a blender and add the soup, buttermilk, and milk. Pulse several times until everything is smooth before adding half of the cottage cheese and pulsing again. (You may have to pour some of the mixture out into a bowl to have enough room for the cottage cheese.) Add the other half of the cottage cheese and pulse again until everything is smooth. Combine everything into one bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate until serving. My mother would slice cucumbers thinly and let us dip these in our soup like crackers.

Next week I'll let you know how many jars of tomato sauce you can get out of one bushel of tomatoes. If you send me the correct guess, I just may give you one.

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