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Succumb to the Cucumber

I have just been informed that not everyone loves cucumbers as much as I do, and I’m appalled. How could anyone not enjoy that fresh and crunchy green goodness? And pickles–don’t even get me started. Maybe a quick history lesson and lots of beautiful cucumber pics will help catch everyone else up to my level of cucumber fandom.

A Brief History of Cuke

Cucumbers originated in ancient India in the wild. They grew then as they do now as a creeping vine that bears cucumiform fruits (see! Cucumbers are so popular that a term was created to describe all manner of cucumber-shaped objects). Since the beginning of its cultivation over 3000 years ago, the cucumber has been brought to nearly every continent and is one of the most farmed vegetables in the world. However, it took another millennium or so for the veg to leave central Asia and enter into Middle Eastern and eventually European cuisines. Apparently, a certain Emperor Tiberius of Rome ate cucumber every day. He did have a short reign, but I’m confident that it had nothing to do with his cucumbery diet.

Cucumber Family and Friends

As you may have deduced by their frustratingly similar cucumiform shape, zucchinis are actually in the same family as cucumbers, or rather, both of these veggies are technically gourds. And all of these gourds (aka cucurbits, from the Cucurbitaceae family) such as pumpkins, watermelons, and cucumbers are actually a special kind of berry called a pepo. Not to get too deep into things I don’t understand, I will leave it that pepos are distinguished by numerous seeds and tough rinds. So, next time you are eating a cantaloupe, a squash, or a cucumber, or even using a luffa in the bath…or doing it all at the same time, know that each of these originated from the same family of plant!

 

Unen(cu)cumbered Growth

Like I mentioned before, cucumbers grow on creeping vines. Thus, their cultivation requires trellising of some sort (just like tomatoes) in order to avoid a leafy and cucumbery carpet. Also, fun fact: the cucumbers that we are used to consuming today are in fact immature. If allowed to continue their growth to adulthood, the plant changes from green, scrumptious and refreshing to yellow, bitter and sour, more like their squashy cousins. Here in Central Texas, cucumbers start in the Greenhouse around March or April and will give us their cucumbery goodness well through August.

Culinary Cukes

Presently, cucumbers are cultivated in dozens of varieties, but the three main categories are slicing, pickling, and burpless (aka seedless).


Slicing – The first of these are the sort of cucumbers you are most likely to find in the produce section of any given grocery store since, in the United States, they often find their way into salads, other leafy green concoctions, and, apparently, flavored water. I prefer these sort sliced thick with a dash of vinegar and sprinkle of salt probably because I’m used to the second type of cucumber.

Pickling – This variety of cucumbers is a bit of a misnomer actually since any type can be pickled. However, this variety has been specifically bred to be uniform in size and shape, much smaller than slicing pickles and often having a bumpier rind. I’ll admit that I do understand how one might not like a pickle. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. The intense flavor of the normal dill pickle is very specific, quite the opposite of their unpickled or differently pickled counterparts, so they likely elicit strong opinions. However, if store-bought pickles aren’t your thing, then might I suggest housemade pickles with this Quick Pickle recipe. A perfect balance of sweet and sour, housemade pickles have a much less intense flavor and can be made in as little time as a few hours!

Burpless – Coming in third, this cucumber refers to a variety with very few or no seeds. These tend to be more specialty finds and are often individually wrapped in grocery stores. The sweeter taste and thinner rind make them the most palatable of the three. Also, were you wondering about the “burpless” designation? Apparently, the menagerie of seeds in other cukes causes excessive gas. So, in this case, fewer seeds mean fewer burps.

Everybody knows about pickles and salad cucumbers, but those two common variations are nothing compared to the extents of cucumber used in global cuisines. Though it is rarely the main ingredient, its distinct flavor and texture make it a welcome addition to an array of sauces and side dishes like tzatziki, for example, the condiment of condiments in Mediterranean cooking.

I suggest you also check out a similar sauce that is distinctly Indian in origin, raita, and its variations like koshimbir and pachadi. Since Indians were the first to farm cucumbers, they have had plenty of time to explore the vast extents of its culinary potential. Try also cucumber pakoras and curries! Oh and don’t forget fattoush from the middle east!

If you started this post as a cucumber hater, then I assume you are on your way to the store now to get a cartful. If you began with a love for the vegetables, then I hope this bond intensified. Don’t forget that these are fairly simple to grow on your own, and a single plant can produce plenty of cucumbers for a family!

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