CUCUMBERS are the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables in this country. They get no respect.
Throughout Europe, India, Asia and the Middle East, the cucumber is glorified in such dishes as tzatziki, kachumber, and namasu. Here in the United States, cucumbers are lucky if a few thick slices find their way into a salad or sandwich.
That's a shame because there are almost as many cucumber varieties as there are countries devoted to eating them: Israeli, Armenian, Persian, English, Filipino, Japanese. Farmer Tom Palley of Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables grows six types of cukes on his Mendocino county farm.
"One of our most popular varieties is the lemon cucumber," he says. "They're hard to find commercially, because they don't hold well -- only for a day or so, before they start to go yellow or shrivel. The whiter the skin, the fresher they are."
Palley loves lemon cukes for their mild, sweet flavor, crunchy texture, edible skin and seeds and pleasant scent. Their small, round shape also makes them ideal for toting along on a picnic or hike -- Palley likes to eat them like an apple.
Palley also grows Marketmore (subliminal message brought to you by your friendly seed company), a dark green standard cuke that holds up well in storage, but requires peeling because of its thick skin.
Diva is a new hybrid that Palley is trying out. "It's not as attractive as a standard cucumber, but it's got a smooth, edible skin, is seedless, sweet, and not prone to bitterness like some varieties, although bitterness is the result of a lack of water."
A tough sell for Palley are his Suyo cukes, because of their "ugliness."
"They tend to be crooked unless they're grown on a trellis, which, for a farmer, is just too much work for too little reward," says Palley. "The Suyo is bumpy, has ridges and tends to get quite large -- over one pound. They may feel overripe, because they're flexible, but they still taste crisp and sweet, with an edible skin."
Palley also grows Conquest, a pickling cuke that can also be eaten fresh, although the skin is a bit thick, and the Armenian cucumber, recognizable by its light green, deeply ridged flesh and curved shape. Armenian cukes can grow quite large, but are mild, with edible skin and seeds.
It's a favorite vegetable at Chez Panisse. "Armenian cucumbers are much sweeter when they're young," says Amy Dencler, one of the restaurant's chefs. "I like to use them in fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and chunks of toasted pita bread. Just toss with some extra virgin olive oil, dried sumac (an herb available at specialty food stores), lemon juice, and throw in some bitter greens like arugula, or a succulent green such as purslane."
Phillip Dedlow, a fellow Chez Panisse cook, likes to "do a variation on the classic cucumber, dill, and sour cream salad, substituting chervil and creme fraiche for a lighter, cleaner taste."
For such a salad, it's necessary to salt thinly sliced cucumbers to draw out excess moisture. Place the salted cukes in a colander, and weight them down with a plate to force the water out. Put the colander in a bowl, and refrigerate for two hours. Rinse the cucumbers, drain them, gently squeeze out any excess water, and you end up with crunchy cukes that require only a quick toss with a little lemon juice, creme fraiche, chopped chervil and salt to taste.
Nina Hettema, Palley's girlfriend, grew up in Hawaii, where she ate a lot of namasu, a Japanese cucumber salad. "Namasu is great for barbecues," says Hettema, a caterer.
"It's so refreshing, and really complements grilled meat. Just peel a few cukes, halve them lengthwise, and seed if necessary, then thinly slice on the diagonal. Toss the slices with one tablespoon of kosher salt, let stand in a colander 20 minutes, then rinse, drain, and squeeze out the excess water. In a small saucepan, combine equal amounts of rice wine vinegar and sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon of freshly grated ginger, and heat until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the cukes and chill."
I love cucumbers in a variation on Greek salad. I like to combine chunks of cucumber, sometimes seeded, with halved cherry tomatoes, chopped herbs, thin slices of torpedo onion, and crumbled feta with a splash of Champagne vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Served with some crusty bread and a glass of white wine, it makes for a light, healthy meal you can throw together in a few minutes. Just remember that the quality of the ingredients is paramount, so don't be tempted to use out of season produce.
Cucumbers from Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables are available at the Berkeley farmers' market. The following farms also sell cucumbers: Riverdog Farm at the Berkeley and St. Helena farmers' markets; Firme Farms at the Berkeley farmers' market; and Full Belly Farm at the Berkeley and Palo Alto farmers' markets.
Raita is a Southern Indian dish generally used as a soothing accompaniment to spicy foods, but it also tastes wonderful on its own as a dip for toasted pita bread or fresh veggies. You can also enhance your raita with crushed fennel seeds, finely minced red or green chilies, tomatoes, or scallions, or garnish with garam masala, paprika, cayenne or turmeric. Recipe from "Fire & Spice," by Jacki Passmore (Macmillan, $25.00).
1 to 2 small cucumbers, unpeeled
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups plain yogurt
Chopped fresh mint, for garnish
Grate the cucumbers over a bowl, squeeze out excess liquid, and discard liquid. Combine cucumber with the remaining ingredients and beat until well blended.
Spoon into small serving dishes and decorate with chopped mint. Serve at room temperature, or lightly chilled. Serves 4 to 8.
Per Serving: 64 Calories; 3g Fat; 3g Protein; 7g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 10mg Cholesterol; 38mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
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