Cucumbers are the mild-mannered second cousin of the vegetable world, like someone we exchange a few words with at family reunions but never really get to know. They’re pleasant enough but not exactly riveting
Well, cucumbers are tired of blending into the crowd, taking a back seat to the other vegetables who get starring roles in things like Stuffed Peppers, Cauliflower Pizza or Zoodles Alfredo. Cucumis sativus wants you to know that it is more than a mere salad ingredient, a pretty garnish or a remedy for your puffy eyes.
Cucumbers were first cultivated in India 2,000 or 3,000 years B.C. and were likely introduced to Europe via the Romans (the Emperor Tiberius, who reigned from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37, is reputed to have been a cuke fan). France has enjoyed cucumbers since the ninth century but it wasn’t until the 14th century that cucumbers came to England, where the cucumber sandwich was no doubt invented posthaste. Poor North America didn’t see its first cukes until the mid-1500s. We couldn’t figure out what the heck to do with them so we made pickles. Now, however, we understand that cucumbers are best used to scare cats. (If you want to waste an afternoon, just type “cats and cucumbers” into your internet search bar.)
I feel compelled to mention that in “The Wide Window,” the third book in Lemony Snicket’s tridecology “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the young protagonists are forced to eat their Aunt Josephine’s cold cucumber soup, which they heartily dislike. Snicket does the cucumber a grave disservice by portraying it so negatively. Cucumbers are fragrant, flavorful and contain most of the daily allowance of vitamins recommended by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board. They’re 96 percent water and quite hydrating, plus the cuke’s phytochemicals will kill your bad-breath bacteria. Furthermore, slices of cucumber can reputedly clean a mirror, polish stainless steel and allegedly help remove crayon marks from walls. Maybe Aunt Josephine knew a thing or two, eh? Too bad she was eaten by leeches, who probably benefitted from all the cucumbers in her system.
It’s interesting to note that we prefer cucumbers before they’re entirely ripe in the botanical sense, before the seeds inside the cucumbers have completely developed. A fully mature cucumber is yellow and bitter, thick-skinned with large, hard seeds. Perhaps cucumbers are relegated to condiments and side dishes because we like them best in this raw, tender condition, when they smell so refreshing and taste so — for lack of a better word — green. Pop a slice of cucumber in your mouth and you may even be able to detect a note of melon, the cuke’s close relative. Cucumbers can be cooked, but, like melons, heating them up gives them a somewhat mushy, gelatinous consistency and diminishes rather than enhances their flavor. This recipe for cucumber gazpacho puts cucumbers front and center while keeping them in their vine-fresh state, if thoroughly pureed.
If you’re using thin-skinned, plastic-wrapped English cucumbers, you can peel them and remove their seeds or not, depending on your persnicketiness. A skinned and seeded cuke will produce a slightly smoother texture. I prefer to eat the skins and seeds on the assumption that it’s more nutritious, which is probably balderdash but I cling to my illusions. If you’ve got those cute little Persian cucumbers, their skin is paper-thin and their seeds are so tiny you won’t notice them in the soup, so you can use them whole. If, however, you’re using the hefty Pole cucumbers sold year-round in grocery stores, you’ll want to peel them because the thick skin is often waxed to make them more attractive. (Are unwaxed cukes really so offensive to our finely tuned standards of vegetal beauty? Why would we turn away in disgust from an unwaxed cucumber yet get extremely excited about, say, a monster truck rally? These are pressing questions that cut right to the heart of human experience.)
Dice enough white onion to fill 1/2 cup and cut up a whole green bell pepper. (I do advocate removing pepper seeds. They’re perfectly edible but bitter.) Slice a ripe medium Hass avocado in half, remove the pit and scoop out the meat. Put cucumbers, onion and avocado in a blender or food processor with 1 generously packed cup of baby spinach leaves, ¹/3 cup each fresh cilantro and fresh basil and ¼ cup fresh dill. Throw in a minced clove of garlic, 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, the juice of one whole lemon (about 3 tablespoons) and 1 teaspoon salt. Blend everything on high with 1 cup water for several minutes or until very smooth. Taste for saltiness and add more lemon juice, cilantro or dill as you like.
Chill the soup for one or two hours before serving for maximum refreshment. Serve it as a first course or make it a meal with crusty buttered bread or a grilled tomato sandwich. Garnish with a slice or two of cucumber and a sprig of dill, a dash of lemon pepper or a swirl of cream.
2 medium English or Pole cucumbers (or 16-ounce container Persian cucumbers)
1/3 cup diced white onion
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 minced clove garlic
1 avocado, peeled and pitted
1 packed cup of fresh baby spinach
1/3 cup each fresh cilantro and basil
1/4 cup fresh dill
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 fresh lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 cup water
Peel and seed cucumbers if using waxed Pole variety. If using English cucumbers, peel or seed depending on preference. Persian cucumbers can be used whole. Add all ingredients to blender or food processor and blend on high until very smooth. Taste and add salt or lemon juice depending on preference. Chill for one or two hours before serving. Garnish with herbs or cream.