Cucumbers: Sweet, Crunchy Slices of Summer
Cucumbers are often divided into two major types. "Slicing cucumbers" are the long, often dark green and smooth-skinned ones that you can find year round in the grocery store. "Pickling cucumbers" are shorter, and their skin is often bumpy or even spiny. Slicing cucumbers can be pickled, and pickling cucumbers can be sliced and eaten fresh. It's a matter of personal preference and availability. I prefer the sweet crispness of pickling cukes for all uses, when I can find them.
Both slicing and pickling cucumbers can be found in "bush" versions and well as traditional long-vining varieties. If you don't have space in your garden for hills of long cucumber vines (spaced 4 to 6 feet apart), you can grow bush cucumbers. Or, you can space cucumber vines just 6 inches apart and let them run up a trellis or other vertical support. Bush or trellised long-vined cucumbers will also grow well in containers. It's worth finding space for cucumbers in your garden. After all, the freshest and tastiest cukes are the ones you grow yourself!
Sliced paper-thin, cucumbers can be layered into sandwiches. The traditional condiment is cream cheese (I like to add a sprinkle of Penzey's "Sunny Paris" herb and shallot seasoning), but cucumbers are wonderful in any sandwich that needs a sweetly crispy crunch. Try fresh cucumbers instead of pickles on a hamburger. Once you have a bacon, cucumber, and tomato sandwich, you'll never go back to iceberg lettuce.
Whether you're making thick slices or thin, a mandoline can be your new best friend in the kitchen. Mine has a very sharp, straight blade that adjusts from a thickness of a little less than a sixteenth of an inch to just over a quarter inch. I can zip through a pile of cucumbers in record time, getting more uniform slices than I can manage with my knife. When I'm done, I just rinse it at the sink. You do have to exercise caution, however, when using a mandolin. Don't try to slice the cucumber down to its very end. You don't want that blade anywhere near your fingers.
Thicker slices of cucumbers make wonderful hors d'oeuvres. Add them to a tray of crudités with a sour cream- or yogurt-based dip. Use them like crackers to spread chèvre or other soft cheeses or as a base for canapés. If anybody has given up chips or crackers because of a low-carb diet, substituting fresh sliced cucumbers won't leave them feeling deprived in the least!
Get yourself a pile of cucumbers and slice away. It's time to think outside the salad bowl!
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Here's one of my favorite recipes for cucumber season: Refrigerator Pickles. The recipe was inspired by the delicious pickles made by my mother-in-law, Felicia C. Amidon. I discovered that using Linda Ziedrich's ice brining procedure from The Joy of Pickling (click for my Garden Bookworm review) resulted in crisper pickles. In fact, unlike ordinary refrigerator pickles, ice-brined refrigerator pickles retain some crunch even after six months of storage. I hope you'll give them a try!
Jill's Crunchy Refrigerator Pickles
12 cups sliced cucumbers
½ cup pickling salt
4 cups cider vinegar
You will need about 6 pounds of cucumbers and perhaps 1 pound each of sweet onions and peppers. Slice the cucumbers evenly into rounds, 3/16 to ¼ inch thick. Use prime, fresh cucumbers with tender skins. If the seeds have started to get large and hard, consider making relish instead. Slice the sweet onions and peppers into thin strips.
Put all of the vegetables into a large, nonreactive bowl, and toss them with the salt. Top with the ice from two ice cube trays. Let stand at room temperature three to four hours. As the ice melts, it will form a cold, salty brine to make the vegetables plump and crisp.
Drain the vegetables in a colander, discarding any remaining ice. Pack the vegetables into a one gallon glass jar (or into four quart mason jars). If you are using the hot pepper, put it into the bottom of the jar (chop it into four pieces if using quart jars).
Combine the vinegar, sugar, and pickling spice, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Use the larger amount of sugar if you like a sweeter pickle. Do not heat the brine mixture. Pour into the jar, covering the vegetables. Cap the jar with a nonreactive lid. Refrigerate.
Pickles will be ready to eat in two or three days. They will be a little less crisp after the first couple of months but should retain some crunch for at least six months.
Photographs and recipe by Jill M. Nicolaus.