Cucumbers just might be the most refreshing vegetable ever. I feel like I'm at a spa when I add a cucumber slice or two to chilled sparkling water. Slice into a cucumber and the whole kitchen smells fresh. Paired with fresh mint or lime, cucumbers simply transform a hot day.
Little wonder so many warm countries offer crisp sticks for snacks or lightly pickle thin slices to add crunch to sandwiches and stir-fries. Our annual family picnic, held in the heat of summer, always features my gram's simple salad of salted cucumbers, sour cream and garlic — a great cooling foil to spicy sausage hot off the grill.
We've grown cucurbits since childhood. I have learned not to plant too much lest we find ourselves burdened with huge, bitter specimens. For summer snacking, I'm partial to pickling or Kirby cucumbers — I love the snap when eaten out-of-hand. They grow easily and can be found at most farmers markets. Persian and Mediterranean cucumbers have ultrathin skin, which means no peeling. Armenian cucumbers, found at some farmers markets (and easy to grow), taste sweet and make great salads — I especially like them chopped and stirred into grain salads.
For most cooking, the seedless (also known as English) or burpless varieties work well because they tend to be sweetly flavored and contain few seeds. Seed companies say burpless cucumbers contain less cucurbitacins, the group of chemicals that can cause bitterness and stomach upset.
Since homegrown cucumbers are not coated in wax like those sold at the supermarket, they can turn mushy after a couple of days in the refrigerator. For best results, keep cucumbers dry and wrapped in breathable plastic rather than sealed bags.
This summer we're turning cucumber bounty into chilled soup to enjoy after a Saturday morning trip to the farmers market. Fresh cucumbers, sweet yellow pepper, crunchy celery blended with a little bread and olive: This is a pale green gazpacho; garnish with tomatoes. A powerful blender, like those for smoothies, yields the finest textured soup. Lacking that, simply run a regular blender for a few minutes to make the soup super-smooth. If working ahead, you'll want to blend in the herbs at the last minute to keep the soup bright green and herbaceous.
I learned to make bread and butter pickles from my grandmother's bumper crop. Now I want that sweet and crunchy condiment less sweet and more complex. So I'm mixing up paper-thin slices of cucumber, fresh fennel and fresh ginger. Then I'll store these simple pickles in the refrigerator rather than heat up the kitchen with a water bath canner.
Cucumber, basil gazpacho
Prep: 20 minutes
Chill: 30 minutes
Makes: about 5 cups
3 medium seedless or burpless cucumbers, total 1 1/2 pounds
2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic peeled, halved
2 slices white bread, torn into pieces
¼ to 1/2 small fresh hot chili pepper, stemmed, seeded, optional
½ cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup fresh basil leaves