Not just for salads
Crisp cucumbers are, like humans, made up predominately of water. With an easy appeal as a salad ingredient, they’re also surprisingly delicious when cooked and one of the great things to pickle. They have a hint of bitterness that saves them from being boring and they need nothing more than a sprinkle of salt to be at their best. Cucumbers are also an excellent companion ingredient, providing textural and taste contrast, and temper extreme flavours, be they salty, sweet or hot. You can think of cucumbers as a gateway drug spurring you to greater hunger: a burning Thai curry is surmountable with the crunch of fresh cucumber, and no array of cured meats is too much with a pile of cornichons by its side.
Originally from India cucumbers have travelled the world and, being fast and easy to grow, they are now endemic to most countries. Botanically a berry, cucumbers, along with gourds and melons, are from the cucurbitacea family, with the fruit usually growing from a vine-like plant. In Australia their peak season is from November to March; however, they are commonly found all year round. The flowers of the cucumber plant are a beautiful bright yellow waxy-looking bloom, and have a crispness and a sweet aloe-like flavour.
Roses, borage, gin and finger sandwiches
I am forever fascinated by the connections between familial edibles and the way smells and flavours intertwine, and nothing better illustrates this than a stroll through an English rose garden.
The rose connection begins with watermelon, a relation, which is really just like a red, sweeter version of a cucumber. When next you eat a piece of watermelon, take the time to eat further towards the rind, the white bit, and you will taste the cucumber-like flavours. The sweetness of watermelon leads us towards the related musky melons, including the rock or champagne varieties, and it’s here you find hints of rose. And rose and cucumber? An excellent flavour combination, one that plays out in Hendrick’s gin, which is perfect served with a stick of cucumber.
Moving through the garden we now stumble across a flowering borage plant, incidentally excellent with lemonade and therefore Pimm’s with its traditional cucumber garnish. We should note that borage and cucumber are good companion plants; borage attracts bees, essential for cucumber pollination, and it’s said that the stalks of the plant taste and smell faintly cucumber like. A hint of cucumber scent can also be detected on the skin of a freshly caught salmon, an oily fish which also partners wonderfully with cucumber.
Upon discovering this interweaving of smells I feel more justified in my uneasiness about borage flowers as I’ve always detected a faint fishy aroma from them. If you, like me, have your senses assailed, then the most fitting way of dealing with it all is to make your cucumber sandwiches with lashings of anchovy butter and eat them in a rose garden while sipping gin.
Cool as a cucumber
With water content of between 90 and 95 per cent, it’s clear why the cucumber is considered a cooling vegetable, both for eating and when used topically. A common antidote for sore and puffy eyes, cold cucumber slices were used by my mum to relieve burning childhood sunburned flesh. A cucumber slice can also cure bad breath and, it’s said, some eaten before bed can help with a hangover.
Raw cucumber is famously partnered with Peking duck in Chinese cuisine, its coolness a balance for the fatty meat, and is also served quickly cooked in a wok for a gently flavoured dish. My favourite cucumber recipe from China, though, is the very common smashed cucumber side dish made with sesame oil and a silly amount of garlic. Another popular cucumber-with-lots-of-garlic combo is the one partnered with yoghurt and sometimes mint, which appears in many incarnations: India’s raita, in Greece it’s tzatziki, if you head to Turkey it’s cacik and tarator in Eastern Europe.
Dill pickles and cornichons
In Australia the most common types of cucumbers to be found are the telegraph and Lebanese, but if you go hunting you may have a chance of finding an apple cucumber; rounded and paler in colour with thick bitter skin that needs peeling away. Older picked cucumbers tend to have thicker skin and bitterness – a problem that can be eased by deseeding or salting. This bitterness comes from a compound in the cucumber called cucurbitacin, particularly found in the seeds, which can increase stomach discomfort and lead to burping, gas and indigestion. As a result we now have breeds of cucumbers referred to as burpless, which are also called slicing cucumbers and are usually thin-skinned and sweeter.
Another type are pickling cucumbers, such as gherkins or cornichons, ideally picked younger, smaller and with less seeds. There’s the classic dill pickle, so named for the dill seeds used in the pickling brine. The liquor for this is salt and water in which the cucumber is soaked until lactofermentation occurs, giving them their distinct sour flavour while retaining their crunch; cornichons are usually much smaller and are pickled using vinegar. Different methods but both result in an excellent hunger-inducing creation.
Cook Tama's cucumber recipes
The thought of hot cucumber is probably unappealing to some people but this quick and easy side dish will convert naysayers. In this warm spicy number, the cucumber is still crunchy and refreshing.
This is a refreshing and bright salad full of texture. The salty haloumi is perfectly foiled by the sweet charry watermelon and the cucumber adds an excellent crunch.
This is a very refreshing side dish with delightful vinegar sharpness and a gentle mustard kick. It would make a perfect accompaniment to any chargrilled protein.
This is a deceptively simple dish yet is elegant and has many layers of flavour. The oily sardines match perfectly with the vinegary flavours and crunch of the cucumber.
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.
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