Summer is an amazing time of year for locally grown produce in Philadelphia. Tomatoes are the divas of the farmers market: basket after basket of luminous heirlooms in every shape and shade are fawned over by a similar variety of fans, who pack the tomatoes’ delicate heft home for salads. Next to them, bouquet-sized bunches of basil crowd squeaky eggplants in every possible purple, and zucchini and summer squash have not yet worn out their welcome with eager overabundance.
But by the bushel, aloof — perhaps even cool — the cucumbers are the heroes of every summer salad.
Though they’re not the first superfood that one might think of, cucumbers are especially nutritious. They’re full of water and (as long as you leave the skins on) high in dietary fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and silica, which promotes joint health. There is also some research to show that the lignans contained in cucumbers may reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers, including breast, uterine, ovarian and prostate cancers.
What to look for
Look for cukes with even coloring and firm texture, especially at the ends. Small cucumbers are often better than especially large ones, as they tend to have a crisper, more solid texture. Larger, more mature cucumbers tend to have larger seeds and a more bitter flavor.
For the Grower
Abundant and inexpensive at farmers markets, cucumbers are also easy to grow at home, whether you’re a Germantowner with a backyard, or a Kensington container gardener. They are available in both bush and climbing varieties, and their lush leaves and yellow blossoms make a cheerful addition to any yard or garden. They can be picked at almost any size, but are at their best for culinary use before they get too large: they grow more bitter as their seeds mature. Though prolific under the right circumstances, like other curcurbits (including melons, squash and gourds), they are susceptible to damage from cucumber beetles. These bright yellow and black spotted or striped insects feed on every part of the plants, including roots, leaves and flowers, but they cause the worst of their damage by transmitting a type of bacterial wilt that can decimate a whole crop. Farmer Tim Mountz, of Happy Cat Organics, fights the good fight against cucumber beetles with a kind of agricultural vacuum cleaner. “We Ghostbust them,” he says. Home gardeners can minimize damage inflicted by these pests by checking plants for them in the morning, when they are likely at their slowest, and removing beetles (and their eggs) from the undersides of leaves and dropping them into soapy water.
This season, keep your eyes open for some of the heirloom varieties that Tim Mountz and his partner, Amy Bloom, are growing at Happy Cat Organics. Boothby’s Blonde cukes have smooth, white skins and pale green flesh. Happy Cat also has Crystal Apple cucumbers from New Zealand. They are round and pale, resembling a Crispin or Granny Smith apple when they are ready to be eaten. Another popular look-alike, available at Philadelphia markets, are round, yellow Lemon Cucumbers. True cuke fans can seek out heirloom seeds for the ruffle-edged Suyo Long cucumbers from China, or Brown Russian cucumbers, which yield fruit with dusty brown skin resembling a potato more than a pickle.
Perhaps the most unusual heirloom variety, and a recent arrival on the Philly local food scene. is the Mexican Sour Gherkin. At maturity, these cucumbers are about the size of grapes, and their light and dark green stripes make them resemble tiny watermelons. Mountz discovered them at a street festival in Kennett Square. “A Mexican family from Oaxaca had a stand set up, and they were selling fish tacos. I bit into one and this little thing came out — it scared me the first time I bit into it.” Mountz searched for the seeds and fell in love. The next year, he planted 1,000 of the climbing plants. He can’t even pick them all once the crop reaches full production. Look for them this year in green paper half-pints and, if you can manage to get them home without finishing the box, mix up a quick brine. Pickled, the tiny cukes make a perfect garnish for a Bluecoat gin martini (find the recipe here).
For the Cook
At a time of year when even the most gastronomically-inclined among us are loath to turn on the stove, cucumbers handily serve as the basis for refreshing meals. The fruit—which hails originally from India—is extremely adaptable. They provide juicy crunch alongside the sweetness of tomatoes, briny olives and feta in a Greek salad. Pureed with avocado and chilled, they yield a refreshing soup or green smoothie. They’re a natural sliced and served with hummus, or mixed into yogurt with herbs for a quick raita or tzatziki. Their juice, paired with melon and mint, makes a refreshing agua fresca (recipe at www.gridphilly.com). With little more effort than a splash of vinegar, a bit of salt and a pinch of sugar, cucumbers go from a whole ingredient to a crunchy, satisfying lunch.
Scott Schroeder, Chef of the South Philly Taproom and American Sardine Bar, developed the following recipe (a Grid exclusive!), which plays a simple Greek yogurt and lemon dressing off of the nubbly, satisfying crunch of cucumbers with red onion, cherry tomato, mint, and watercress. Add simply grilled trout—from the Poconos if you can find or catch it—and you have a seasonal, satisfying meal that comes together in moments.
Grilled Pocono Trout & Cucumber Salad from the kitchen of Chef Schroeder (Serves 2)
- 1 slicing cucumber, 9-10,” sliced thin
- 20 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
- 1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in cold water
- 2-3 handfuls watercress or purslane, washed and with tough stems removed
- 1/4 cup Greek-style yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 20 mint leaves, torn or julienned
- 2 whole trout, filleted
- juice of one lemon
- black pepper
- lemon wedges
Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to high heat.
Slice onion and soak in a small bowl of cold water to mellow the flavor. While the onion soaks, wash and slice cucumber, halve or quarter tomatoes, and tear watercress (or purslane) and mint into a large bowl.
Drain onion and add to the bowl with the other ingredients. Season the vegetables with salt and black pepper to your liking.
Add Greek yogurt and lemon juice to the vegetables, along with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Toss to combine.
When the grill is hot, season both the skin side and the flesh side of the trout with salt and pepper. In one motion, place the trout skin-side-down on the hot grill. Allow the trout to grill skin-side-down, without moving it, until the fish turns 95% opaque. Just before it cooks through, flip the trout onto the flesh side for just a few seconds.
Remove the trout to a plate, top with salad and drizzle the whole plate with extra virgin olive oil.
Serve with lemon wedges.
For the Pantry
cucumbers are a staple of summer gardens and farmers markets. They are best used within a day or two of purchase or picking, and hold better on your countertop than in the fridge.
To make a quick pickle, submerge sliced cucumbers in rice wine vinegar seasoned with garlic, green onions and mint. For longer-term preservation, Kirby cucumbers can be cut into spears and packed in jars with a brine of one part vinegar and one part water, with one tablespoon salt for each cup of vinegar. Add garlic and dill to taste.
If pickles aren’t your thing, try gazpacho or chilled cucumber soup. —Marisa McClellan
What to look for
Though almost any vegetable can be pickled, cukes are kings, whether you’re pressure-canning pickles for winter storage or just mixing a quick batch to enjoy in the next few days. These varieties have been bred for dense flesh, small seeds and thin skins, which stand up much better to a vinegar and salt bath than slicing cucumbers, which can become leathery or mushy.
Learn more about food preservation at McClellan’s blog foodinjars.com.
An alumna of Fair Food, Philabundance and Greener Partners, EMILY TEEL is a food freelancer profoundly dedicated to sustainable, delicious food in Philadelphia. See more of her work at emilyteel.com