Mid- July: On Cucumbers

When I’m not on the road with my storytelling work, I’m deep into mid-summer harvest mode.  I’m also trying to figure out ways to keep the resident baby bunny from eating all the beans, and I’m experimenting with developing a range of recipes for the crops that are coming in almost faster than I can harvest them.

This week I’ve pulled 100 hefty heads of garlic, chamomile, herbs, poppy seeds, and mustard seeds for storage (poppy seeds are much easier to harvest than the chaff-filled mustard),and made jams and syrups–not to be believed are the lavender rosemary syrup and the mint syrup– and pestos, cassis and cherries eau-de-vie.  I need to start making salsas with the abundance of tomatillos and mint jelly with the ever-healthy monster mint.

white currant jelly

We’re eating almost exclusively from the garden (adding olive oil and lemon and cheese of course): Lebanese squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, greens, potatoes, salad-y things, favas and a few (very few) beans.  Eggplants will be ready this week, and the birdhouse gourds are getting so big that I wonder if I should pick them before they they’re done growing!  The Corsican gourds are gorgeous pale green discs that must be getting close to harvest… No wonder I have found it difficult to find time to write!

But it’s my turn to contribute a piece for PATCHwork, the foods column in the Addison Independent, so I’m glad I wrote a draft a couple of months ago.  Here’s the revised version of “On Cucumbers”:

a baby English cucumber

I planted my first seed when I was three.  At least that’s how the family story goes.  While “helping” my mother in the garden shortly before we left for the summer, I was given a packet of cucumber seeds to hold, and managed to sprinkle them, without anyone realizing, among my father’s tea roses.  We returned in August to a scene from Little Shop of Horrors: vines everywhere, crawling over the helpful, thorny roses, along the railing of the back stoop, up the fence and to the tops of the towering arborvitae.  My father hated cucumbers.

The image of vines strung across my father’s roses, cucumbers hanging like odd laundry between showy blossoms, kept me from growing them until recently—the fear they would take over the garden and choke their neighbors in the night.  It’s no wonder they taste so good with mint, both being such opportunists.

Another memory contributed to my reluctance to plant them, this one from another impressionable time–the first month of married life–after we had settled on the other side of Vermont in a drafty old barn at the edge of a lovely village (it sounded more romantic than it turned out to be after a string of minus-25-degree days froze even the toilet water). While my husband spent that late summer studying, I fiercely set to the task of splitting and stacking the five cords of wood piled in front of the barn–to the amusement of the town, especially our neighbor, a retired electrician who tried to bring us some deep-country common sense.

As I whacked away at wood, he worked in his garden next to our barn.  Every afternoon he’d stop on his way home with a large, shallow basket filled with gorgeous vegetables and tips on country life.  I’d quit my splitting to receive his gifts bashfully—I had nothing to give him in return.  He’d wink as he handed me a few tomatoes, a cabbage, a clutch of carrots and all the cucumbers, heaps of them each day.  When I finally protested, he shrugged and said he didn’t like cucumbers. I asked, then why did he grow them.

“It sure beats splitting wood,” he smiled and went on his way.

perry's pickles
pickle stand at the farmers’ market

Embarrassed and with armfuls of green torpedoes (and little experience with them as my father’s aversion had kept them from my childhood kitchen), I did the only logical thing: pickled them so I could return a gift.  It turns out I was better at splitting wood.  Much better.  Batch upon batch failed.  By the end of cucumber season, I was covered with sour, mustard-y brine and had nothing to show for it, nothing to give.  Indeed, I’ve never made a decent pickle and have come to let my talented friends and farmers’ market vendors stock my shelves with tiny, scrumptious cornichons, sweet chips, and sour dill spears.

But I’ve gotten over my fear of growing them.  I plant the climbers every year in a sunny, humus-y spot, protect the young plants from striped cucumber beetles by keeping them under floating row covers until they blossom, and think of that little girl and that old gardener as the vines make their way up their own trellises and set their fruit as they’re doing just now.  I mulch them, give them a little seaweed fertilizer halfway through the season, check on them every day to make sure they have plenty of water and support and sun, but also that they do not trespass onto their neighbors, the tomatoes. In the kitchen I focus on simple, cooling recipes such as a yellow Spanish gazpacho, an Asian salad of paper-thin cucumber ribbons, and a delicious Greek tzatziki.

I’ve also started reading up on cucumbers. Because I never gave them a starring role in my culinary and horticulture explorations, I assumed they would take a minor place in history.  But that’s not so. History has a lot to say about the lowly vegetable—its taste, its growth habits and culinary importance from ancient India to Tiberian Rome, from Charlemagne’s France to Jacques Cartier’s Quebec. Every cookbook on my shelf includes cucumbers; natural remedy books list their soothing properties for skin and eyes, internet sites abound with tips (how to make them less bitter, grow them better, solve pickling problems).  It turns out that my father hated cucumbers not because they nearly destroyed his roses but due to an organic compound that makes them repugnant to some.  What a relief.

I’m happy the rabbits don’t seem to like them either.  Maybe this summer I’ll muster the courage to try Kate’s and Judy’s recipes and conquer my cucumber pickle confidence problem. But in the meantime, if I spend a long night dreaming of cukes turning into something out of a fifties horror film or of farmers filling my house with piles of them, I’ll calmly go out to the sleep-offending vine, chop off a few fruit, slice them into thin discs for salad and soup, save two out to apply to my puffy eyes as I take a snooze on the chaise lounge. Sweet revenge.

Open View Tzatziki


2 firm, medium cucumbers
kosher salt
scant half teaspoon coarse sea salt
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups thick plain Greek yogurt (I like to let it drain in cheesecloth for a few hours, but that’s optional)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon zest or minced preserved lemon peel
Scant half teaspoon freshly ground cumin seed or za’atar (optional)
Cayenne (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)

1.  Peel the cucumbers, cut in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Grate them into a colander over a sink or bowl, sprinkle with salt and let them rest for 30 minutes.  Rinse and pat them dry, or for really crisp cucumbers, Mark Bittman suggests squeezing them inside a towel, something I never seem to do. In fact, if I’m short on time, I skip this step altogether!

2.  While the cucumber drains, place the sea salt and garlic into a mortar and grind with the pestle. Grind in the cumin or za-atar if you’re using them.  Add one tablespoon olive oil and work into a smooth paste.  Stir in the rest of the olive oil and the vinegar.  Taste & adjust the seasonings to your liking.  If you like a hint of heat, add a sprinkle of cayenne.

3.  Toss the cucumbers with the above mixture, fold in the yogurt and the mint, dill and lemon zest.  Taste and add lemon juice if you like.   Serve with toasted pita triangles, crackers or raw vegetables.

(One of these days, I’ll remember to take photos as I cook, so I can share the process step by step visually.)


Categories: Column, Garden, kitchen, recipes

3 Comments on “Mid- July: On Cucumbers”

  1. pumpkin
    July 23, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    What a lovely cucumber story!

    Reinforces my own experience w/cucumbers…I make batch after batch of absolutely BEAUTIFUL pickles (with meticulous care, using time honored “can’t miss or screw it up” recipes) that are completely inedible. 😉

    – syrups – make a simple syrup and infuse w/herbs, strain and store in fridge?
    – bunnies – spraying bitter apple or pepper spray might help, but don’t know if beans would absorb the flavor…

  2. July 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    How wonderful! I love the cucumber tales, and, as it turns out, I’ve been meaning ot look for a good Tzatziki recipe. Erik made some kabobs the other day and I kept thinking they would be wonderful with tzatziki drizzled over the meat, veggies, and rice. Filing this away for next time.

  3. July 24, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    Thanks, pumpkin and Martha.

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with perpetual pickle-making problems.

    Yes, pumpkin–that’s pretty much how I make syrups. I do add lemon juice to some (i.e.mint). My next column for the newspaper will be about eating and drinking flowers & herbs, so I’ll write our actual recipes soon.

    I’ve wrapped the raised beds where the beans grow (or what’s left of them) with netting to see if that deters the young rabbit. It is terribly tame–looks up at me while I stand there, a foot away, begging it to eat the weeds…;-) Relocation might be the next step.

    Martha, let me know how you like the tzatziki–it’s terrific with lamb, with couscous, well, with almost anything!

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