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.
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 ’50s 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.
2 firm, medium cucumbers
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)
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 and 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.
By JUDY STEVENS
Pickling cucumbers, sometimes called Kirby cucumbers, are a specific type of small cucumber that can be used for making pickles or for fresh eating. They are 3 to 6 inches long with a thin, bumpy, and pale to dark green colored skin. Their crisp texture and small seed cavity make them ideal for pickling. When making pickles, use only fresh picked cucumbers that are well scrubbed and free of their black spines and yellow blossoms.
Pickling cucumbers don't have to be used for pickling. They can also be served sliced in cucumber salads or for a fresh snack any time.
I learned to make pickles using this excellent dill pickle recipe from my mother in-law:
Jane’s Dill Pickles
Dill heads in green seed stage
Cucumbers, 3–4 inches long is best
2 quarts cider vinegar
1 quart water
1/2 cup pickling salt
For each quart of pickles, place in jar 1 garlic clove, 6 peppercorns, 1 clove and 1 dill head. Scrub cucumbers and place in jars, packing as tightly as possible. Do not pack jars above neck as pickles above brine are likely to become soft. Boil together the vinegar, water and pickling salt and pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers. Seal and process in hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Barbara Gridley’s Bread & Butter Pickle Recipe
First of all, this can be a 2- day recipe and you need big rocks! Also you can cut up the cucumbers in the morning and finish in the afternoon.
You need: 1 gallon cucumbers sliced, 1/2 c. kosher salt, 8 small white onions.
Slice cucumbers and onions medium thin, mix in salt, cover with ice cubes and weight down with rocks on a plate and let stand 3 hours or more.
Make a syrup of: 5 c. sugar, 5 c. vinegar, 1 1/2 tsp. turmeric, 1 teaspoons celery seed, and 2 tablespoons mustard seed. Pour syrup over cucumbers and onions and place over slow heat, stirring occasionally. Heat to scalding but do not boil. Seal in sterilized jars.
Boil in a water bath (water 1 inch above lids) for 10 minutes if planning to store outside of refrigerator.