Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Andrea Chesman: Picking the Best Varieties of Cucumber

When it comes to cukes, think small seeds and tender skin.

Andrea Chesman’s garden in winter
It’s time to start dreaming about this summer’s garden. Those seed catalogs that came in the mail in December aren’t getting any younger and neither are you. I write this as 3 inches of snow falls today, in preparation of another 3 tomorrow, and following 3 inches yesterday. Yet, spring will come (I think) and the time to start plants will be upon us before we know it.

I’m not one to keep notes from one year to the next about the garden, nor do I race to plant the newest varieties featured in the seed catalogs. But I call myself a cook who gardens, and as a cook and an enthusiastic pickler, I am done with the traditional cucumbers — the slicing, or salad varieties — that everyone grows. There are many different cultivars, but they are all Marketmores to me — and they all have relatively tough, bitter skins and a tendency to be too seedy to make good pickles. They yield abundantly, so if you grow slicing cucumbers, you will have too many and you will make pickles. And the pickles won’t be as great as they should be.

Note the size difference between the pickling cucumber and the Mid-Eastern type
The solution, you may think, is to grow pickling cucumbers. Don’t grow pickling cucumbers. They get fat. They get fat and seedy, sometime in the blink of a rainy afternoon. And they hide underneath leaves, getting fatter and fatter. Don’t get me started on those white and yellow pickling cucumbers, either, with their tendency to become bitter in adverse weather.

For the last couple of years, I have been growing Beit Alpha and Asian cucumbers — great for both slicing and pickling. These are long, either curved or straight, with generally tender skin.  The flavor of the flesh is sweet and slightly aromatic (unlike the neutral wetness of a slicing cucumber). Yes, they require trellising, but the great thing about these cucumbers is that they forgive you if you neglect your garden for a bit, as they don’t go from almost-ready-to-be-harvested to oversized in a day.

The Beit Alpha types, also called Mid-Eastern types, are especially adapted to hot, dry climates, but I have had good luck with them in rainy, cool Vermont. Lebanese cucumbers are nearly seedless, smooth-skinned, and mild, yet with a distinct flavor and aroma.
Sliced Middle Eastern type cucumbers
Asian cucumbers (Fed Co Seeds call them “long-fruited cucumbers”), such as Tasty Jade, are spiny, slender, and long — sometimes measuring as much as a foot in length. Leave them on the vine and they just get longer, though after a point, they do become tough. These cukes are mild, deep green, and have a bumpy, ridged skin.
Who needs big seeds?
The best cucumbers are ones that you can eat in the garden — all flavor and thirst-quenching wetness. Bring the rest into the kitchen, slice and quickly brine in a little salted rice vinegar with red onions or garlic. Just the thought of it makes me long for summer right now.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Andrea Chesman is the author of many cookbooks, including The Pickled PantryRecipes from the Root CellarServing Up the HarvestMom’s Best Crowd-Pleasers, and The Vegetarian Grill, which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award and won a National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. She is a coauthor of 250 Treasured Country Desserts and The Classic Zucchini Cookbook, and her articles have appeared in the New York TimesCooking LightFood & WineVegetarian TimesOrganic GardeningFine Cooking, and other publications. Her next book, The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How, is forthcoming from Storey in 2015. Visit Andrea’s website.

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