Monday, 15 July 2024

The Veggie Girl: Cool as a cucumber

Veggie Girl Esther Oertel explores the refreshing cucumber in this week's column. Courtesy photo.


The term “cool as a cucumber” is more than a cliché. Cucumbers really are a cooling food, which is one reason why it’s especially nice to have them around in the midst of the summer heat.

They’re commonly featured in the cuisine of countries throughout the world with hot climates. Think of raita from India, a condiment made with cucumber and yogurt that offsets their spicy cuisine, or tzatziki, a salad served in the Greece, also made with cucumber and yogurt, but flavored differently.

Africans enjoy many dishes with cucumber, such as marinated salad from the Ivory Coast and a cucumber-tomato salad from Gabon. Africa, in fact, is home to what may be the most unusual cuke of all, the African horned cucumber with spiky yellow skin and melon-like green flesh.

Spain has gazpacho, a cold vegetable soup that includes cucumber, and Thai cuisine offers a variety of cucumber salads, including larb, a salad made with meat.

The cucumber is a beloved veggie in places where it gets hot, but its popularity doesn’t stop there. It’s also loved in parts of the world without such high temperatures.

Think of Denmark, where cucumber salad is made with dill, or England with its famous cucumber tea sandwiches. The Scots have a traditional recipe for whiskey-cured salmon with cucumber.

Not only do cucumbers have a cooling effect when consumed internally, they cool the skin externally, such as when they’re used to treat sunburn. There are two compounds in cucumbers – ascorbic acid and caffeic acid – that prevent water retention, thus making them useful for swollen eyes, dermatitis and burns.

Since cucumbers contain silica, an essential component for healthy connective tissue, cucumber juice is recommended to improve the complexion and health of the skin.

Mint is often paired with cucumber in cuisine. (Think of Thai spring rolls that feature both or the mint that flavors Greek tzatziki.) I love this pairing and often infuse water with these two elements for a refreshing no-calorie thirst quencher.

To a pitcher of water add a peeled, seeded cucumber cut into spears and a nice handful of mint that’s been slightly crushed (bruised). Place in the fridge to infuse for at least an hour, then enjoy!

Speaking of water, cucumbers are full of it, and the moisture gives it its characteristic cooling flavor.

Cucumbers have become a popular ingredient in cocktails, from margaritas to gin to sake. For a cooling non-alcoholic drink, blend peeled and seeded cucumber with fresh lime juice in a blender along with your chosen sweetener, such as simple syrup or agave nectar, using a ratio of one cucumber to two or three limes. Strain and serve over ice, garnished with mint or a lime slice.

They’re a natural diuretic – the best known one – and for this reason they’re said to be helpful in treating kidney and urinary bladder diseases. They’re also supposed to promote the health of the liver and pancreas, as well as the gums and teeth.

Cucumbers are members of the gourd family, which also includes squashes and melons. They’re thought to have originated in India – though some sources cite other parts of Asia – and they’ve been cultivated there for at least 3,000 years.

Greenhouse cultivation of cucumbers was invented during the time of King Louis XIV, presumably so he could have a ready supply since he loved their taste.

Even earlier, the ancient Romans invented artificial growing methods so their emperor, Tiberius, could have cucumbers on his table throughout the year. They used raised beds on wheels to follow the sun and special growing houses glazed with oil cloth.

Supermarkets typically stock only two types of cucumbers – the garden, or market, cucumber and the long, slender dark green English cucumber, which is most often wrapped in plastic – but there is so much more!

Last summer, I discovered a wonderful variety at a local farmers’ market – the Armenian cucumber – and it has since become one of my favorites. It’s also known as the snake cucumber or snake melon, but don’t let this somewhat scary name fool you. It’s one of the nicest slicing cucumbers around.

The ribbed, pale green skin looks as though it would be tough, but is delicate. Like the English cucumber, it doesn’t need to be seeded or peeled and has a mild flavor. It tends to be long and slender, but sometimes grows with twists and turns that resemble a crook-necked squash.

I visited Kelseyville’s Leonardis Organics recently, where Jim Leonardis is growing specially selected varieties of cucumbers, including a variegated version of the Armenian cucumber with handsome dark and light green stripes.

According to Leonardis, the varieties of cucumbers most commonly grown for markets don’t do well in Lake County’s ultra hot summers, so he’s picked less common varieties that do not become bitter in the heat, including the Asian cucumber, which is similar to the English cucumber, but with spiny skin.

He’s also growing round, yellow lemon cucumbers, which are nice for pickling.

Such interesting varieties can be found at farmers’ markets, active now around the lake. Thankfully, locally grown cukes aren’t covered with the wax that commercial growers use to extend shelf life.

The recipe I offer is my version of tzatziki, the Greek cucumber-yogurt salad mentioned previously. In this version, it’s made with dill, but I’d encourage you to also try it with mint. It’s best when made with real Greek yogurt, but if this is unavailable, it can be simulated.

To do this, buy the best plain full-fat yogurt you can find and allow it to sit in a strainer lined with paper towels or cheesecloth atop a bowl several hours or overnight. (Refrigerate it during the process.) This allows liquid to drain off, leaving behind a thickened, richer yogurt.

You’ll be surprised at the amount of water that appears in your bowl. If you’re using this method, be sure to buy enough yogurt for the recipe as it reduces in size by about half.

Greek cucumber yogurt salad (tzatziki)

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced

2 cups plain Greek yogurt

2 cloves garlic, smashed, then finely diced

Juice of half a lemon

Chopped fresh dill to taste (or fresh mint)

Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

Combine the yogurt, garlic and lemon juice in a bowl. Add cucumber to yogurt mixture, and add dill or mint to your liking. Mix and enjoy!

Esther Oertel, the "Veggie Girl," is a personal chef and culinary coach and is passionate about local produce. Oertel owns The SageCoach Personal Chef Service and teaches culinary classes at Chic Le Chef in Hidden Valley Lake. She welcomes your questions and comments; e-mail her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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