Cool as a cucumber
By LAURIE WELCH
For me cucumbers are one of those vegetables I look forward to eating fresh out of the garden every year. But let’s face it you can only eat so many before you start giving them away or turning them into pickles!
A little history on this summertime mainstay. The cucumber was cultivated some 3,000 years ago in India and eventually spread to parts of Greece and Italy.
The Romans appeared particularly fond of them not only as a food source but for medicinal purposes as well. This included such things as improving bad eyesight, curing scorpion bites and women wearing a cucumber around their waists to enhance fertility.
Cucumbers were brought to the New World in the 1400s and eventually introduced to Native Americans mainly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains who incorporated them into their diet.
In literature, you may see cucumbers referred to as “cowcumbers.” During the 1600s, eating any type of uncooked fruit or vegetable was frowned upon. While this belief quickly changed, cucumbers still had the reputation of causing disease thus being termed “cowcumbers” or fit only for consumption by cows.
Today when we think of cucumbers we automatically think of pickles. Its estimated Americans consume some 26 billion pickles per year or roughly 9 pounds of pickles per person per year.
From a nutritional perspective they are not a good source of nutrients other than water. To get the most nutrition from the vegetable you need to eat the skin which will provide some fiber and vitamin A. Their main attribute is that crisp texture they add to salads and sandwiches. The two main types of cucumbers are pickling and slicing.
Pickling is really the only practical way to preserve cucumbers because of their high water content. There are many ways to make a pickle.
Pickling cucumbers are best as the skin is less bitter and they have smaller and fewer seeds, however you can successfully substitute slicing cucumbers if that is all you have available. They can be fermented or quick packed in a vinegar solution and then processed in a boiling water bath.
The acidity level is key to not only the taste and texture of the product but also its safety, so always use tested recipes. When pickling cucumbers do not alter portions of vinegar, cucumber or water and never use vinegar of unknown acidity. There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.
Information on making pickles is available from the Extension office Let’s Preserve series or on the web at https://extension.psu.edu/lets-preserve-quick-process-pickles. Recipes for making pickles without canning are available at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/veggies/cucumber.cfm. Included is a recipe for refrigerator Dill Chips and Sweet Freezer Pickles.
If you are looking for a new way to use some of your fresh cucumbers try the cucumber yogurt salad dressing listed below. This is a heart healthy, low calorie dressing which can be used as a dip for other vegetables or as a topping on baked potatoes as well as a salad dressing.
One last thing, ever wonder where the phrase “cool as a cucumber” comes from? Well supposedly the interior flesh of a cucumber is 20 degrees cooler than the outside air temperature!
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
2/3 cup plain, nonfat yogurt
2 Tbsp. minced red onion
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil or vegetable oil
2 tsp. rice vinegar or white vinegar (could use any type depending on your taste)
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
2 tsp. chopped fresh dill or 1/2 tsp. dried dill
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until creamy and smooth. Chill for about 2 hours before serving. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Laurie Welch is a nutrition and family issues educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, 570-726-0022.