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Cucumber: A Culinary Commoner that Deserves Respect





By Anna Mowry
August 2007

Roman Emperor Tiberius enjoyed a raw cucumber at his table every day, but today this mellow vegetable usually appears as an accessory in salads or sandwiches. It has a hardiness that allows for year-round availability, making it a staple in supermarkets. Since we're accustomed to always seeing it on shelves, the once prized cucumber has become a mere culinary commoner. True, a lone cucumber doesn't exactly inspire a triumphal procession. But it can strengthen a dish when paired with the right ingredients, mellowing harsher flavors or fleshing out grassy notes.
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» Qewcumber
Mixologist Ben Scorah of Dani – New York, NY
» The C. Cucumber Martini
Mixologist Brandon King of Table 1280 – Atlanta, GA
» Tuna Tempura with Soba Cucumber Noodles
Chef Gavin Portsmouth of Sapa – New York, NY
» Involtini of Peekytoe Crab with Cucumber and Tomato Gazpacho
Chef Drew Van Leuvan of Tap – Atlanta, GA
» Mango Sherbet Float with Cucumber–Champagne Soup
Chef Gavin Portsmouth of Sapa – New York, NY

Cucumbers cultivated in America have a bitterness that comes from natural chemicals under the skin; peeling these varieties will reduce bitterness considerably. European cucumbers have a thinner skin, a milder taste, and can be served skin-on. With the exception of seasonal farmers market varietals, American cucumbers are waxed to retain water content, while in Europe they come wrapped in plastic for the same reason. Cucumbers don’t keep well in cold temperatures, so store them outside of the refrigerator, away from tomatoes and other fruit (which emit ethylene, a chemical that turns cucumbers yellow).

Standard varietals are widely available at markets during summer, with rarer cucumbers occasionally appearing, too. The Kirby’s skin is tough, bitter, and well-suited to pickling, but should be removed before using in salads. Standard American slicers can be served with or without skin, depending on taste. Japanese slicers are sweeter and bear a thinner skin, so peeling is unnecessary. Grown in the Middle East, Persian cucumbers have tender flesh, thin skin, and few seeds. The Mini White grows to only a few inches in length and has an ivory skin. Its taste is sweet and dry.

Extract the fullest flavor from cucumber flesh by using structurally disruptive preparations, such as a purée. Chef Drew Van Leuvan of Tap uses puréed cucumber to mellow the acidity of Roma tomatoes and pungency of basil in his Involtini of Peekytoe Crab with Cucumber-Tomato Gazpacho. At Sapa, Chef Gavin Portmouth anchors his Mango Sherbet and Cucumber Champagne Soup in a base of puréed cucumber and melon; it’s a bright, summery dish where aromatic cucumber plays off the green, aromatic character of kiwi, marjoram, and vodka. Muddling cucumber achieves a similar effect in cocktails. Dani mixologist Ben Scorah adds muddled cucumber, lime, and mint to his Qewcumber, echoing the cool, herbaceous notes of Hendrick's gin.

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