I spent the first one-third of my life taking cucumbers for granted. Whenever I came face-to-face with one, at best, I hoped it would be; A) not bitter, and, B) crunchy. Expectations for flavor were nonexistent. Cucumbers were something that showed up in restaurant salads, and I dutifully ate them without thought.They were neither good nor bad, just…there.
For years I half-heartedly purchased cucumbers to “dress up” green salads at home, or to add yet another element to a crudité basket. Then my friend, Ernie, invited me to dinner at her family’s ranch in Glen Ellen.
Mrs. Raffo, her mom, was a warm and generous hostess whose Sunday suppers rivaled any restaurant in town. The make-shift dining table often extended well into the next room, just to accommodate all the family, friends, and neighbors who routinely dropped in. (And this wasn’t exactly a convenient location for a drive-by. Perched high above the Valley of the Moon, to reach the house required arocky ride up miles of winding dirt road. Believe me, anyone who pretended to “drop in” for a Sunday afternoon visithad an ulterior motive.) While captivating aromas wafted from the kitchen, Ernie’s dad made sure everyone’s glass was filled with local red wine. This Irish girl from the suburbs suddenly longed to be Italian.
I can’t remember the entrée fromthat warm summer evening, but I do remember the huge platter of sliced home-grown cucumbers—both green and yellow (who even knew there was such a thing?)—layered with garden-fresh tomatoes and slivers of sweet, red onion. Was there a drizzle of fruity olive oil on top? Salt and pepper? Who knows? Who cares? It was love at first bite. The combination was heavenly; and these cucumbers actually tasted good. Where had they been all my life? Evidently not in a supermarket’s cold-storage unit.
In those days (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), if you didn’t have a backyard garden, your only chance for truly fresh produce was a country farm stand. But now that California is blessed with a proliferation of farmers’ markets — with a stellar one right here in downtown Danville—procuring a genuine taste of summer couldn’t be easier.
In addition to real cucumbers, this month’s farmers’ market is brimming with vine-ripened tomatoes; sweet corn; summer squash; tender little apricots; juicy berries of all persuasions; aromatic melons; early nectarines, peaches, and plums; and the last of the cherries. And you’d better stock up, in case someone drops in for supper on Sunday.
The 411 on Cukes
–Varieties found at the farmers’ market include the long, slender Japanese cucumber; round, yellow “lemon” cucumbers (named for their appearance rather than their flavor); the long, ridged Armenian variety; and of course the “slicing” or “common” cucumber most frequently used in salads. Short, bumpy Kirby cucumbers are perfect for pickling, though equally good eaten raw.
–Long, thin English (hothouse) cucumbers have fewer seeds and very thin skin—which is why they are encased in plastic.
–As a general rule, the smaller the cucumber, the smaller the seeds.
–Most large-scale commercial growers favor tough-skinned cucumber varieties that withstand days of abuse during the long ride to supermarket distribution centers. These cucumbers are pumped with water to make them grow faster (and weigh more), and then waxed to hold in the moisture….in case you’re wondering why they are usually such sorry specimens.
–Common cucumbers from the farmers’ market are not waxed, so the skin is perfectly edible. Lemon cucumbers with a rough exterior are the only ones that benefit from peeling.
–Check the ends of a cucumber for any sign of deterioration; then make sure the entire cucumber is firm. If there are any soft spots or it is limp or shriveled, it has lost moisture and is not fresh.(Fresh cucumbers are approximately 96 per cent water.)
–Cucumbers are best eaten within 3 or 4 days. Refrigerate whole, unwashed cucumbers between paper towels in a loose plastic bag. Slice them just before serving.
–Don’t limit cucumbers to salads—they add delicious crunch to sandwiches, too.
–Farm-fresh cucumbers are so tangy-sweet, you’ll want to eat them cold as a snack. A noisy cucumber is a good one!
–Cucumbers can also be sautéed in olive oil or butter with a little garlic or fresh herb, and served warm as an intriguing side dish.
–Give yourself the spa treatment: Add several slices of cucumber to a pitcher of cold water and refrigerate for several hours to blend flavors.Bliss.
Greek Cucumber-Yogurt Dip
Don’t confuse this with those watery dips that often pass for tzatziki. Thick, good-quality yogurt and farm-fresh cucumber make all the difference.You could take a shortcut—and omit Step 1—by using Greek-style yogurt, but draining plain yogurt overnight ensures proper texture, so be sure to plan ahead. Serve with fresh vegetables for dipping, or wedges of fresh pita bread or pita chips. I also often serve a generous spoonful alongside grilled chicken or fish fillets. It’s cool and creamy and refreshing — the perfect antidote to a warm summer day.
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 1 large cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, and coarsely grated
- 1 tablespoon coarse (kosher) salt
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 garlic clove, crushed through a press
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- Freshly ground pepper or cayenne
Line a sieve with cheesecloth, an unbleached coffee filter, or a double layer of white paper towels and place over a medium bowl. Spoon the yogurt into the lined sieve, cover with plastic wrap, and let drain in the refrigerator overnight.
- In another bowl, toss the cucumber with the salt. Cover and refrigerate for about 3 hours to draw out the liquid.
- Transfer the drained yogurt to a clean bowl. (Discard the liquid, or whey, or save for soup stock or another use.) Stir in the sour cream, lemon juice, dill, mint, garlic, and cumin.
- Using your hands, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the cucumber. Add the cucumber to the herbed yogurt mixture and stir to mix. Season with pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours (or up to 8 hours) to allow the flavors to develop. Makes about 3 cups.
The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com.This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.