Saturday, August 27, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Cucumber experiments

Last week, just as I was starting to wonder what we'd do for a Recipe of the Month for August, Brian came in from the garden with a couple of cucumbers he'd somehow missed until they were past their prime. One was starting to turn yellow, and the other was almost completely yellow. Now, according to most gardening sites, you're supposed to pick cucumbers when they're nice and dark green; if they've got a bit of yellow on them, you need to pick them immediately, and if they're completely yellow, they're overripe and no longer fit to eat. But I knew there were ways of using up other overripe produce, like bananas, so I figured it was worth at least a quick Google search to find out if there was a way to salvage these yellow cukes.

So I punched in "Can you eat yellow cucumbers?" and found this thread on Ask MetaFilter, in which various people weighed in on the question of what to do with overripe cukes. Posters suggested several different recipes, not all of them for food (one person's idea was, "you could always make them into cars and race them"), but the simplest one was this: "I would remove the seeds, cube them, pan fry (along with squash and or zucchini) with a little oil and garlic, salt and pepper and toss with some penne. Yum."

I'd never heard of cooking cucumbers before—I'd always assumed it would be impractical with a veggie that has such high water content—but this person had apparently done it before, judging by the "yum." Perhaps the yellow cucumbers had less water in them and were more suitable for frying? In any case, it seemed like it was worth a try. After all, frying with garlic works for just about every other veggie on the planet, so I figured it could hardly go too wrong.

The only thing that gave me pause was that one of the other posts in the thread recommended tasting the cucumber before using it to make sure it wasn't bitter. That seemed like a reasonable precaution, so Brian sliced off the ends (the part gardening sites say are most likely to turn bitter) and tasted them. And they tasted like...cucumber. There was nothing odd or different about them in any way.

So at that point, it seemed pretty clear that there was nothing seriously wrong with this cucumber, and we could just throw it into a jar of pickles with all our other cukes if we wanted to. But on the other hand, we did still need a Recipe of the Month, and cooking with cucumbers would be a new experience, so we decided to go ahead with the penne as planned. Brian also happened to have a couple of hunks of zucchini in the produce drawer that he'd salvaged from a pair of squash that had developed blossom end rot, so he figured he'd go ahead and cut those up and throw them in with the cukes. And to make the whole thing more wholesome, he tossed the resulting mixture with whole-wheat penne instead of plain.

I tasted my first piece of cooked cucumber with a bit of trepidation, but once I got used to the familiar flavor of cucumber in a form that was slightly less crisp, it was actually fine. Not extraordinary or anything, but fine. After all, veggies and pasta and garlic are a pretty foolproof combination, and it turns out cucumbers are no exception. This isn't a dish we'd ever go out of our way to make, and we certainly wouldn't let cucumbers turn overripe on purpose for it, but as a way of using up veggies that might otherwise go to waste, it was perfectly reasonable.

We also did one additional experiment with cucumbers a little later in the week. We'd been to Trader Joe's and picked up, as our one permissible impulse buy, a half-pound of smoked salmon "ends and pieces" that was selling for only five bucks. We planned to have this for supper on Friday, along with a loaf of rye bread from the day-old rack at the grocery store, but we needed a green vegetable to go with it. A cooked vegetable didn't seem quite appropriate, and we didn't have any lettuce left in the garden to make a salad—but we had plenty of cucumbers, so Brian decided to make a simple salad of those instead. So he just sliced a cucumber into thin half-moons, tossed it with some red pepper matchsticks, and served it with our favorite honey-garlic balsamic vinaigrette from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.

This cucumber salad wasn't at all remarkable—certainly not as good as the delicious cucumber nectarine salad we made last month—but it was perfectly edible. The cool, crisp cucumbers were a good foil for the salty smoked salmon and chewy rye bread, and the dressing was compatible with all the other flavors. It's not a recipe I'd serve to company, at least not without dressing it up a bit more, but as a way to use up our bumper crop of cucumbers, it's quite reasonable.

So that makes four new cucumber recipes in just two months. However, I suspect those will be the last ones we'll try this year, since Brian reports that our cucumber vines, having produced at least 20 pounds' worth of fruit this summer, now appear to be shriveling up and drying out. We don't know whether they've caught a disease or just worn themselves out, but it doesn't look like we'll be getting much more off them this year. So I think this year's massive cucumber crop has finally come to an end. And sadly, our tomato plants, which would normally be producing at their peak in September, appear to be petering out as well. So next month's recipe will more likely be based on one of our fall crops, like winter squash or lima beans.
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