What is a cucumber?
A snack of delicate, crustless sandwiches of thinly sliced cucumber conjures the feeling of long, leisurely summer afternoons. Traditionally served with pots of tea, cucumber sandwiches were favoured by the British and spread to India and served as a light meal before early evening. But the cucumber is used in many cuisines and is especially popular when combined with yoghurt and served as an accompaniment to spicy curries or Middle Eastern dishes.
The mildly flavoured cucumber is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. It originated in India and spread to parts of Europe, where it is now a favourite among the Greeks and Italians. It also spread to China, which is now one of the largest producers of this vegetable.
Most of the cucumbers sold in Australia are sold by type and not by variety. The most common cucumbers available are the green cucumbers. They grow up to 30 cm long and have smooth green skin. Lebanese cucumbers are also readily available. These are dark green, small (around 10 cm) and have smooth edible skin and few seeds.
Other types of cucumbers include the Continental (or burpless cucumber), which is long, with a hook at the end and ridges on the skin. These have a thinner skin than other cucumbers and do not contain many seeds. The prickly-skinned gherkins are picked when five to 10 cm long and are usually pickled in vinegar or salt.
The Vietnamese cucumber (also known as the bitter gourd or bitter cucumber) has knobbly, thick skin and is pale white to yellow. These cucumbers are long and thin and should be eaten when the skin is white (the immature stage).
An exotic-looking variety is the Apple cucumber. This variety is round, about the size of a cricket ball and has a smooth, white or light green skin.
Why cucumbers are good to eat
- Cucumbers are a good source of vitamins A and C.
- They also contain minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure) and manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function).
- Half a cup of sliced cucumbers provides your body with more than 10 per cent of your daily vitamin K (important for helping your blood to clot).
- Energy – 100 g of raw cucumber supplies about 50kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Cucumbers grow best in climates that are hot and dry. The seeds grow into vines that produce tendrils that wrap around trellises or other supports (the vines can also grow along the ground). The vines also produce large leaves that shade the cucumbers from the sun.
Cucumbers are ready to harvest eight to 10 weeks after planting. When you harvest the cucumbers use scissors (pulling the cucumbers from the plant can snap the vine and damage it) and leave a piece of the stalk on the vegetable.
Different types of cucumbers are picked at different times. For example, Lebanese cucumbers are harvested when they are about 10 cm and gherkins when they are half that length.
Choose cucumbers that are crisp and feel firm to the touch. A dull green colour or yellowing of the skin indicates that the cucumber is old and not very fresh. You should also avoid selecting cucumbers with soft or dark patches.
How to store and keep cucumbers
Store cucumbers in the crisper section of your fridge. Use cucumbers within five days of buying them.
How to use
- Dice cucumbers, crush garlic and mix with yoghurt for a fresh-tasting tzatziki dip.
- Refreshing cucumber soup is great as a light summer lunch – sauté onion and garlic, add chopped cucumber, dill and stock and blitz in a food processor, then add sour cream (or yoghurt) and chill for several hours before serving.
- Make a spicy cucumber and mango salsa to go with fish tacos – mix diced mango, cucumber and onion, chopped coriander leaf and crushed garlic and season with a squeeze of lime juice and pepper.
- For a simple salad – add ribbons of cucumber to sliced red onions, crushed garlic, fresh mint and dill and dress with olive oil and salt and pepper.
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Better Health Channel
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