Cucumbers | Lily Geidelberg
Long, thin and firm. That way, you maximise flavour and crispness, while minimising the soggy, seedy middle.
Few among us seek the best cucumber in the supermarket. Apples and strawberries often undergo careful inspection before reaching the basket, yet to my perpetual dismay and confusion, cucumber selection is cursory if at all present. But why? A bad cucumber is as repulsive as a bad apple, and you can’t even cook it into a jam or crumble.
Even worse, certain friends admit selecting the largest possible cucumber, in a grotesque attempt to maximise value for money. Presumably what they value most is a horrible watery mess.
It was my father that inculcated in me this deep passion for discerning the model cucumber. Even now, though, after years of shopping for my own cucumbers as a proper adult, he still criticises my choices. ‘This one is too soft.’ I know, Dad. I was in Sainsbury’s – what did you expect?
Yes, different supermarkets have different qualities of cucumber, but not in the ways you would expect. Cucumbers from Tesco are surprisingly good, while those from M&S are surprisingly average. And sadly, after ample chances over many years, I’ve only ever had one good cucumber from Sainsbury’s.
Of course, the best ones are home-grown, and nobody grows them better than my dad. He fled the Soviet Union in his mid-twenties; perhaps the restricted food choice in the Eastern bloc focused his mind towards this humble and ubiquitous cucumiform. Try as I might, I can never grow good ones. I blame the emaciated and polluted London soil: no match for my parents’ fertile Surrey garden, or their calibrated hydroponic system. But forget growing good cucumbers, says my father, I can’t even identify a good one, despite decades of studentship under his supervision. I wonder if my profligate Western lifestyle, awash with McDonald’s and curries, has dulled my senses. They do say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert; perhaps it also takes 10,000 cucumbers. I can’t be far off though – I do eat an awful lot of them.
Here is why you should too. Firstly, of course, they are delicious, and if you disagree, then you are probably choosing bad ones. Secondly, they are the ideal low-calorie snack: munching a whole cucumber will set you back only around 50 calories. Thirdly, they are refreshing and filling, boasting a solid water content. Fourthly, they are convenient: you can eat them on the go, without greasy fingers, and with no inorganic waste.
Finally, they are very affordable. Apart from the disastrous cucumber shortages of 2017 eliciting a doubling in price (maybe you didn’t notice – I did), they are a financially competitive choice against other snack options. Don’t you dare buy the falsely economical cucumber ‘portions’, a euphemistic name for a severed chunk in a bloated plastic bag dripping in nauseating condensation, with a shrivelled, stinking wound exposing the premature intervention of the knife. Mother Nature already provides cucumbers in the perfect portion size – let us not corrupt everything that is green.
If, like a toddler, you remain unable to finish a normal sized cucumber, then there are smaller options available. Happily for you, the little ones taste better anyway. Those are the ones my dad mainly grows, and in true Soviet style, the majority find themselves pickled in jars. He uses a brine solution, flavoured with garlic, and infused with tannins from grape vine leaves to maintain a firm texture. My step-mum reliably informs me that shops here do not stock vinegar strong enough for pickling, so she returns to her native Estonia to find the proper stuff. My British patriotism takes a stiff, emasculating blow.
Before you excitedly shave your carefully selected friend into ghastly thin circles – presumably out of nostalgia for sloppy sandwiches from your school canteen – wait a second. If you ask me, slivers of cucumber that dissolve on the tongue are inelegant. Instead, having hopefully convinced you of my authority, dear disciple, may I suggest the following procedure.
Gently notice that cucumbers are not entirely symmetrical. One end tends to be smoother in texture with a sharper taper, and usually has a vestigial stem where once previously affixed to the vine. This end tends to be bitter, and a good couple of inches may be discarded. The blossom end, often lighter in colour, tends to be sweeter. This is the treasured part of the fruit and little, if any, should be removed. Having divided your cucumber into thirds cross-sectionally, inspect the ratio of seed to flesh. The most appalling examples have broad circles of gigantic seeds, a symptom of overripeness. Quarter each piece lengthways to produce twelve batons, and if you have excess seeds, gently glide them off with your knife.
You may hear of ‘rubbing ends together,’ or of fancy dressings, but a good cucumber requires no song and dance; softly encouraged by a sprinkle of salt, its delicate flavour speaks for itself.
I have witnessed some desecrations in my time. One friend substituted cucumber for raw courgette in sushi. Another committed the inverse (but equally dangerous) crime when making a pasta sauce. Even more devastating is the unspoken, systemic underappreciation of this charming natural gift, one that is sweet, crunchy and fresh; abundant and diverse, modest, bashful – indeed almost self-effacing. It is for the sake of beauty – not duty – that I proselytise for my favourite green vegetable.
Every spring, my parents’ house and garden are overflowing with a fertile jungle of vines, bristling with twisted fruits. These cucumbers are all thin and firm: there is no need for selection. I wish you could taste them. Alternatives are nevertheless still available, and I have imparted you the wisdom of my father for choosing the best one. Once you get your eye in, it takes only a few seconds, and life is about the little things. If you consider yourself too busy, then dare I ask what indeed you do have time for?