The Local Ingredient: Summer cucumbers

Chilled Cucumber Soup with Gazpacho Salsa. — Courtesy Alison Shaw

If there is an unsung hero of the summer vegetables, it is the cucumber.

Unlike tomatoes or corn, with full-page spreads and recipes galore, cucumbers barely get mentioned. So I am dedicating this column to them, with loads of ideas for putting them on your summer table, as well as in your drinking glass.

One reason to include them in every shopping outing to local farms is the clean, sweet taste and crunchy texture. Winter cucumbers have little to no flavor, unless it’s a curious off-taste and yellowish color, and none of the crispness. Most cucumbers travel thousands of miles to New England from Mexican fields or Canadian greenhouses. I have to check four or five winter cucumbers before I can find one that doesn’t have a soft, slightly shriveled end.

I also wonder, With such poor flavor and conditions on industrial farms, what happens to the nutrient content? A little-known superfood, cucumbers are anti-inflammatory and highly hydrating.

Most of the farms here grow cucumbers to perfection, including Morning Glory, Blackwater, and Ghost Island, to name a few, plus a few newcomers such as Grey Barn Farm, which now sells vegetables along with its dairy.

To start this summer, I’ve been making all-cucumber salads. This means simply slicing and coating with some homemade dressing of 1 part vinegar or citrus to 3 parts olive oil, maybe with a hit of garlic and herbs. To change it up a little, make a Thai-type dressing with a little lime and sweet chili sauce, or a Greek tzatziki dressing of yogurt with a tiny amount of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, and either dill, mint, or cilantro.

Last night, the combo was fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with a vinaigrette. It looks appealing with any fresh herb you have on hand, chives, parsley, basil, mint, or oregano. It came together in minutes while my son grilled some hamburgers. Cucumbers also combine beautifully with other summer melons, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and/or honeydew.

There are endless summer salad combinations. In “Raising the Salad Bar,” I counted 27 salads that include cucumbers, so that’s a good place to start for recipes. My favorite summer go-to has to be a Greek Salad, because everything is in season and at the peak of flavor: the romaine, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion. Topped with a nice dressing, olives, and some local feta cheese, a good Greek salad goes with nearly everything.

Cucumbers also contribute to summer gazpacho, and on their own, cold cucumber soup (see a delicious recipe below), not to mention cold spring rolls, appetizer rounds, peanut noodle salads, and more. And don’t forget pickles of all kinds, especially the quick pickles which do not require any canning.

And while the cucumbers last, they make a cooling addition to summer drinks. Anyone who enjoys craft cocktails can tell you bartenders love muddling cucumbers for gin and tonics and specialty cocktails. You can try this at home too, with great results. A few summers ago, I first made the Thai cucumber water, below, with lime, cilantro, and a bit of sugar. Everyone who tried it asked how to make it and where to buy a muddler (LeRoux kitchen store), which is the tool that lightly crushes the cucumbers in the glass. I’ve also included the adult version, with alcohol.

When you make it, join me in toasting to the deserving cucumber.

Recipes by Catherine Walthers

Cool as a Cucumber Cocktail

Make this anytime, but especially when temperatures soar and you need the ultimate refreshing cocktail. Don’t be tempted to leave out the fresh cilantro — the herb combination of mint and cilantro with the cucumbers, lime, and vodka makes this cocktail addictive.

3 slices of cucumber (about 1 1-inch piece of cucumber, peeled, sliced in half, and seeded if needed)
2 sprigs fresh mint
3 sprigs fresh cilantro
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 lime)
1 ounce simple syrup
1½ ounces vodka
Soda water

In a tall highball glass, add the cucumber slices and use a muddler to break up the cucumber and release its juices. Add the mint and cilantro and muddle a bit more, just to release flavor but not break apart the herbs. Add the lime juice, simple syrup, and vodka. Fill the glass with ice (lots of ice) and top with soda water. Mix well with a bar spoon to infuse.

To make simple syrup, add 1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of boiling water and stir until dissolved. Store in a Mason jar; it keeps for weeks.

Cooling Thai Water

Everyone who has sipped this flavored water loves it, and begins to understand the simple power of fresh herbs and a few well-chosen ingredients.

2 sprigs mint
2 sprigs cilantro
1 lime, rind removed, cut in half
2 slices of cucumber, skin peeled off
1 Tbsp. sugar

In a tall glass, add the mint and cilantro, topped with the lime, cucumber and sugar. Muddle to break up the cucumber a bit and release juice from the lime. (The herbs are strategically placed under the cucumber slices and lime, so they mostly stay intact.)

Add ice to fill the glass, and water. Mix well to infuse.

Chilled Cucumber Soup with Gazpacho Salsa

Serves 6

A light and very refreshing cold soup, the base is a creamy combination of cucumber, avocado, and yogurt. The topping is a mini gazpacho-like salsa. This soup can be served as a first course at a nice summer meal or as an appetizer in demitasse cups.

4 to 5 cucumbers (about 2 pounds), plus one small cucumber for the salsa garnish
1 cup water
½ cup plain yogurt, low-fat or Greek style
1 avocado
5 Tbsp. fresh lime juice, divided
Salt and pepper
6 radishes (¼ cup), thinly sliced and cut into fine matchsticks
1 medium tomato (about 1 cup), seeded and finely diced
¼ red onion (¼ cup), finely diced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. chives, finely cut
10-12 basil leaves, slivered

Peel and cut the 4 cucumbers lengthwise. With a spoon, scrape out and toss the seeds. Cut into chunks and place in a blender. Add the water, yogurt, avocado, 4 tablespoons of the lime juice, and salt to taste. Taste and adjust the salt and amount of lime juice. Add a few grinds of pepper. Place in the fridge to chill. Slice the remaining cucumber in half, spoon out the seeds, and cut into a very small dice. Reserve.

Prepare the salsa: Mix the reserved diced cucumber, radish matchsticks, diced tomato, red onion, remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt. Just before serving, mix in the chives and basil.

Ladle the cold cucumber soup into a bowl. Top with a generous spoonful of the salsa.