The bearable coolness of cucumbers

by Ari LeVaux

"Cool as a cucumber” is a statement typically more descriptive of someone’s personality than their body temperature. But it’s a murky simile, because the expression is based more on the cucumber’s physiological thermodynamics than its ability to refrain from spazzing out. According to both Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicines, cucumbers belong in the category of “cooling foods,” which supposedly cool you down.

Whether or not you buy into such warming and cooling food theories, there’s no disputing that cucumbers are mostly water, which is a classic antidote to heat. But if water content were the only reason for the epic coolness of cucumbers, then we’d hear about people who are cool as a cantaloupe, cool as a watermelon, cool as a camel – or cool as Rush Limbaugh, since he, like all other humans, is mostly water too. So maybe there’s something especially cooling about cucumbers. Dieters like cucumbers because they have lots of nutrients and few calories, and a calorie, technically speaking, is a unit of heat. It was in the tiny country of Bhutan, sandwiched between the cucumbers-are-cooling superpowers of India and China, that I learned one of my most interesting culinary parlor tricks: how to “milk” a cucumber.

If you’ve ever been offended by a bitter bite of cucumber, this is a skill worth having. The bitterness comes from cucurbitacin, a compound from which the cucumber family, cucurbits, gets its name. Bitter-tasting cucurbitacin is thought to be a defense mechanism against herbivores. Milking a cucumber removes cucurbitacin.

While doing some Google research to verify my facts on cucumber milking, I had the misfortune of discovering that there are also cucumber-related techniques to milk prostate glands. Milking a cucumber, I assure you, is quite different, and requires neither lubricant, nor microwave.

First, slice off the stem end of a cucumber about half an inch from the end. The stem end, which connects to the plant, is where most of the cucurbitacin resides. The stem side is darker, if there is no stem remnant to clue you in. After slicing off the stem end, press it back in place against the cucumber, cut surface against cut surface, and move the cut piece in a circular direction like you’re erasing a chalkboard (think “wax on, wax off,” a la “The Karate Kid”). Almost immediately, a milky substance will ooze out from the cucumber’s perimeter, just under the skin. Rinse off this white foam and enjoy your de-bittered cuke.

Although many of the cucumber’s nutrients reside in the skin, that’s also where any toxins may be as well. So unless you’re eating organic or chemical-free cucumbers, it’s best to peel them first-especially if they’re waxed. Most of us are so used to eating cucumbers raw that the thought of cooking one might seem strange. But none other than James Beard provides several simple recipes in which the cucumber’s coolness is cooked away via brief steaming, poaching, or sautéing. Those familiar with Beard won’t be surprised that most of these recipes include butter and/or cream, as well as the occasional mushroom and twist from the pepper grinder. Following one of his leads, I tried poaching thin cucumber slices in salted water for two minutes and tossing them with black pepper and garlic butter. It makes a simple, tasty side that Beard recommends to accompany fish.

For some reason the process of cooking cucumbers hasn’t caught on – perhaps because cooking takes away the cucumber’s crispness and coolness, which for many people is its biggest draw. Since this summer is going down as the hottest on record in many places, it makes sense to focus on the cooler side of the cucumber.

In keeping with its coolness, the cucumber is mild mannered in the flavor department. Yet its taste isn’t easily drowned out even when paired with strong flavors like dill, mint, garlic, and yogurt, with which cucumbers are paired in recipes with astounding frequency. From Indian raita to Greek tzatziki to Turkish soup to California-style cucumber salad with dill/yogurt dressing, examples can be found almost anywhere in the world. There are so many chilled soup versions of this combination that it hardly makes sense to give a single recipe. So I’ll start by giving you a basic formula, and then steer you toward some variations.

Don’t bother milking your cucumbers for soup – the effects are noticeable only if you’re eating a plain cucumber. Keep the cucumbers in the fridge until use, so the soup will be cool enough to eat right away.

Add yogurt to a blender, followed by sliced cucumber, chopped garlic, salt, and dill or mint. Blend. Voila. Ingredient proportions are entirely up to you, but if you’re fundamentally incapable of winging it in the kitchen, try this: two medium cukes, one clove of garlic, half a cup of yogurt, a tablespoon chopped fresh dill or mint, and half a teaspoon of salt. If it’s not cold enough, or if it’s too thick, you can blend in some ice cubes. Some people skip the yogurt. Some add avocado for extra creaminess. Some garnish with chives.

Perhaps the most interesting variation, and one of my favorites, comes from Beard, who calls it Iranian cucumber soup. After blending the cucumbers with dill, garlic, and salt, stir in raisins and chopped hard-boiled egg. The soup has an intriguing, weightless flavor, as if your mouth is floating through space. The occasional raisin and egg pieces are like celestial bodies in the cucumber galaxy. The impossibly different ingredients couldn’t work together more harmoniously, making this a very cool recipe in more ways than one. •



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