Some delicious, creative ways to reduce piles of cucumbers

August 17, 2005|By ROB KASPER

CUCUMBERS ARRIVE in late summer like visiting relatives at a small beach house, one after the other, after the other. First you try to figure out where to put them, then how to get rid of them.

Initially, cucumbers are greeted as celebrities. They represent a victory over the pesky cucumber beetle. They are long, green proof that the vicissitudes of the growing season have been vanquished. When an early-arriving cucumber is in the house, there is a sense of triumph in the air.

However, as the summer wears on, the novelty soon wears off and the cucumber's fall from glory is precipitous. The cucumbers pile up in the kitchen, sticking their blunt snouts out from the shelf into your conscience, pressuring you to use them quickly, before they spoil.

One cook who has reacted well to this summer's cucumber invasion is Margaret Fulcher of Baltimore's Washington Hill neighborhood. She and her brother, Howard Layton, till the soil at a community garden on the east side of Baltimore, near East Baltimore and Bethel streets.

At a recent City Farms Supper, held on a balmy Saturday evening on the lawn at Cylburn Arboretum and presided over by Baltimore City horticulturist Bill Vondrasek and City Farms director Coleen McCarty, Fulcher's brother walked away with a bushel basket of awards for his homegrown produce, including runner-up for most unusual vegetable, the second-largest cucumber grown in the city.

First prize in this category went to Marvin Howard for the even larger cucumber he grew in a city garden on Duncan Street.

Cucumbers thrive in hot, humid weather, meaning that a typical Maryland August is a cucumber's idea of heaven. Fulcher allowed as much, saying her cucumber crop has been bountiful this year or, as Fulcher put it, "There are tons of them."

While her brother harvests the crop, she thinks up various ways to serve it. Among her creations are two types of cucumber dip, one flavored with dill. She brought these dips to the potluck supper at Cylburn. Another is a chilled cucumber soup, which she reported was a hit at the supper in prior years.

She said that in addition to being flavorful, the soup consumes eight to 10 cucumbers, a boon when coping with a crush of cukes.

In high season, she also adds thin slices of cucumbers to salads, to roast beef or chicken sandwiches, topping the sandwiches with a piece of kale or spinach.

Like children, cucumbers are easy to like when they are small and docile, but they can grow at alarming rates, and you do have to deal with big, burly types.

Fulcher tames large cucumbers by scooping the innards and stuffing them with chicken salad. Because the skins of these big boys can be bitter, she softens them by salting them lightly, then letting them cool for several hours in the refrigerator. The salting, preceded by a thorough washing and drying of the skin, usually eliminates the bitterness, she said.

A traditional method of cucumber disposal, turning them into pickles, does not appeal to Fulcher.

"I am not a pickle person," she said.

Ruth Ann Pierce, another cultivator of cucumbers, is fond of pickles. In the spring, she planted three varieties of cucumbers - burpless, lemon yellow and a small pickler - in her city garden plot in Dewees Park in Northeast Baltimore.

She had high hopes for the burpless, but for some reason it was a no-show. The two other types of cucumbers, however, "took off after the heavy rains" and have been flooding her with produce. "I think I over-planted," she told me.

Pierce said she is a fan of bread-and-butter pickles and is especially fond of the Mrs. Manning brand sold in grocery stores. This summer, when she began her own pickling efforts using vinegar and a package of Mrs. Wages quick-process pickling spices, she hoped her bread-and-butter efforts would match those of Mrs. Manning.

They did not, and Pierce said she preferred the store-bought to her own homemade. But maybe, she mused, they will taste better next year if she can get the burpless cucumbers to produce.

Having a surfeit of cucumbers can lead you into the world of experimental-cucumber cuisine. I ventured into this realm recently and came across recipes for putting cucumbers in lemonade and instructions for fashioning them into fans or carrot-stuffed pinwheels. These were found on a Web site called "B's Cucumber Pages."

The list of things you can do with cukes, which included eight recipes for cucumber sandwiches and three for tzatziki - the yogurt, garlic and cucumber sauce often served on gyros - was put together by Barbara Anne Cohen, an assistant curator of meteorites at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Cohen, according to her Web site, does not grow cucumbers; she collects information on them, which proves, I guess, that when you are surrounded by them, cucumbers can make you kinda crazy.

Margaret Fulcher's Chilled Cucumber Soup

Makes 8 to 10 large servings

8 to 10 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded, diced

three 24-ounce containers of plain or vanilla yogurt

2 teaspoons fresh dill

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