Wednesday, May 13, 2009


There's something about a good, fresh, ripe, right-from-the garden cucumber. Bright green, a sort of forest green, small prickly bumps like cucumber acne, firm to the touch if picked properly. When you slice into it with a sharp knife there's a snap, and the unmistakable aroma that rises up quickly. The smell of a cucumber. I'm not sure how to describe it but it's distinctive. To me it's the smell of a garden. Actually the cucumber is a fairly simple fruit when it comes right down to it. One that always reminds me of summer and of my great-grandparent's garden.

I have wanted to write about my cucumber memories for awhile now but needed to find the right cucumber. I knew those over-ripe, too big, coated-in-wax ones at Gelson's would not be right. In fact they are all wrong. I looked at Whole Foods and nothing doing there either. I even checked several farmers' markets and came up empty. Now I hope the lack of product at the farmers' markets is due to the cucumbers normal May to August growing season but I doubt it -- not in this day and age of hot houses, hydroponics and God knows what else. I kept my eyes open for the right cucumber. I knew it was out there somewhere.

When I was growing up we often ate the fresh fruits and vegetables that my great-grandparents grew in their garden. I realize now that I didn't know any different. Going into the garden, pulling up a carrot, washing it off with the hose, and eating it on the spot was no big deal to my sister and I. The freshness and garden flavor we took for granted. It wasn't until I was older that I became aware of how different a carrot bought at the local Safeway and a carrot pulled from my great-grandparent's garden tasted. It was then that I fully appreciated their amazing garden.

Now back to my cucumber. At the family meals, usually midday on Sundays, when seven or eight of us all sat down together my great-grandmother quite often put a bowl of sliced cucumbers soaking in vinegar on the table. It always seemed to be there. We all helped ourselves. I guess it might be considered a side dish, or a condiment. What they were to me were little bites of garden freshness. Cucumbers picked that morning, sliced and put into a bowl with vinegar and salt. Simplicity at its best. A sort of faux-pickle: crunchy, greenly bitter, mouth puckering and refreshing. I loved them. And as simple as it is, the dish is a standout in my childhood food memories. I think in part because the simpleness of the dish is evocative of who my great-grandmother was; hardworking, self-sufficient and uncomplicated.

This past weekend Robert and I went to see the new farmers' market at the Americana -- a popular, outdoor shopping mall in Glendale, California. I'd heard they were starting a farmers' market but I was also in no rush to go to one in a shopping mall. It turned out to be quite delightful. It's called Gigi's Farmers Market, happens every Saturday, and is easily on par with other local farmers' markets. As we wandered through my cucumber radar was up. As we rounded a corner to the next produce stall, I saw them sitting there in a small stack. The right size, the right green, with cucumber acne. I picked one up, it smelled like a cucumber. It felt like a cucumber. It looked like I'd found my cucumber. I asked the growers where they were from: Oxnard -- about fifty-nine miles away. Organic? Yes. Waxed? No. I bought six.

When I got home I made my great-grandmother's faux pickles and Robert and I ate them with our lunch. As I peeled and cut into the first one that cucumber smell rose up to meet my nose, and memories of our long ago family meals came rushing back to me.


Gramma Ora's Faux Pickles

Serves 4-6


  • 4 medium sized cucumbers, garden fresh or organic farmers market
  • Apple cider vinegar, enough to cover the cucumbers
  • 1 tsp. salt, ground sea salt if possible
Peel the cucumbers and slice into 1/4 inch rounds. Place in a serving bowl, just cover with vinegar, add salt. Salt may be adjusted depending on personal preference. If possible allow to sit at room temperature for a 1/2 hour before serving.

My Status: International Food Blogger Conference: I leave for Seattle on Thursday, May 14 and return home on Monday, May 18. The conference is Friday, May 15 - Sunday, May 17.

Robert and I leave for Paris, the Languedoc, Barcelona and Madrid on Sunday, May 24, returning home on Saturday, June 6.

Upcoming Posts: The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. France and Spain: if all goes well technologically, and time allows, I'll be posting blogs from Europe.

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  1. I know you said to "peel the cucumber" but I always eat the with the skin- is that totally wrong? Is it supposed to be eaten? I guess I like the added crispness...send your expertise my way!

  2. Charles,

    Today when I was at market I went to the booth of a business calld Humbly Northwest. Oh my god they had pickled onions that almost made my cloths fall off and it was freezing out here and rainy. Joel who is the chef part of the equation seems like he is this guy out of Brooklyn while his parter Jordan is more moderate. In any case they are going to start bottling these things with the raspberry vinegar that I make. I was reading about the pickling and it reminded me of today.


  3. Of course you can eat the skin -- it's probably full of good vitamins and phytochemicals. My great-grandmother always peeled them for this dish -- I think it makes the faux-pickles a bit less bitter. Try it both ways & let me know. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I love pickles, but they're pretty labour-intensive and the curing process drives me crazy with anticipation. Faux pickles might be a happy compromise while I'm waiting. Thanks for the recipe!

  5. And here all this time I thought I was weird for thinking this very thing about cucumbers. :-)

    Fresh -- that's a cucumber. When someone ever asks me to describe what freshness is in vegetables, I always use the cucumber as an example.

    Charles, thanks for putting into words what I could not. The cucumber encapsulates the smell of the garden. That is exactly it!!!

    One of the reasons I place Japanese food as the best of all cuisines is their appreciation for cucumbers. Japanese food is all about freshness, because they care. And nothing epitomizes that more than a fresh garden cucumber. On a hot day, nothing cools you down faster than cold cucumber salad. And it's good for you too! BONUS!

    Thanks for sharing your grandmother's recipe. It looks delicious. And have fun at the conference. I wish I could join all of you, but I will not miss it next year!

    Looking forward to that wedge salad post too. The simplest of all salads, relying on good ingredients. That's when ingredients shine, and I'm all about that.

  6. You're welcome, Eagranie. Thanks for the comment. I haven't tried making my own pickles (yet). Let me know if you try the faux-pickles!

  7. Cucumber is THE vegetable of my childhood. We really had a limited variety growing up in Ukraine. Fresh cucumbers and tomatoes in the spring/summer were our regular veggies. Then, my grandma also picked both of those. Love the faux-pickles!

  8. Thanks 5 Star -- nice to hear other childhood cucumber stories. Tomatoes and cucumbers together -- such great summer vegetables (or rather fruit)!

  9. I have no family cucumber stories. I don't think our family really ate them all that much.

    But this is the sort of recipe I need to have around... good source of low cal munching in the summertime!

  10. Thanks Phil! My great-grandmother was a very simple cook and this dish examples that. We missed you at the conference! It was a great event.

    Thanks Lori - it was great meeting you at IFBC. The faux-cucumbers would be a great low cal summer snack.

    Those pickled onions sound great, Pericles. I suppose most things can be, and are, pickled. :-)