Overcome by the zeal of spring gardening, I planted way too many cucumber plants and am once more inundated with daily harvests of bright green fruit. In addition to filling out my dinner table from June until frost, cucumber plants are much loved by pollinators, from fat, fuzzy bumblebees to homely moths and wasps. Each cucumber blossom requires several visits from a pollinator to form a fruit. If you find that your own cucumber patch isn’t as productive as you’d hoped, you may have a limited population of pollinators in your area. You can attract pollinators by avoiding harmful pesticides and planting a variety of native and heirloom flowering plants to provide nectar and pollen from spring into late fall.
Last summer I faced a similar “problem” of oversupply and made pickles for the first time. See my column from last summer about how to can your own: https://illinoistimes.com/article-20342-pickles.html.) There are still several jars in our pantry left over from last season, so this year I’ve been looking for other ways to incorporate the bounty of cucumbers into our diet.
In her books, Julia Child has several interesting cucumber recipes and tips, many of them cooked preparations. Although cooked cucumbers are all but unheard of in American cuisine, they are often featured in classic French menus. Julia advises cooks to first salt cucumbers to remove some of their moisture and improve the texture of the finished dish. Indeed this is a technique that I almost always use with cucumbers (as well as zucchini), regardless of how I am going to prepare them. Salting the cucumbers and allowing them to sit in the fridge for about 30 minutes will draw out a surprising amount of water, which is then drained off and discarded (or reserve it to use in cucumber soup). If the cucumbers are slightly bitter this helps to remove some of the bite.
My husband is from Louisville and I’ve long since declared myself an honorary Southerner, at least as far as my stomach is concerned. From bourbon whiskey to fried green tomatoes to Hot Browns (Kentucky’s answer to the horseshoe), I’ve embraced them all. In my search for recipes to use up our hoard of cukes, I stumbled across Benedictine Spread, a classic recipe often served at Kentucky Derby parties. It was created by Jennie Carter Benedict, a cook who ran a successful restaurant and catering business in Louisville around the turn of the 20th century. A simple concoction comprised of cream cheese, onion and cucumber, Jennie’s original recipe called only for the juice of the cucumber and onions to be used in the spread, along with a couple drops of green food coloring. I updated the recipe a bit (sorry Jennie), omitting the dye and incorporating the cucumber and onion pulp into spread for a slightly chunky, more satisfying result. Now a household favorite, Benedictine spread can be served as a dip with crackers or made into delightful tea sandwiches.
New Age Benedictine spread
2 medium cucumbers
1 red onion
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces softened cream cheese
Juice of ½ lemon
A few dashes hot sauce (optional)
Peel the cucumber if desired, slice it in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Roughly chop and place in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely minced but not mushy, then transfer to a nonreactive mixing bowl. Peel and roughly chop the onion before mincing in the food processor so it’s the same consistency as the cucumber. Mix in the salt and place in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
Drain the salted cucumber onion mixture and then squeeze it as dry as possible in a piece of clean cloth. Discard the salty liquid, then return the squeezed cucumbers and onions to the mixing bowl. Add the softened cream cheese and lemon juice and mix throughly with a fork. Season to taste with hot sauce, if desired.
Feel free to customize this recipe. I love to change it up with lemon zest, chopped tomatoes (salt and squeeze the tomatoes dry) and basil, or give it an Indian-spiced nod with the addition of chopped cilantro and green chilis, served with warm naan. It can also be made with goat’s cheese or low-fat Neufchâtel instead of regular cream cheese.
Adapted from Julia Child’s recipe in The French Chef Cookbook
6 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeds removed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons salt
A pinch of sugar
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons minced shallot or onion
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
Cut the cucumber lengthwise into strips about 3/8-inch wide, then cut into 2-inch sticks, or slice into half moons. Toss the cucumbers, lemon juice, salt and sugar in a nonreactive bowl and let stand for 20-30 minutes. Drain, then let dry on paper towels before proceeding.
Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat until it bubbles. Add the shallot cucumbers and sauté, stirring frequently, until they are crisp tender but not browned, about five minutes. Transfer the sautéed cucumbers and onions to a warm serving dish, then add the cream to the hot skillet. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by about half, then return the cucumbers and onions to the skillet and toss in the reduced cream. Stir in the parsley, then return it to the serving dish. This dish is excellent alongside seared salmon or grilled chicken.