Cucumbers

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Cucumis sativus, the cultivated cucumber (literally, the Latin means the “sown cucumber”)*, is a stealth vegetable, common worldwide, barely noticed anywhere. Mostly water, mild and grassy in taste, the cucumber can be and often is eaten raw. Anyone looking for a fresh vegetable in Germany will have gratefully discovered cucumber salad, Gurkensalat, an omnipresent first course on simple menus.

All three recipes are for uncooked cucumbers (unless you count the hot water bath for the pickles as cooking). The trick is to leach out as much of the water from them as possible (for the pickles, which are meant to be preserved without desiccation, the brine infiltrates the flesh and stabilizes it through the benign action of bacteria that can survive in a salty medium that suppresses the bad microbes, which would otherwise rot an untreated cuke).

Ever inconsistent, I will now reveal that my most exalted cucumber experience caught me by surprise in 1971 when I entered the kitchen of Helen McCully, a career “girl” (by then venerable but fleet of whisk and wit) and for many years food editor of House Beautiful. There stood Jacques Pépin, not yet a celebrated cookbook author and TV chef, sautéing cucumber slices in butter. With a snap of the wrist, he would periodically send the pale, skinned circles crashing against the back of the skillet. They would then rise, flip over obediently, and resume cooking on their other side. This was not only a great stunt but it made the water in the cucumbers vanish and replaced it with butter, unctuous and nutty.

*Many plants are officially denominated this way, viz., Cannabis sativa, the hemp plant aka marijuana, whose vernacular is, according to OED, an invention of English speakers who transformed the Mexican mariguan (itself possibly derived from Nahuatl malliuan, meaning prisoner [because it takes you prisoner??]) into a colloquial contraction of Maria Juana (a popular process of abbreviation yielding, all over the hispanophone world, names such as Marisol, Maricruz, Maricris, or, less obviously, Marisa (Maria Luisa), Maribel (Maria Isabel), and, not obviously at all, Concha (Maria Concepcion).

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