I'm expecting a vast cucumber crop this year. If it's anything like last year's, I'll soon be distributing those superfluous to consumption to benighted non-cucumber growers.
We take the cucumber for granted - and those uniform, and uniformly tasteless, dildo-like examples in the supermarket salad section are to blame. For the cucumber, too, has its glories - and its flavours, textures and uses. I'm growing two examples this year: Fine Maraichere, which was responsible for last year's bumper crop and proved itself very versatile - I used it in all this week's recipes, to which it lent a distinctive, fresh, grassy sweetness; and Crystal, which is round and pale, for which I have high hopes. At time of writing, the plants are tumbling out of their huge, compost-filled pots and studded with small, dandelionyellow flowers and infant cucumbers. Oh, the excitement of it all...
"A cucumber," Dr Johnson is reported as saying, "should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing." Silly old fool.
Rarely has so much opinionated nonsense masqueraded as informed comment. The cucumber has been around for a long time, since at least when the Assyrians came down like the wolf on the fold (it's listed in an early Assyrian herbal). It enjoyed a good press in Virgil's Georgics, too.
It turned up here sometime in the 14th century, and has been a staple of the seed catalogues ever since. I wouldn't say cucumber is a monster in the taste department, but its freshness, unassuming modesty and crunchiness add qualities to dishes that more celebrated veg do not.
Cucumber with chicken wings
Recipes serve four
I've adapted this from a recipe in Michel Guérard's great Cuisine Gourmande. The combination is inspired, but he goes in for a lot of cheffy business that I don't have time for.
16 chicken wings, trimmed
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 tbsp raw tomato pulp
1 sprig tarragon
150ml white wine (or Chambéry vermouth)
300ml double cream
Salt and pepper
Melt half the butter in a deep-sided frying pan. Fry the wings for about 10 minutes until golden, remove and keep warm. Add the shallots to the pan, fry until soft and golden, add the tomato and tarragon, and cook for a couple of minutes longer. Return the wings to the pan, add the wine and reduce by half. Add the cream, lower the heat and cook very gently for 15 minutes.
While all this is going on, peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber halves in half again lengthways, and then into 5cm-long sections. (You can work them up further, if you want, by trimming off the sharp edges and shaping them into torpedoes.)
Heat the remaining butter in another frying pan until foaming, and fry the cucumber bits until golden. Add these to the other pan a minute or two before you're ready to eat. Season and serve.
Roasted smoked salmon with ginger and cucumber
Many years ago I helped out a friend who had a load of paying guests staying for a week. I stepped into the kitchen (I know my place) and knocked out the dinners. This particular dish may seem weird - I suppose it is weird - but it's wonderful, too.
So wonderful, in fact, that one of the guests plucked a rose from the display on the table and sent it through to the cook. And that doesn't happen every day. On that occasion, I piled on another layer of flavour by adding a beurre blanc sauce: you know, the one made with chopped shallots, vinegar and butter - lots of butter.
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, cut into slivers
4 smoked salmon steaks cut from thickest part of a side
Preheat the oven as high as it will go. Peel the cucumber, cut in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Slice the two halves into sticks about half the width of a pencil and as long as your thumb. Mix the cucumber and the ginger together.
Put the smoked salmon steaks on to a non-stick baking tray and put into the top of the oven for about five minutes - after that time, the outside should be slightly hard and even a bit bronzed. Divide the cucumber and ginger between the four plates and squeeze the lime over them. Place the smoked salmon steak on top and serve.
Creamy cucumber salad
A fine, old-fashioned dish, this. My granny served it with potato salad and what she called cold cuts.
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp cider (or white-wine) vinegar
150ml single cream
1 bunch chives
Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible, put in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 30 minutes, then rinse well, drain and dry on a clean tea towel. Transfer to a serving dish. Mix the oil, vinegar and cream, and season with pepper. Chop up the chives and stir in. Pour over the cucumber and leave to steep for 15 minutes before serving.
Sweet and sour and hot cucumber salad
By way of a change - and by way of showing the cucumber's versatility.
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 small, hot red chilli, finely chopped
2 dssp lime juice
1 dssp caster sugar
1 dssp nam pla (aka Thai fish sauce)
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Slice the two halves into slivers and transfer to a serving dish. Sprinkle the onion and chilli over the cucumber. Whisk together the lime juice, sugar and nam pla until the sugar has dissolved. Chop the mint leaves quite finely and add to the dressing. Pour over the cucumber slices and leave to steep for 30 minutes before serving.
Pickled cucumbers This is what I do with any surplus cucumbers I can't even give away.
300ml white-wine vinegar
1 litre water
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
2kg small cucumbers
2 bay leaves
2 fennel fronds
In a pan, bring the liquid ingredients, sugar, salt and spices to the boil and cook until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Set aside to cool. Cut the cucumbers into halves or quarters, and put them in jars. Divide the bay leaves and fennel between the jars. Once the pickling liquid is cold, pour into the jars until all the ingredients are immersed and seal the jars. Fold up a tea towel and place it on the bottom of a large saucepan (or saucepans). Add plenty of water and bring to the boil. Put the jars into the pan, making sure the water comes at least two-thirds of the way up the sides of the jars. Boil for 45 minutes, set aside to cool, then store until needed.