A Matter of Size: How I Came to Appreciate the Cucumber


I’ve never been particularly excited by the cucumber. As a summer vegetable – actually a fruit — I’ve always found it lacking in flavor, a poor imitation of a melon and not quite a zucchini. The greasy green skin creeps me out. And, they make me burp. The closest I get is a Kiehl’s cucumber and herb skin toner.

Yet right now, there are a half dozen cukes hanging on vines that I’ve trained up an eight-foot bamboo wigwam frame in the middle of my rose garden.

Trained is a figure of speech. The vines seem to grow six inches a day and the prehensile tendrils grip on to anything they can find. It’s an ongoing battle to keep them from smothering my rose garden like kudzu.

Given all this, you must be wondering what possessed me to cultivate cucumbers this summer. Well, it all started with an NPR story about cornichons, those tiny, delicious, imported French pickles you buy in gourmet stores. Seems France is in an uproar because production has been outsourced to India. Frenchmen take their cornichons seriously, as do I. How can one enjoy a country pate without cornichons? It’s uncivilized.

Despite the fact that the cucumber originated in India and seventy percent of the world’s cucumbers are now grown in Asia, I share the Franco-fear that this isn’t going to work out well in the long run. I can only imagine it’ll be similar to that mealy Chinese crab some places are now pushing off as blue crab.

I decided, therefore, to take matters into my own hands, and I ordered up a packet of seeds from Paris. Not just any seeds, but “Cucumber Vert Fin de Meaux,” a very ancient variety specially selected to be harvested for the making of cornichons. They come from the mustard-making region of France. Special fruit with excellent productivity.

My plan was to pickle the midget cukes in a bath of kosher salt, vinegar, peppercorns, tarragon, grape leaves and mustard seeds for enjoyment in the fall. No longer would I need to travel to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to get the very best. I’d grow cornichons on Columbia Avenue.

Or so I thought. I got distracted, you see, by the heat, the beach, and a busy social scene. Turned my back for one week it seemed, and when I went to take a peek at le petit cornichons, whoa Nelly! I was shocked to find them all swolled-up and wagging to and fro on the vine like some sort of hothouse porn star.

I couldn’t pickle a cornichon of this size. Defeats the purpose.

What was I gonna do now? Make batches of cucumber and onion salad? Give ‘em as gifts at dinner parties? Actually, I like that idea…

Just as I was about to toss them into the composter, I had a brilliant idea. Why not drink them?

Truth be told, I’d never tasted a cucumber cocktail. But, I was certainly aware that cucumbers had moved out of the realm of garnish and into the main event. The challenge would be to find a cocktail that paid homage to the French spirit of Vert Fin de Meaux.

Nothing with tequila or gin would do. Rum didn’t feel quite right either, even though the French-speaking Caribbean nations are known for full-bodied rhums produced from sugar cane juice. A frozen concoction seemed tacky. A martini, too American. And, I was not the least bit interested in anything that required boiling a cucumber to make syrup.

Finally though, I came across a recipe that seemed worth trying. In the spirit of Julia Child, follow along with me if you please.

Peel four cukes. Remove the seeds and coarsely chop them. Puree, and then liquefy in a food processor. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much jus as possible. Notice how the scent of cucumber fills the air.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add one cup of loosely packed mint leaves, two tablespoons of sugar, and three tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice. Shake. Then add a cup of cucumber jus, half a cup of vodka, and two generous shots of Cointreau. Shake again. Strain into four glasses filled with ice and garnish with a cucumber spear.

Repeat.

This cocktail is pure bliss. Better than a mojito and without the mess. Summer in a shaker. Funny how a couple of inches can alter one’s perspective.

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