Cool off with low-calorie cucumbers
BY JENNIFER MOTL
With cooling flavor, cucumbers are one of August’s most delectable and easily prepared veggies. Sadly, cucumbers get little attention in the scientific world.
Cucumbers aren’t particularly high in vitamins, although I think in the future they may be shown to be a good source of phytochemicals. That’s just a guess, but some other low-vitamin veggies have ended up having lots of health benefits.
For example, celery is linked to reduced risk of colon cancer, and cooked mushrooms may help stimulate immune defenses. Why shouldn’t cucumbers be good for something? More research is needed.
We do know that if you’re trying to watch your weight, cucumbers are heaven-sent. Cukes are one of the lowest-calorie veggies—one-third of a cucumber has only 10 calories.
Cucumbers—whose flavor is the opposite of hot chili peppers—have a reputation for creating a sensation of coolness in the mouth.
And their fragrance is supposed to calm people, to the point that cucumber-scented lotions are marketed for their soothing qualities.
The phrase “cool as a cucumber” describes the vegetable’s effects on some folks—but not all. Some women are mildly sexually aroused by the scent of cucumber, according to research by a Chicago physician.
Cucumbers may have first been cultivated in India 3,000 years ago. The Romans valued them so much that rich citizens were buried with cucumbers, among other foods. The Romans believed in providing food for the dead to eat on their journey to the afterlife.
Cukes have a nice mild flavor, and there are many varieties to choose from: slicing, pickling and exotic heirloom cucumbers.
Most common are the 5-to 8-inch long green cucumbers, also called slicing cucumbers. Some folks say the skin is slightly bitter, so they prefer to peel them. These cukes taste crisp and mellow in a salad.
English cucumbers are much longer—up to 2 feet long. They often are sold wrapped in plastic to protect their thinner skin—you don’t need to peel them. These cukes supposedly are “burpless.” (Personally, I’ve never found any cucumbers to cause me to burp, though.) English cukes are best eaten fresh.
Pickling cucumbers are the short, warty-skinned varieties. Although they can be used to make pickles, they also taste fabulous in salads.
Heirloom cucumbers can come in pale, twisty shapes like mild Armenian cukes. You can even find squat, yellow cucumbers, nicknamed lemon cucumbers, an heirloom variety that is supposed to be exceptionally mild.
The exotic varieties are hard to find at supermarkets, but I grew them easily in my garden. Buy the seeds at your local garden center or an online supplier like Pinetree Garden Seeds (superseeds .com) and plant them in the springtime.
All cucumbers grow on vines like their relatives, melons, zucchini and pumpkins. So plan on giving cucumber vines plenty of space, or train them to grow up a trellis or fence.
CRISP AND CRUNCHY
Although most often sliced into rounds for salads or speared and brined as pickles, there are many ways to prepare cucumbers—in soups, drinks and salads.
Cukes are a key ingredient in gazpacho, a puréed, chilled soup made with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, sweet pepper, basil, lemon juice and a splash of olive oil.
One of my favorite summertime beverages is spa water—just add a couple of slices of cucumber and lemon to a glass of cold water. It looks as refreshing as it tastes.
Cucumbers lend themselves well to yogurt-based sauces like tzatziki and raita. Tzatziki is a traditional Greek sauce, usually made with Greek yogurt, minced cucumber, minced garlic and minced mint leaves. Tastes great on gyro sandwiches or as a salad dressing.
Raita, an Indian condiment, is made with yogurt, cucumber, mint and cumin. It helps cool your palate after you eat spicy food.
Cucumbers also taste delicious in tiny Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches. Take a slice of mini pumpernickel or rye bread and spread with cream cheese or Greek yogurt. Top with a thin slice of cucumber and a thin slice of smoked salmon and a bit of dill. Delicious!
Pickles are a popular use for cucumbers, but they’re incredibly salty. Instead of store-bought pickles, try making delicious home-made pickles, which taste fresher and have no sodium whatsoever. See the recipe on this page.
Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at healthyliving@freelance star.com.