When most people picture cucumbers, they think of long, slender, smooth-skinned slicers. Stearns says a big difference between American and European varieties of slicers is the thickness of the skin. Thick-skinned American types are better for market sales and shipping because of their durable nature, yet the more fragile European cucumbers can be eaten without peeling. Plant breeders are continually tweaking cucumber genetics to combine desirable characteristics, including mild flavor, productivity, and disease resistance.
For slicers, I grow the American ‘Straight Eight’, as well as ‘Green Finger’, a hybrid from Cornell University that combines the durability of the American types with the tender skin of the European varieties. In my experience, it’s not quite as prolific as ‘Straight Eight’, but it doesn’t require peeling and the mild flavor is superior.
Theresa Martz, who gleans material for her blog at tendingmygarden.com from her backyard organic garden in Lottsburg, Virginia, recently fell in love with the ‘General Lee’ American slicer. It’s a gynoecious type, meaning it produces mostly female flowers. Martz reports impressive yields from this hybrid, a standard choice for home gardeners and market growers.
One of the most intriguing European cultivars is ‘Picolino’. It’s a perfect 4-inch snacking cucumber with thin skin and a sweet flavor. While many European cultivars are bred specifically for greenhouse production, ‘Picolino’ can be grown in the open garden and offers some resistance to cucumber mosaic virus. This is a good one to pick and pack in a lunch.
While slicing cucumbers may get the most attention in seed catalogs, it’s the oddballs that are the most fun to grow. ‘Lemon’ cucumbers fit their moniker with a nearly spherical shape and citruslike flavor. They’re ready to eat when they’ve lost the green tinge. Pick them young, because they do tend to become seedy when left too long on the vine.
One of my new favorites is ‘Boothby’s Blonde’. I was surprised to discover this is an heirloom variety originating from the Boothby family in Maine, because it looks like a science project gone awry. ‘Boothby’s Blonde’ is pale yellow with bumpy skin and tiny black spikes. Harvest it before it reaches 6 inches long. It has a sweet yet tangy flavor.
“Boothby is great,” says Stearns. “And you can think of it as the little sister to ‘Silver Slicer’.” Open-pollinated ‘Silver Slicer’ is the newest Cornell creation. It’s a thin-skinned cucumber with excellent flavor and disease resistance. “It’s creamy white,” Stearns says. “It has a sweet flavor. There is absolutely no bitterness whatsoever.”
Cucumber aficionados looking for drama should grow the Chinese variety ‘Suyo Long’. The fruits will stretch—actually it’s more like twist—up to 2 feet long. ‘Suyo Long’ has a strong cucumber flavor, but it’s not bitter, even when it’s harvested on the large side. Stearns notes that the seed cavity doesn’t take up the entire length of the fruit, so the seedy section can be cut off with plenty left for eating.
To return to the cucumber’s Indian roots, try russet-skinned ‘Poona Kheera’—admittedly, an acquired taste. As Stearns says, “It’s different. It’s crispy, and it has a sweet, meaty flavor. When it’s bigger, it’s hard like an apple.”
The mild flavor of cucumbers lends itself to a number of sweet or savory dishes, yet they shine best in simple salads. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use them.
During summer, I live on salads with sliced cucumbers and sweet peppers. Crumble on a little feta cheese, a generous splash of balsamic vinegar, and sea salt to taste for a perfect meal.
My family also enjoys a salad of sliced cucumbers dressed with sour cream, vinegar, sugar, salt, and paprika. Some people leave out the sugar, but my grandmother considers that blasphemy. Dill can be substituted for the paprika.
Lemon juice is a perfect pairing with citrusy varieties such as ‘Boothby’s Blonde’ and ‘Lemon’. Slice or chunk the cucumbers, drizzle them with a little olive or flax seed oil, squeeze lemon juice on top, and add freshly grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt to taste.