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August 26, 2009

Locavore Lore: Cornucopia of curative cucumbers

It’s time to revel in the essence of this sultry season: abundance. Yes, it’s humid here in the Ohio Valley during August, and yes, it’s also hot, but that’s summer, right? And along with a greater appreciation for ice cubes and attic fans, we also get to savor this steamy time of the year with overflowing farmers market stands and bounteous backyard gardens. Now is the time when neighbors have more tomatoes than they can give away and growers are scrambling to keep up with the squash multiplying on their vines. Heavy eggplants are weighing down their stems, and succulent okra jump off the stalks: It’s a locavore heaven.

However, the true standout of the season has to be the cucumber, as not only is this crisp, juicy wonder of the garden prized for its preservation prominence in the pickling world, it’s also perfect in its just-picked state. Perhaps this is why I’m so enamored of cucumbers: They’re a beautiful representation of the perfection in our own dualities. Raw and innocent or preserved and wizened, these gorgeous green gems are a gentle reminder to embrace the polarities that exist in all of us. Even just acknowledging the paradoxical parts of myself feels like some kind of balance for me, and seeing that it’s possible to welcome all aspects of my humanity seems like a step in the right direction. A fellow Aquarian said to me last summer, “I know balance when I swing past it,” to which I can wholeheartedly relate. So maybe that’s also the joy in the cucumber — the health-conscious ascetic in me can embrace my epicurean glutton in an unrestricted feast of raw cucumbers. For once, the two can harmoniously co-exist — and isn’t this what we’re all trying to learn this go-round?

Or, as a good friend suggested while we waded through our sea of cucumbers at Foxhollow, maybe I’m “cucumber crazy” because they’re so readily enjoyed in their raw state. Not only do I love the numerous sensorial pleasures and wellness benefits of savoring a plethora of raw foods, it also means less time preparing and more time to play outside. It’s true that there aren’t many cooked cucumber recipes, but maybe that’s testimony to the wisdom of the natural world. It’s the time of year when we least want to heat up the house by cooking — how wonderful that we’re given this smorgasbord of deliciousness that doesn’t require firing up the stove? Additionally, the life force in many foods is stronger when they’re consumed in their natural state. During this cycle of the season, when there’s a focus on heightened physical activity and personal transition on so many levels, nourishing our own vitality with raw food is an excellent way to support our personal energetic systems.

As further evidence that the natural world always provides what we need, not only are cucumbers naturally cooling, they’re more than 90 percent water, which our bodies obviously need more when it’s hot outside. Drinking clean, pure water is essential for wellness. An entire column could be devoted to the healing power of water, but in a nutshell (or a cucumber peel), plants are potent purifiers and cleansers, so plants with a high water content that are grown in healthy environments give your body a chance to absorb quality H2O with increased healing capacities. In other words, while cucumbers aren’t known for their tremendous vitamin content, the waters they contain can be extremely cleansing and supportive of overall wellness.

Furthermore, cucumbers gently prod us toward more inspired living by storing their valuable minerals, cell salts and vitamins in and near the skin, quietly encouraging us to choose organic and leave the peel on. And lastly, because they seem to arrive by the busload, they beg us to connect more intimately with our food by exploring preservation. If you’re new to canning and pickling, now is the time to learn. There are numerous classes and workshops offered around the area, so grab your mason jars and get rolling; experiencing the intense aromatic and gustatorial pleasure of opening a jar of your own summertime pickles on a snowy winter evening is worth an August afternoon of learning.

Cucumbers are more than just edible gifts from the plant world; they’re also amazing for their externally curative properties. Cucumber slices on the eyes work wonders for erasing signs of sleep deprivation and for general skin rejuvenation, and plain cucumber juice is a wonderful remedy for a variety of skin irritations, such as bites, scratches, breakouts and bumps. The cooling alkalinity of cucumber juice is both restorative and soothing, and it reduces inflammation and subdues discomfort. It is also known as a miracle cure for hair loss, as the peels and juice encourage thicker, longer locks.

One final interesting quality of cucumbers is their high content of sulfur and silicon, which promotes hair growth. Not only does this provide a window into the inner workings of biodynamic and regenerative agriculture in that we can witness how specific elements in the natural world support different types of growth (silica promotes fruiting and flowering in plants just as it promotes hair growth on humans), we can also deepen our awareness of the interdependence of all elements and energies. It is this ever-widening awareness of our interconnectedness to the various components of our evolving universe that continues to guide us forward — toward wholeness, balance, accepting our dualities and contradictions, and embracing the fabulous paradox of it all.

But you should still take the time to learn to pickle. Here’s how you can make better-than-store-bought pickles with zero pickling prowess. The secret to success for the on-the-go pickler is pouring a hot vinegar mixture over slices of cold cucumber in this recipe. A brilliant edible incarnation of our study in balance, these pickles have the perfect blend of both sweet and sour, and though closer to the “bread and butter” variety in taste, they’re still a pleaser for the vinegar-loving pickle crowd.

 

Pickles in a Pinch

1 1/4 pounds pickling cucumbers, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup cider vinegar

1 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup sweetener

1 cup sliced onion

3-4 cloves garlic, slivered

3 tablespoons fresh dill, parsley or basil, chopped

1 teaspoon mustard seed

Place cucumber slices in a colander in the sink. Sprinkle with salt and stir to combine. Let stand for 20 minutes, then rinse, drain and transfer to a large, heatproof bowl. Combine cider vinegar, white vinegar, brown sugar, onion, garlic, herbs and mustard seed in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers; stir to combine. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes to bring to room temperature.

 

Tomatoes are also in abundance right now, and they make an excellent companion to many cucumber dishes. This recipe also calls for mint, a delicious herb that is proliferating right now, both in gardens and wild spots, and its subtle sweetness provides a delightful bridge between the cucumbers’ alkalinity and the acidity of the tomatoes.

Cooling Cucumber, Mint & Tomato Salad

4 ripe tomatoes

4 medium-sized cucumbers, thinly sliced

2 small white onions, thinly sliced

20 mint leaves, cut finely

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Mix tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and mint. Add vinegar and olive oil, mixing, then add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for one hour and enjoy!