cukes ‘n zukes: size matters, as does pickling spice

LET’S BE FRANK–SIZE DOES MATTER. The naked truth: Smaller is better, or at least when talk turns to cucumbers and zucchinis, as it does today for Week 1 of the third annual Summer Fest, a giant cross-blog recipe swap celebrating garden-fresh flavors. (Get all the links below, just before the comments, and stock up on delicious ideas from around the web.) Before they get away from us and swell to baseball-bat size, it’s time to get picking and get pickling—which is where the spicy part comes in.

But first, that key reminder: For best flavor and texture, harvest both zucchinis (Cucurbita pepo) and cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) before the skin gets hard and dull, when they still look like the beauties up top. Bitterness from an increase in the chemicals called cucurbitacins that these crops (and melons, pumpkins and gourds) contain may increase with overripeness, though it can also result from environmental stressors such as uneven soil moisture, low soil fertility, low soil pH, high heat or wide swings in temperatures. Once you’ve got such tender subjects in hand, head directly to the kitchen.

IAM KNOWN FOR MY PICKLES, and more all the time thanks to search engines and other such decidedly non-culinary efforts. The second-most-popular post I’ve ever published (just an inch behind my slideshow of gorgeous vintage “green” WPA posters from 1936-43, like the one below): the easy refrigerator pickles, left, that a Long Island Rail Road conductor handed down to me more than 20 years ago, as his mother had to him. Yes, you can quarter any old cukes lengthwise into spears if they’re too big, but wouldn’t it be better to pick them young (or grow/buy a pickling-sized cucumber variety in the first place)? There is far more crunch that way.

QUICK ASIDE: WHAT IN THE HECK IS PICKLING SPICE? I get asked this question a lot because of those ever-popular pickles, so here’s the answer, and some recipes if you want to blend your own.

ZUCCHINI MAKE GREAT PICKLES, TOO, with a little less crunch but no less flavor.  This botanical cousin of the cucumber can be put up using the following recipe from my favorite reference, “Stocking Up III” (by Carol Hupping and the Rodale Food Center).

Refrigerator Zucchini Pickles

4 pounds small zucchini

1 pound small white onions

1 quart cider vinegar

½ cup honey

2 teaspoons celery seed

2 teaspoons turmeric

2 teaspoons dry mustard

Cut unpeeled zucchini into thin disc-shaped slices. Peel onions and slice thin. In an enamel or stainless saucepan combine the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then pour over the prepared vegetables, and let stand for an hour.

Return to the heat, bring to a boil, and cook for 3 minutes. Pour into hot, scalded canning jars; cover tightly. Refrigerate after they cool.

2 More Ways to Use All That Zucchini

  • Prepack baking ingredient: Using a box grater, mandoline or food processor fitted with the shredding disc, shred it into freezer bags, about 2 cups per pack (or whatever amount your favorite recipe calls for) to use later in breads or muffins.
  • Frozen soup-to-be: Cook zucchini with onions and garlic or other herbs as desired, and a small amount of water. Blend or puree in the food processor and pack into containers to freeze as instant soup base. This isn’t a stock but a base, so as I say, go easy on the water and save freezer space; you can dilute it later.

Links to Get the Rest of Today’s Dish:

How You Can Join in Summer Fest:

So now it’s your turn: Have a recipe or tip that fits any of our weekly themes? Starting with our posts of Wednesday, July 28, for five Wednesdays, you can contribute in various ways, big or small.

Contribute a whole post, or a comment—whatever you wish. It’s meant to be fun, viral, fluid. No pressure, just delicious. The possibilities:

Simply leave your tip or recipe or favorite links in the comments below a Summer Fest post on my blog, and then go visit my collaborators and do the same.

The cross-blog event idea works best when you leave your recipe or favorite links (whether to your own blog or someone else’s) at all the host blogs. Yes, copy and paste them everywhere! That way, they are likely to be seen by the widest audience. Everyone benefits, and some pretty great dialog starts simmering.

Or think bigger: Publish entire posts of your own, if you wish, and grab the juicy Summer Fest 2010 tomato badge (illustrated by Matt of

The 2010 Schedule:

  • Wednesday, July 28: CUKES AND ZUKES.
  • Wednesday, August 4: CORN.
  • Wednesday, August 11: HERBS-BEANS-AND-GREENS WEEK (any one or both/all, your choice).
  • Wednesday, August 18: STONE FRUIT.
  • Wednesday, August 25: TOMATO WEEK. How do you like them love apples?
  • And then…more, more, more if you want it (potatoes? sweet potatoes? root veggies? winter squash?). You name it.

And in case I forget what week it is, won’t somebody remind me on Twitter? Thanks. We’ll be talking it up there, too.

That’s how a Summer Fest works.

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July 28, 2010


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