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

zucchini 1LET’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 in harvest season. 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.

pickle-jars-2IAM 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.

grow it yourself posterQUICK 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

  • Pre-pack 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.
July 28, 2010


  1. Deb says

    You always were one to get us into pickles. Love love love that we’re doing this–seeing food ideas created by gardeners and foodies inspires in a whole new way and at the perfect time, what with overflowing bins at the farmer’s market (next year in the garden). Meantime, I’m going to teach my boys about pickling spice and put up some quick lil veggies as a way to bottle memories. Grazie, friend and mentor. Deb

    • says

      Oh, Deb…the equation works both ways, and then some. Thanks for being a consistent co-conspirator. Fun to continue this Summer Fest — our invention — into Year 3, bigger than ever. I’ll look for photos of those pickles-to-be made by your lambs.

  2. says

    Here is a link to a recipe for Summertime Risotto with Zucchini, Basil and Golden Bell Peppers, which I posted up on 7/22 with some cultural notes on zucchini: . I just read about Summer Fest, and although I am familiar with some of the food sites and blogs, I am actually less familiar with the participating garden blogs… including this one. What a great way to share recipes and get to know more blogs. I look forward to touring the participating sites!
    Thank you! Michaela

  3. Michele says

    A couple of weeks ago I made a little promise to myself: garden a little less, and OOK a whole lot MORE. I have cucumbers so Margaret’s pickles are on the list. Cheers to Summer Fest!

  4. says

    This is a fabulous idea and I would love to participate, perhaps from next week since I missed this one :)

    I recently started a Farm to Table series myself inspired by my CSA baskets (no gardening in the city :(( ) and had posted a recipe to feature squashes – Ginataan Kalabaasa. It’s a mild cocunut curry dish and the squash’s flavor pairs nicely with the creamy curry. Link –

  5. says

    Btw, I recently got a tip from my mom about storing an over abundant supply of cukes – Dice them and microwave for 5 minutes to partially cook them. Then store in the refrigerator or freezer until the next idea hits!

    • says

      Welcome to Summer Fest to first-time commenters Asha, Cosmic Cowgirl, Michaela, and Judy (a participant in the event herself — all the way from Tuscany!). I am glad to meet you all, and thrilled to have your ideas and links as well. The more the merrier. Nobody can say they’re short on ideas for what to do with all those cucumbers and zucchinis after they see this!

  6. says

    I want to join the party! I do the seasonal recipes posts for the blog site and following the Summer Fest weekly line up might help me hold to my deadlines. Hmmm.

    Here’s the link to a recent post. I finally worked up a recipe for the Cucumber Wasabi Soup folks have been hounding me for for years. It’s amazing. A cucumber and cultured dairy summer orgy!

  7. says

    Last years Summer Fest was fabulous, you have out done your self this year. I have to get some work done, but will continue to be inspired later today with a glass of wine.

  8. says

    so happy to have stumbled upon you! your site is amazing and gardening is something i’m continually trying to improve. love your pickled zucchinis and this summer fest! thank u!

    • says

      Welcome, Terri…with the delicious combination of chocolate and zucchini, no less. Thanks for joining us.

      Hello also to first-time commenter G. I am glad you found me and hope you will come again for whatever’s being served up; you’re most welcome!

  9. says

    I didn’t get to plant zucchini this year because my deck construction coincided with planting season. But now I happily find myself on the receiving end of zucchinis grown in friends’ gardens. What fun.

    I have fresh zucchini to make my favorite zucchini bread. I’ve used this recipe for years. I’ve tried others, but always come back to this Wisconsin farm-woman’s recipe. Here’s a link to the recipe and a story about garden-giving reciprocity.—givi.html

  10. says

    OOh! Seeing all the other posts has inspired me to throw a couple more recipes (from my archives) into the mix. What the hell!

    Zucchini Muffins: I developed these to be a healthy, easy to manage toddler finger food that would ALSO be delicious to mama & papa

    Zucchini, Mint & Ricotta Frittata: A go-to quick summer dinner that everyone from baby to parents can enjoy. Love this one!

  11. says

    I completely agree on the “size matters” topic. I grew lemon cucumbers a couple summers ago and I loved them small. Gosh…I miss those cucumbers. They are always too big at the market.

    Also…I just made some “Lady Pickles” with Japanese white cucumbers. They are spicy and sweet, feisty little pickles.

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