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 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.
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
- 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.