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.
  1. Great feeling to get all of this good food out there, huh? You’re the best for bringing this together. Thanks for checking out my recipe– I can’t wait to try your zucchini pickles, yum!

  2. Sarah says:

    I’m so excited about SummerFest! My zucchini’s are going crazy so I’ve been constantly working on new recipes for them these past few weeks! This year, my favorites include:

    Garlic Ginger Zucchini Pickles

    Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread with Chocolate Chunks & Ginger

    Southwestern Garden Succotash (which actually features a number of garden vegetables coming up on the SummerFest line-up)

    and, from a previous post, my favorite lentil salad which is best with fresh cucumbers and basil from the garden

    Can’t wait to peruse the other recipes! I’m going to be eating our zucchini for weeks!


  3. Nicole says:

    I adore pickles but don’t think I’ve ever tried pickled zucchini. I’m going to give it a try soon with some zucchini from my Dad’s garden!

    1. Margaret says:

      As I have said before, even better than the recipes in Summer Fest: the new people to meet. Welcome to Purple Cook — and how interesting, I too was struck by the variations on zucchini bread, from curried to chocolate chip. Great picks.

      Welcome, Lana, with your stuffed zucchini, and Nicole — pickles are in your future! Welcome also to Sarah (I love the sounds of the ginger in that bread!).

      Big hello’s to Dahila (and thank you for a stuffing recipe — perfect!) and Pepy (with your Indonesian cucumber limeade).

      And Caroline, you are welcome. :)

  4. Winnie says:

    Hooray for Summer Fest! I’d like to submit these zucchini “noodles” with avocado garlic dressing:


    As well as this refreshing cucumber sorbet:


    And some good old reliable lacto-fermented pickles (a recipe that’s really adaptable; I just made a batch with garlic, tarragon and chile pepper)


    I’m really looking forward to reading everyone’s recipes…and I’ll try to do a dedicated Summer Fest post next week ;)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Winnie. When someone says “old, reliable” in regards to pickles, I’m in! Thank you, and see you next week I hope, too.

  5. Billy Joe White says:

    Zucchini con Chili
    With Eight Ball Zucchini
    Cut off top
    Core out center
    Fill with Chili con Carne
    Bake till done
    Place some 1/2 strips of bacon on top
    Garnish with grated cheddar cheese

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Billy Joe. I love to make chili (vegetarian style) and this is a great way to serve it, thank you. See you soon (maybe next week for Corn Week?).

  6. Judy B. - Texas says:

    I’m a newbie to your blog….looking forward to the Summer Fest. Was raised on a farm atmosphere and we grew our own veggies – so blessed to have fresh home-grown vegetables. Remember my Mamma and Nanny canning for Winter use. Just read the zucchini “how to grow” and had forgotten about the boy and girl characteristics. Planted two plants this year but all the rain we got this Spring drowned them – so it’s Farmers Market I go.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Judy C. Score 1 for the farmer’s market, exactly. :) I have a few shooping trips in my future, too. Nice to “meet” you and do come again soon — I look forward to it.

  7. Jennie says:

    Thank you, thank you for that tip on storing shredded zucchini in a freezer bag. I so miss muffins during the off season. One day I will try my hand at growing zucchini. Until then, here’s a different take on baking with zucchini—streusel topped coffee cake! So glad to join in this year’s SummerFest.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jenni — and you come carrying zucchini coffee cake versus the more expected zucchini bread, no less! Thank you, and see you again soon, I hope.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Farm With a View. I am laughing at the recipe name: Hamburger Soup. Off I go to look; you caught my attention!

      Welcome, Suna. The simplest pastas with fresh tomatoes are my favorites — how did you know? :)

      Hope to see you both soon again.

  8. lisa mertins says:

    wonderful that you posted those pickling spices as i’m mad canning this year. one of my favorite things to pickle — EGGS! people get awfully squeamish about my glorious vermillion orbs. i force them to try a slice and usually, they’re hooked!

    they usually don’t last more than a week at my house so safe to refrigerator pickle them…

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Leah — and with fritters, no less. Lately I am thinking about fritters a lot (I think because it’s corn season and I want someone to make me some!). See you soon again.

      @White on Rice Couple…you are so welcome. I feel the same way — clicking around I have had so many “aha’s” about food tips and growing tips and great recipes, and it’s only Week 1!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy. Crab cakes! Now that’s a clever disguise for zucchini. Thanks for the offering, and do come back soon. Lots more to come.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Melissa, and thanks for your delicious-sounding offerings to the event. I am trying to figure out what I am going to make with the corn I bought at the farmer’s market…uh-oh, deadline pressure! See you soon.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Auntie M — and it looks delicious. I have never made a creamy cucumber salad before. Sorry about the woodchucks…but at least we are blessed with great local farmstands here. I love the Hammertown site and stores; thank you for joining in our event!

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