Top | — A Vegetable Ignoramus Expands Her Repertoire

"Mini-Me" Cucumbers

(post, Cristin Couzens)

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Out for drinks one night,  my tablemate threw down the gauntlet.  “Do you think Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies are more politically correct than Tyler Perry’s Madea movies?” she resolved, with martini in-hand.   In the affirmative, tablemate number two responded with two words.  Mini-Me.  Or maybe that's just one word.  Anyway, Mini-Me is a miniature version of Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil, probably not beloved by little people and therefore low on the ‘PC’ scale.  And that's just one questionable character.  Debate over.

When I noticed this year’s crop of pickling cucumbers at the farmers’ market, Mini-Me popped back in my head (unfortunately).  Is a pickling cucumber the Mini-Me to the larger Dr. Evil cucumber?  A smaller version of the cuke I eat in my salad? Or is it an entirely different cucumber all together? 

Until I ate my mother-in-law's Bread and Butter pickles, so good we make her ship them to the West Coast from Michigan, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a pickling cucumber.  Ten years ago, oblivious and still eating boxed macaroni and cheese, I didn’t even realize that pickles were cucumbers.

The cucumber we’re all used to in our salads is a ‘garden-variety’ cucumber. Commonly grown, ho-hum, probably a hybrid.  ("Garden variety," huh. Now I know where this phrase comes from, duh!) Pickling cucumbers are different.  It's not an actual variety of cucumber, but a cucumber that falls into the category of “good for pickling.”  At the farmers’ market, I didn’t ask what kind of pickling cucumbers I was buying because, at the time, I just thought they were pickling cucumbers.  Wrong!  I think maybe they're Kirby cucumbers.  Check here for other pickling varieties.

Even pickling can mean different things.  'Real' pickles undergo the souring process via fermentation.  Nothing but the cuke, a salty solution, room temperature, time, and the friendly fermenting bacteria picked up from the air.  Plus spices, garlic and some other fun flavorings.  Garden-variety pickles (see, a useful phrase!) rely on vinegar, not fermentation, for the pickle flavor.  Most store-pickles are pickled with vinegar. 

My favorite book when I was a kid was Pickle Pickle Pickle Juice, by Patty Wolcott.  I think it’s because she used the word Pickle over and over, and I liked to say Pickle with a loud “P” and spit at the same time.  The Philadelphia Eagles head trainer credited Pickle Juice (the actual juice, not the book) for helping them beat the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree heat in 2000.  There’s even a Pickle Juice Sport Drink.  Really!  Maybe next time my husband goes for a long bike ride on a Saturday to avoid house chores, I’ll slip some pickle juice in his water bottle.   Heh heh.

Real pickle purveyors are becoming increasingly popular.  Check out Picklopolis and Real Pickles.  I heart Picklopolis.  They pickle everything.  Fermentation of all types is making a comeback.  Look for a Fermentation Festival near you featuring the Fermentation Fanatic Sandor Ellix Katz.  I'm using Katz's recipe for sour pickles from his book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. My pickles are still fermenting.  This will be my second attempt.  I didn't let them ferment long enough the first time.  Patience is not my strong suit.

Here’s another fun fact about the cucumber. My cucumber-world was totally rocked when I read this.  Ready?  Technically, a cucumber is not a vegetable, it’s a fruit.  Like the tomato thing.

Here’s why.  The cucumber grows from a flower that's pollinated.  It’s “the mature ovary of a seed-bearing plant,” according to YesMag, The Science Magazine for Adventurous Minds.  And the seeds are inside the fruit. It’s a member of the gourd family, related to pumpkins and squash.  So technically, they’re_ not veggies either. Vegetables come from the parts of the plant that aren't the fruit, like tubers, roots, leaves, and stems.  Thankfully, the cucumber is commonly referred to as a veggie, so I can keep on calling it that.  Phew.

Curious about cool heirloom cucumber varieties?  Check out Seed Savers Exchange   And if you’ve tried a jelly melon cucumber, I want to know about it.

Want more veggies? Check out The Weekly Veggie