Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lemon Cucumber: About & Recipe Ideas

I'm a sucker for uncommon fruits and vegetables, often buying them without knowing what they are and then researching them and finding out how to use them.

With spring upon us and avid gardeners everywhere sharpening their shovels (myself included), it seems like the perfect time to kick off a new type of post: the weird vegetable and fruit showcase.

While this isn't the first such post (cue the Jackfruit post of 2013), it certainly won't be the last -- you can expect to see at least a handful of similar posts this year. Each uncommon food showcase will include some background info about the item, as well as a recipe idea or two in case you can find something similar near you!

Keep reading for the dirt on lemon cucumbers,  including why it's better than a traditional cucumber, where to get seeds, how to know when it's ripe, and recipe ideas.

The Vegetable Pictured

The little guy pictured is a gem from my garden buddy's vegetable patch. She grew lemon cucumbers last year, and I was invited to enjoy the last few that remained on the vine. Luckily, this one survived the fork and knife long enough to pose for a photo!

Although a lemon cucumber's skin is usually a deeper (and sometimes striped) yellow, you can see in the photo below that the skin on this particular one isn't fully yellow yet. That's because I picked the cucumber before it was fully ripe: winter was upon us, the vine had mostly died, and we had to pick whatever was left. However, it was still extremely tasty!

About Lemon Cucumbers

Taste / Flavor Profile

The skin and flesh of lemon cucumbers are much less bitter than those of traditional cucumbers. Lemon cucumbers are usually described as having a "sweet" taste because of this. Some say that the cucumber itself has a slight lemony flavor, but I strongly disagree -- don't expect it, even if the seed package claims it will have a mild lemon taste. The skin itself is also much thinner than that of a typical market cucumber -- you can use this variety without peeling it first.

Size and Appearance

Fruits are small, round, and typically 1.5"-3" in diameter. On my garden buddy's plant, the runts were about the size of a ping pong ball, and the largest fruits reached the size of a softball.

Appearance will vary a bit depending on the plant and specific seed supplier (if you grow them at home), but in general the cucumbers are light green to light yellow with some striations of deeper yellow color.

Selecting and Judging Ripeness

Select fruits that are firm and without blemishes.

Aim for fruits about 2" and up to 3" in diameter -- if you wait until they become the size of a tennis ball or larger, the seeds will become larger and harder, the flesh will be less crisp and the fruit will be less flavorful. Don't let the fruits get big and old! Pick them early.

As for whether to pick them when they are fully yellow or while they still show some green,  I've heard gardeners argue for both. A few home vegetable farmers say that you should pick them while fully green for the best flavor, while most others say you should wait until the last stripe of green fades away. Let your own taste buds and preferences be your guide. As you can see above, it's not the end of the world if you pick a slightly underripe one, though -- mine was tasty!

Preparation Notes

Use a dry towel to rub the spines off of the exterior of the cucumbers before consuming them.

Other Interesting Notes

Lemon cucumbers are also known as "apple cucumbers" and go by the name "budamkaya" in Indian markets. They were once quite popular in Australian supermarkets, but now you'll only find them in gourmet markets or farmers' markets when in season, if at all.

The best way to get your hands on some is to grow them yourself! They're an easy-to-grow (best on a trellis), highly productive, heirloom vegetable. PLUS, you can start them from seed without much trouble, and they grow well in pots as long as they can receive full sun. Here are a few seed options:

Lemon Cucumber Recipe Ideas

Because of their unique color, size and shape, lemon cucumbers are a beautiful addition to raw dishes that preserve these qualities of the vegetable. Almost any kind of salad recipe or pickle recipe would work really well. They also make a great on-the-go snack similar to an apple because they're slightly sweet, a convenient size, and don't require peeling.

Below are some recipe ideas to get you started on how to eat lemon cucumbers. If you can't get your hands on lemon cucumbers, though, normal cucumbers would work just as well for the recipes below!

Lemon Cucumber Salad Recipe

2 parts sliced lemon cucumbers (first rub the cucumber bristles off with a towel)
1 part sliced fresh tomatoes
.5 part sliced red onion, or add more or less to taste
a dash of balsamic vinegar (~1T per small bowl)
a dash of olive oil (~1T per small bowl)
fresh ground black pepper and salt to taste

Toss all ingredients in a bowl. Taste for seasoning, and add more olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, or onion if desired. Serve fresh.

Lemon Cucumber Pickle Recipes

If you're looking for a super crunchy pickle, then choose small, slightly green lemon cucumbers. If you wait for them to get yellow, they'll have more seeds, bigger seeds, and less crunch. Here are a few great picks for lemon cucumber pickle recipes:
P. S. Remember to first remove the cucumber bristles by rubbing them with a dry kitchen towel!

Quick Mixed Quinoa and Lemon Cucumber Salad Recipe

2 cups cooked, fluffed quinoa (cook it in broth for added flavor)
1 cup raw, diced lemon cucumber (first rub the cucumber bristles off with a towel)
1 cup raw, diced fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (examples: tarragon, parsley, basil)
salt and pepper to taste
1T extra virgin olive oil
2T lemon juice (ideally fresh-squeezed)

Combine the cooked quinoa, cucumber, tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, and vinegar. Mix until all ingredients are fully integrated. Add salt and pepper, mix again and taste. Adjust seasoning if needed. Done!

Enjoy! And if you have any questions about growing lemon cucumbers, you can ask me those, too -- I can field them to my garden buddy and she might have some firsthand knowledge to pass along!