Food for thought

Raita, the classic Indian dish made with yoghurt and cucumber   PHOTO: Carolyn Best

Cucumber,

the vine that encircled the earth

By Carolyn Best

The origins of the cucumber were in prehistoric India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. From there it began the long journey that has made it the world’s most widely consumed “fruit-vegetable” – it is botanically a fruit because it contains seeds, but it is prepared and consumed like a vegetable.

The cucumber first left India as an item of trade and entered the cuisines of the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. By the first millennium BCE, it had appeared in the Sumerian city states along the Euphrates River. Cucumber’s inclusion in the Epic of Gilgamesh, often considered the first great work of literature, is evidence of its lofty position in the ancient city-state of Ur, where the poem was probably composed.

Both the nobility and the lower classes of the Roman Empire embraced the cucumber. Emperor Tiberius, during his tyrannical reign from 14 to 37 CE, ordered that cucumbers appear on his table every single day of the year. During the growing season, his terrified gardeners dedicated many beds to cultivating them. In winter, since cucumbers will not tolerate a frost, they grew them on moveable frames. These were housed indoors at night or during cool weather; on warm days, the imperial gardeners wheeled them out on carts to sit in the sun. They also employed “mirror stones” (as they called mica) to reflect the sun’s light and warmth into their cucumber houses. Cucumbers were widely popular in Roman households and soon spread to the Empire’s provinces, where they became a common garden crop.

Cucumbers were brought to North America by European explorers, beginning with the third voyage of Columbus in 1494. When early colonists sowed them in their settlements, the indigenous peoples took to them quickly. In 1535, the French explorer Jacques Cartier saw large cucumbers on the land where Montreal now stands; four years later, the conquistador Hernando de Soto found tribes in Florida growing cucumbers “better than those of Spain.” Around this time, the Mandan people, the best farmers on the Great Plains, began to sow them in their fields.

In England, where they were only introduced in the later Middle Ages, cucumbers were not as readily accepted as elsewhere. They were slightingly called “cowcumbers,” implying they were only good for feeding to livestock and they were thought unfit for human consumption or even poisonous. Throughout history, no less so than in the present day, the fear of a certain food might easily sweep through a population. An entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys on Sept. 22, 1663 records this observation: “This day, Sir W Batten tells me that Mr. Newhouse is dead of eating cucumbers of which the other day I heard another, I think.”

British medical journals continued to report that cucumbers and other uncooked vegetables represented a serious health risk, while the 18th-century wit and writer Samuel Johnson quoted physicians as saying they were “good for nothing.” Consumption and cultivation of cucumbers plummeted, remaining low until the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Their popularity and status rose when they were adopted by British administrators and merchants in India, the land in which they were first domesticated. Cucumber sandwiches, referred to by Oscar Wilde as “a reckless extravagance,” became a ritual food of the colonial establishment of British India – their freshness and coolness provided an antidote to the unremitting heat of the subcontinent. Associated with elegance and affectation in the era of the Raj, cucumber sandwiches made their way from India to Britain. The royal family’s enthusiasm for the new snack, which was served at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, gave the fruit-vegetable a new popularity. Meanwhile, the availability of cheap coal for heating meant that superior cucumbers could be grown under glass in hothouses and were readily available throughout most of the year. Ever since, the cucumber sandwich has been the ultimate delight of the British afternoon tea service.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor and chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom and a regular contributor to the Glebe Report on food.

RAITA (Rye-Ta)

This classic Indian favourite offers a cooling counterpart to richly spiced curries and other dishes.

Cucumber, sliced
1 pint (2 cups) plain yoghurt
½ lemon, juiced
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
freshly ground salt

Drain yoghurt in a sieve over a dish for 1-2 hours. Drain cucumber (drink juice). Mix all ingredients and serve.

The Elegant
Cucumber Sandwich

Classically prepared with a “Pullman loaf,” white-flour bread baked in a long, narrow lidded pan that was designed for efficiency in the compact kitchens of railroad cars. The thinness of the slices is a point of pride in the kitchens where cucumber sandwiches are a status symbol.

Pullman or other square-shaped bread loaf
Cucumber
Unsalted butter (the creamy sweetness of unsalted butter contrasts with the salted cucumber)
Salt

Peel and slice the cucumber 1 mm thick and lay the slices on a paper towel. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, both for flavour and to reduce the water content. Slice the bread, using a sharp wide-bladed knife to prevent any tears caused by a serrated one. Spread an ultra-thin layer of butter over the entire surface of each slice of bread (the butter will act as a water barrier to prevent any sogginess). Cover the whole surface with slightly overlapping slices of cucumber. Top with another slice of buttered bread and cut away crusts. The sandwiches may then be cut into triangles, quarters or fingers. Where a formal tea is presented, cucumber sandwiches should be placed on the bottom layer of a tiered stand along with other savouries – scones are on the middle layer and cakes are on top.


Barb’s gazpacho is best served al fresco with crusty bread, good cheese and a chilled wine. PHOTO: Marisa Romano

Gazpacho with homegrown tomatoes

By Marisa Romano

If gardening was one of our city’s favourite hobbies before the pandemic, COVID-19 has certainly boosted enthusiasm for growing flowers, shrubs and, most of all, food. You can tell from the selection of vegetable plants for sale at garden centres and from the lineup at seed-distribution centres organized by the city in partnership with Just Food in June.

Glebites have also been caught in the sweep. Beautiful front gardens line our streets, and vegetables are now sunbathing in many small backyards, in raised beds assembled in south-facing front yards and in containers tucked into sunny corners of our decks.

The tomato is no doubt one of the gardener’s favourite vegetable plants. Productive and easy to grow, all it needs is plenty of sun, nutrient-rich soil and regular watering. It grows well and tastes good, with basil as a companion.

Unfortunately, tomato plants are also appetizing to pests that gnaw at leaves or suck the sap, and they are susceptible to diseases that cause discoloration, spotting or wilting of the leaves and rotting of the fruits. Although modern varieties are bred to be resistant to the most common diseases, pests, especially aphids and white flies, can still be a problem.

Just keep an eye on those growing vines and check the underside of the leaves where insects often congregate. If you spot some unwanted pests, spray with commercial insecticidal soap or make your own by mixing 1 tablespoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon of mild soap (dish soap is good) and 2 ½ tablespoons of vegetable oil in four litres of water.  Shake it well, and spray the plant until the liquid drips, taking care to soak the underside of the leaves and the stem.  Repeat every five to seven days until all the pests are gone. If your infestation is well advanced, hose down your plants before spraying.

The soap affects the leaves by removing their oily layer and making them more susceptible to sun damage. So spray the tomato plant in the early mornings or on cloudy days, and rinse your tomato with clean water after the soap has dried for a few hours as an extra precaution.

This is the time of year when healthy home-grown plants yield the first ripe, plump tomatoes. There is a plethora of tomato recipes, but our very special harvest deserves a very special recipe.

This one for gazpacho is shared by Jodi Diamant. “This was one of my mum’s (Barb) go-to summer meals for guests or the family,” she recalls. “We didn’t have air conditioning so it was always perfect for a meal outside on the patio on a hot summer day.”

Diamant lived in the Glebe for several years before moving to the other side of the canal a few years ago, but she crosses the bridge often to visit friends still in this neighbourhood. When she came over for a potluck party last summer, she brought some of her gazpacho and served it in small glasses as an appetizer. It was a hit!

 

Marisa Romano is a foodie and a plant pathologist who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together. This article is in celebration the United Nations International Year of Plant Health 2020.

Barb’s Gazpacho

(6 Servings)

Ingredients:

4-5 large ripe tomatoes
½ large English cucumber, peeled, finely diced
½ green pepper, finely diced
8-10 pitted ripe olives, finely diced (optional)
6 green onions, chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 cup tomato juice
2-3 slices stale bread (optional)

Method:

  • Blanche in hot water and peel the tomatoes.
  • In a bowl, dice 2 of the tomatoes and add cucumber, green pepper, green onions and olives (if using).
  • In a blender, place the other 2 peeled tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, salt, sugar and tomato juice, and puree.
  • (If using), trim crusts from the bread and add to pureed ingredients. Puree again.
  • Combine pureed and diced mixtures.
  • At this point, an immersion blender can be used to obtain the final desired consistency (chunky or very smooth).
  • Chill before serving.

Notes:

The recipe works with either fresh or canned tomatoes, as the taste difference is surprisingly minimal. If choosing this option, use a large can of plum tomatoes. Tomato juice may not be required. The amounts in the recipe are approximate and can be altered depending on what’s on hand. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and garnish with fresh herbs such as parsley, chives. Best served al fresco with crusty bread, good cheeses and chilled wine.

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