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Ever wonder where the saying "cool as a cucumber" came from?  The inner temperature of this summertime favorite can be 20 degrees cooler than the outside air.  Belonging to the same family as the pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, and other types of squash, its inner flesh is cool and moist because of its high water content. 

There are several varieties of cucumber. Slicing cucumbers are usually served raw in salads, sandwiches, sushi, and hors d'oeuvres to add crunch, but like their cousin, the zucchini, can be cooked.  Pickling cucumbers are usually smaller than slicing cucumbers and normally have a thick, warty skin.  

The English cucumber, also called burpless cucumber, European cucumber, hothouse cucumber, seedless cucumber, gourmet cucumber, or greenhouse cucumber, grows almost a foot long and is pricier and less flavorful than other varieties.  It has less conspicuous seeds and a thinner skin than other varieties.  It is normally wrapped with plastic wrap to improve its shelf life. The English cucumber does not need to be peeled or seeded and is a good variety to use if you are concerned about presentation. 

The Armenian cucumber, often called snake melon or snake cucumber, is hard to find. It has an almost nonexistent, matte skin and an indescribable flavor. Its flesh is mild, with a light citric finish and a distinct sweetness. Like the English cucumber it doesn't need to be peeled or seeded.  

The cornichon, or gherkin, is a small pickling cucumber that is harvested when it is two to eight inches long.  Its peak season is fall when the cornichon reaches a length of three to four inches. 

The Japanese cucumber is similar to an English cucumber but it has a bumpy skin.  It does not need to be peeled or seeded. 

Kirby cucumber is a short, versatile cucumber and can be eaten fresh or used for pickling.  It is small and has a bumpy yellow or green skin. Similar to the English cucumber, it has a thin skin and inconspicuous seeds. 

The lemon cucumber is sweet and flavorful and is less bitter and easier to digest than other cucumbers.  It can be eaten raw but is also a good pickling cucumber. 

The garden cucumber, often called market cucumber, common cucumber, regular cucumber, outdoor cucumber, field-grown cucumber, is available year round in most supermarkets. Most garden cucumbers sold in supermarkets are waxed to retain moisture and improve shelf life.  If you purchase a waxed cucumber, you should peel it or scrub it well before serving. Unwaxed cucumbers don't need to be peeled, but their skin tends to be bitter so many cooks prefer removing it before serving.  To seed this variety, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. 

            The Persian cucumber is similar to a Japanese cucumber.  

            The Mediterranean cucumber is small with a smooth skin and mild flavor, Like the English cucumber, the Mediterranean cucumber is nearly seedless.  

            The Dosakai is a yellow cucumber that originated in India. 

            The wild cucumber, or Korila, probably originated in Mexico, but may have come from the Caribbean. This two to three inch long variety has a thick spindle shape, tapered ends, and can be eaten raw or cooked.  

Here's a salad I love serving in the summer using the garden cucumber. 

Toss it Greek Style
Serves 6 

For the dressing: 

            ¼ cup red wine vinegar
            ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
            ¼ teaspoon salt
            ¼ teaspoon large grind black pepper
            ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil 

In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar, oregano, salt, and pepper and whisk to blend.  While continuing to whisk, slowly add olive oil.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. 

For the salad: 

            24 cherry tomatoes, halved
            ½ cup red onion, chopped
            ½ cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
            1 can (14-ounces) water-packed artichoke hearts, quartered
            2 tablespoons capers
            24 kalamata olives, pitted
            6 to 12 peperoncini, whole or cut into bite-size pieces, depending on size
            2 heads romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces

In a large salad bowl, layer cherry tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, artichoke hearts, capers, kalamata olives, and peperoncini. Place romaine lettuce on top of the other ingredients and cover with a damp paper towel.  Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

            4 ounces crumbled feta cheese 

Just before serving, add feta cheese to the salad.  Pour dressing over the salad and toss.   

Shopping:  Look for cucumbers that are firm and well shaped with deep green color.  Do not buy yellowing, puffy, or shriveled cucumbers.  Check for soft spots or soft ends, which is an indication of spoilage.  The flesh of cucumbers should be pale green.  Yellow flesh indicates they have started to decay. 

Storing:  When wrapped in plastic, cucumbers should keep 1 week in the refrigerator.  Keep them in the vegetable crisper section of the refrigerator where the higher humidity will keep them crisp. Unwaxed cucumbers will lose moisture faster so it's especially important to wrap them tightly.  The ethylene gas emitted by tomatoes and other fruit can turn cucumbers yellow so store them separately if possible.  

Carol Ann Kates is the author of award-winning cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market, selected as one of the top ten favorites by the Denver Post Food Staff.  For more information, visit www.secretrecipesfromthecornermarket.com.

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