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Groundwork: The word on cukes

The cucumber trellis at the American History Museum's Victory Garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

When well grown, cucumbers are attractive and robust vines, as you can see here at the Victory Garden at the American History Museum. I visited gardeners Joe Brunetti and Nan Campbell the other day, just before the sky darkened and a thunderclap sounded the start of a pretty impressive (and welcome) downpour.

Recipe Included

Eventually, cucumber plants will decline, no matter how well you grow them, though there are ways to prolong their health and yield. Joe and Nan have done a fine job, so it was certainly fun not just to pick a few cucumbers, but their brains as well. Let's talk about varieties first.

Joe has devoted one bed (2 by 12 feet) to three varieties, dozens of individual plants given order (here's the secret) by trellising. This method is more effort but so much better than letting these vines just sprawl on the ground, where the leaves and fruit get soil splashed, eaten by critters, and are just more prone to rot. In addition, trellis-grown cucumbers will be straighter than those that develop on the garden floor. Trellising also looks better. Anything that makes the inherently scruffy veggie garden look neater is worth it, in my book.

Lacelike tendrils grow straight until they touch something, then they wind into an anchoring corkscrew. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Joe's first heirloom variety is Straight Eight, introduced in the 1930s, and still a winner. Its name reflects a fruit that grows straight(ish) and matures at eight inches. Clever, those plant namers. It's a standard, dependable variety, not too seedy and with nice girth. The Burpee catalog calls it "an old-fashioned white spine farmer's market cucumber of the highest quality."

The second heirloom this year is an Asian variety named Suyo Long. This grows long, to 15 inches or so, and will twist happily, especially if ground grown. It is ribbed, a little spiny and sweet. The third is a classic from the Middle East, the Striped Armenian. It too will curl on the ground, and is valued for its size, its thin skin and lack of bitterness. Botanically, it's actually closer to a melon than a cucumber, and a good substitute for those who find cucumbers hard to digest.

How to grow 'em? Cukes are heavy feeders and drinkers, so my constant haranguing about providing deep, well-amended soil is especially the case with cucumbers. You want soil that is like a sponge, with lots of moisture retention but lots of air too. Wet clay will kill them quickly. The soil temperature should be at least 65 degrees, better 75 degrees, so sow them directly no earlier than mid-May. Fruit will start to yield in mid-July and keep coming for weeks with a bit of luck and some care.

Vines suddenly wilt for a few reasons, but the most likely cause is bacterial wilt. The wilt will soon affect a whole vine, which should be pulled. The disease is spread by the striped and spotted cucumber beetles that are drawn like magnets to these lovely plants. There isn't much you can do, except handpick the beetles, or place a row cloth barrier between vine and pest. The latter works fine until the vines flower, and then they need a pollinator, most noticeably the bumble bee. At that point, the cloth must be lifted. There are male flowers and female. The latter have a little bulb at their base that swells after fertilization. Male flowers appear first, and in far greater numbers than females.

Female flowers, fertilized, soon develop baby cukes. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Vines will brown and wither, which is simply their way of saying, "We're done." You can delay this by picking the fruit early and often. Joe and Nan have purposefully overplanted their trellis to account for the high attrition of cucumber vines.

Among the cucumber oddities is a variety named Lemon, which is round, striped yellow and brown and has a citrusy flavor. It's fun to grow and eat, though a little seedy.

The cooler evenings of late summer will induce powdery mildew, which can be prevented somewhat with a spray of baking soda in water. More effectively, sprays of hydrogen dioxide, or copper-based formulations, both considered organic, will do the trick. But enough of this garden talk. Cucumbers are crunchy and cool and the antidote to a summer that is too hot and steamy. I'm ready for Cindy to work her magic.

-- Adrian Higgins

(Cynthia A. Brown for The Washington Post)

Gazpacho Tart
8 servings

Gazpacho is the ultimate summer "must-make" in my family. The cucumber, tomato, pepper combination inspired this tart's creation. Its cornmeal crust and ricotta filling make it a complete meal: salad course, cheese course and bread.

Serve with a straw-colored glass of vinho verde, a small bowl of marcona almonds and manzanilla olives. Buena!

For best results, cut the vegetables for the topping in approximately the same-size pieces.

MAKE AHEAD: The cornmeal crust with the ricotta filling can be refrigerated a day in advance. The gazpacho salad topping can be made several hours ahead, but should not be added to the tart until just before serving.

From Cynthia A. Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education specialist; the crust recipe is adapted from "Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook" (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

For the crust (makes two 9-inch crusts)
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

For the filling
1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg

For the topping
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 medium cucumbers, peeled (seeded, if desired) and coarsely chopped
3 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices
1 medium sweet pepper, such as banana, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 small tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons homemade or store-bought pesto

For the crust: Combine the flour, cornmeal and salt in the bowl of a food processor; pulse several times to combine. Add the butter and process about 10 seconds, until the mixture is coarsely combined. With the machine running, add the ice water through the feed tube in a slow steady stream until the dough just holds together. This should take less than 30 seconds.

Transfer the dough to a clean work surface. Divide in half and place each half on a piece of plastic wrap. Flatten each ball to form a disk. Wrap each disk with the plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to a day before using. (For this recipe you will only use one of the disks. Freeze the remaining disk of dough for up to 3 months.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) at hand.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap the disk. Cut another piece of plastic wrap and position over the dough, meeting the edges of the first piece of plastic wrap. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to at least 11 inches in diameter and no more than 1/4 inch thick.

Remove the top piece of plastic wrap and invert the dough over the edges of a 9-inch tart pan that has a removable bottom. Press the dough into the bottom of the tart pan and push it up the sides of the pan. Discard the plastic wrap. Cut off any dough that hangs over the edges.

Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough in the pan, then cover with pie weights or dried beans or uncooked rice. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment paper from the partially cooked tart shell. Return the tart pan to the oven and bake for 5 minutes until lightly golden on the edges. Transfer to a wire rack to cool while you prepare the filling.

For the filling: Combine the ricotta, Parmesan and egg in a mixing bowl; mix well, then spread evenly into the parbaked tart shell. Bake (at 375 degrees) for 20 minutes until the filling is set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool while you prepare the gazpacho topping.

For the topping: Whisk together the vinegar, salt, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and oil in a mixing bowl, then add the cucumbers, scallions, sweet pepper and tomatoes; stir to coat evenly. Season with black pepper to taste.

Remove the sides of the pan. Spread the pesto over the cooled tart filling, then spread the topping evenly over the pesto. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 330 calories, 13 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 2, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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My cucumbers are doing awesome this year! I have canned a lot and given away more! I got all mine from

Posted by: wakechick | August 2, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

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