Cool as a Cucumber

The Armenian cucumber has never decided whether it’s a cucumber or a squash. It’s a relative of both from the gourd family and is tasty when fresh in a raw salad, stuffed with meat, cooked in soup or grated with cool yogurt on a hot summer afternoon.

Midday on a Tel Aviv sidewalk in early July. As soon as I got out of the car I realized I had made a mistake, but my Jerusalemite optimism did not allow fear to take over. After all, people live here, for God’s sake. Three steps in the direction of my destination and the answer was not long in coming: Okay, folks live here but don’t do much more than that in the summer. After all, it’s impossible to go outside. Never mind the heat, we have that in the capital too − but the humidity! You don’t even have the strength to curse.

At least another three blocks to my destination, and later I’ll have to retrace my steps. I need a plan. The locals look at me pityingly, closed in behind their glass walls, in the darkness with their noisy air conditioners. They leave the furnace of the street to guests from Jerusalem.

I was about to give up when I caught sight of a corner vegetable store with an entire carton of natural summer coolers in the front: greenish Armenian cucumbers that had remained firm and not surrendered to the burning sun.

It’s a well-known Jerusalem trick from the days of the siege, to cool off with a young Armenian cucumber, while our Tiberian brothers go a step further and are known to walk around with a few of them in their pockets all summer long. The Armenian cucumber has never decided whether it’s a cucumber or a squash. It’s a relative of both from the gourd family and is tasty when fresh in a raw salad, stuffed with meat, cooked in soup or grated with cool yogurt on a hot summer afternoon.

The Armenians have called it their own and cultivate it so it grows long and thin, reaching a length of some 60 centimeters. Here, on the other hand, it is picked when still small and delicate, when the downy hairs that cover it have almost disappeared and the flower at the top has dried up and fallen off. As befits an indigenous vegetable, it can be found only during the summer around these parts. Because it doesn’t need a lot of water, it’s crisper and more solid than its brother, the cucumber.

In local markets it’s light green and smooth, or has dark vertical stripes, and comes in various sizes. Thus, you can choose the long, thin ones for pickling, the young, firm ones for salad and the short, thick ones for stuffing. A thorough rinsing in water will completely eliminate the thin hairs that cover it, while a brief immersion in ice water will bring out the Armenian cucumber’s crispness and add wonderful freshness.

Armenian cucumber and radish salad with celery and roasted peanuts

This salad has a registered patent for saving electricity. Anyone who eats it at high noon won’t need either an air conditioner or a fan; just tasting it will cool you off completely and cause a pleasant breeze to fill your soul from within. The vegetables included in it are particularly crisp and fresh, and the roasted peanuts add the flavors of earth and a pleasant saltiness. What those things don’t achieve will be accomplished by the crushed ice that joins the salad a moment before serving, and provides a feeling of hail falling in the middle of the summer.

6-8 solid medium-sized Armenian cucumbers
12 fresh radishes
1 stalk of American celery
2 scallion stalks
1 small, hot green pepper ‏(optional‏)
a handful of spearmint leaves
1/2 cup shelled and roasted peanuts
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup olive oil
juice from 1/2 lemon
5 ice cubes
Atlantic sea salt
ground black pepper

Wash the cucumbers thoroughly under cold water and rub the peel a little to remove the hairs. Cut each one lengthwise into 1/2-cm. slices and transfer to a bowl.

Remove the radish tops and cut into eighths. Cut the celery into thin lengthwise slices without the leaves, and add to the bowl. Chop the garlic cloves and hot pepper, as well as the white part of the scallions; tear the green part into 1-cm. long pieces. Cut the spearmint leaves coarsely and add to the salad. Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over everything, and season with salt and pepper.

A moment before serving, lightly crush the ice cubes, add to the salad and mix. Scatter the roasted peanuts over everything, mix again and be careful not to wake up the neighbors as you noisily chew this crispy dish.

Stuffed Armenian cucumber cooked in yogurt

Easy to prepare and richly flavored stuffed vegetables from a Palestinian recipe. The brief frying before cooking creates a scorched and tasty crust, and helps get rid of the downy hairs. The unique stuffing is enriched with tomatoes and chopped spearmint, and together with the yogurt you get a summery, refreshing and surprising dish.

15-20 long, plump Armenian cucumbers suitable for stuffing
1/2 kg. ground beef
1 ripe tomato
1 small purple onion
a handful of spearmint leaves
a handful of shelled pine nuts or shelled and chopped pistachios
2 lemons
olive oil for frying
1/2 liter thick sheep yogurt
Atlantic sea salt
ground black pepper

Remove the top part of each cucumber and with an implement for hollowing out zucchini, remove the inside to create a wide opening for stuffing, leaving a crisp outside. Boil 3 liters of water in a large pot, squeeze in the juice of 1 lemon and add the peel. Steep the hollow cucumbers for 5 minutes and remove.

Finely chop the purple onion, tomato and spearmint leaves; place in a bowl together with the chopped meat. Add the pine nuts or pistachios, salt and pepper and knead with your hands until you have a uniform mixture.

Gently press some of the mixture into each cucumber until the meat overflows slightly from the opening. Heat some olive oil in a broad skillet, and fry the stuffed cucumbers on all sides until there are golden signs of searing on the peel.

Place the fried cucumbers in a low, wide pot and pour the yogurt and water over them. Add salt and cook over a low flame, almost at the boiling point, for about half an hour.

Remove from the heat, squeeze over the juice of half a lemon and stir carefully. Serve hot, with white rice and a glass of arak.