Famously placed over the eyes as a home beauty treatment, the cucumber is a highly nutritious vegetable that earns its place in any diet. Not only is it high in vitamins A and C, folic acid and potassium, it contains silica, which is good for the skin, and helps prevent fluid retention. Cucumber is part of the squash family, which includes the similar-looking marrow and courgette.
In general, younger cucumbers are small for their type and tend to be the sweetest. The long smooth-skinned varieties often sold wrapped in plastic are known as hothouse, telegraph or English cucumbers. Short dark green 'ridge' varieties are sometimes called Lebanese cucumbers. Apple varieties of cucumber are round with pale creamy yellow skin and plenty of seeds. Gherkin cucumbers are for pickling; they are paler and more speckled than English cucumbers and taste bitter if eaten raw.
Avoid peeling cucumbers if possible as all the vitamin A is in the skin. If the cucumber has been waxed and you are going to eat the peel, it should be scrubbed thoroughly in hot water. To give sliced cucumber a ridged effect use a canelle knife or run the tines of fork down the sides. To remove the seeds, slice the cucumber lengthways and scrape the seeds out with a teaspoon. Today's cucumbers do not need any bitter juices extracted as they have been bred not to be bitter, although some recipes will ask you to salt cucumber for a period then wash before use.
Although we often think of the cucumber as something to serve raw, in olden times it was normally cooked. Once the seeds are removed you'll find it good in stir-fries and braises. Try sautéing it with mint to accompany roast lamb. When flavoured with bacon or ham and onion it makes a great soup that can be served hot or cold. Alternatively use it in place of leeks in vichyssoise. In Flemish countries cucumber is baked with ham and cream.
It is lovely in crisp Asian salads, where it is often combined with peanuts. Cucumber with feta cheese, dill and mint is another classic salad combination. In Japan and Korea it is used in sushi, seaweed salads, and served with buckwheat noodles. Tsatsiki sees cucumber combined with yogurt, garlic and mint; Indian cucumber raita is a similar combination. Cucumber can be surprisingly good in desserts too - try it added to a sorbet of lime and mint.