From preparing pickling cucumbers and Japanese cucumbers to poblano peppers for a chiles rellenos recipe, here’s what you need to know to bring these stars of the summer garden to your table.
Cucumbers and peppers shine in the summer garden, with different, though equally mouthwatering, roles. Cucumbers ripen in the temperate early summer, whereas peppers take their time and wait for late summer’s warmth, especially in cool climates. Cucumbers are forever linked with the word “cool.” Peppers, in color and many in pungency, are emblems of heat.
During the weeks when their seasons overlap, cucumbers and peppers are often paired in the kitchen because they’re both so refreshing and crisp when raw. Prized for color, flavor and texture, they shimmer when set side by side on the crudité platter, tossed together in a green salad, folded into a summer omelet, mixed in a spicy salsa, or combined in a classic gazpacho.
Cucumbers suffer somewhat from modernization. As shoppers, we’re used to tough-skinned American slicers, which are bred for shipping, lack good flavor and are more palatable when peeled. Home gardeners have more flavorful options to choose from. Try the long Middle Eastern types, knobby little pickling cucumbers, or even twisted Armenian varieties. I like growing the prolific ‘Socrates’ in the greenhouse, and sowing the Japanese cucumber called ‘Tasty Jade’ in our outdoor home garden.
As with most fruiting crops, cukes need a sunny garden spot. Plant in warm soil after danger of frost is past. Sow seeds directly, or set out transplants that are no more than 3 weeks old. Trellising is a must. The best cucumbers grow on vines and would require an irresponsible amount of space if left to sprawl. Try growing them on a tall lattice fence, or on a homemade trellis built from a wooden or metal-pipe frame. You can also rig up metal or nylon mesh for a trellis, or just let the vines climb up lengths of string. The vines will want to reach upward, holding onto whatever they find, but plastic tomato trellis clips will keep the unruly plants tidy. Give the plants steady moisture. If cucumber beetles show up, remove them with the crevice tool attachment on a cordless shop vacuum — suck them up early in the day while they’re still sluggish.
Cucumbers are cherished for crunchiness, whether eaten in a sandwich with watercress and mayo; put into service as a canapé “cracker”; or folded into protein-based salads made with shrimp, lobster, tuna, chicken or hard-boiled eggs. Nothing stretches these salads better than cukes when unexpected guests sit down at your table. A platter of sliced cucumbers is a great last-minute dish to take to a potluck, mixed with a few sliced onions, green herbs such as dill, and vinaigrette or — better yet — plain yogurt and sour cream. Or, toss a cucumber and some buttermilk into your blender for a quick, cold soup. The best way to store cucumbers for winter eating is to ferment or can them into pickles.
Did you know you can cook cucumbers, as well? Despite their high water content, cucumbers keep their firmness surprisingly well when heated. Try simmering them with onions, and then blending them with chicken broth and cream for soup. Or, sauté them with cumin. I once cooked cukes for a cucumber-hating friend who wolfed down every bite — he thought they were zucchini.
An ancient New World crop, peppers are now popular worldwide and astonishingly varied. Page through a specialty catalog, such as that of Redwood City Seed Co., and you’ll see what I mean.
Try different varieties each year, especially if you enjoy experimenting with exotic cuisines. Hot pepper types are often associated with a specific region in which they are grown, and its accompanying cuisine. This is quite obvious with the peppers of Thailand, say, or Mexico.
But it took a trip to Italy’s Piedmont to open my eyes to the range of sweet peppers that carry the names of the towns that made them famous. I fell in love with the renowned ‘Carmagnola Rosso’ peppers of Carmagnola, a town just south of Turin, so delicious in a peperonata (sweet peppers stewed with onions, tomatoes and garlic). I also loved the blocky ‘Quadrato d’Asti’ and the pointed ones shaped like a bull’s horn (‘Corno di Toro’). Seeds from Italy, the catalog that represents the famous Franchi seed line in the United States, is a good source for these and more.
I try to plant some peppers that are sweet, some that are very hot, and some that are in between. Chile peppers have their quirks: Some take a long time to acquire their heat (‘Havasu’ comes to mind) and there’s one with a Russian roulette effect (the little ‘Padron’), where only one in 20 fruits will be hot. Some chiles have different names at different stages. Poblanos become anchos when matured to red and then dried (though I’ve seen them sold as anchos when still green); jalapeños become chipotles when ripened, smoked and dried.
I used to grow the “ornamental” types of peppers from time to time, some of which are bred to perch on the tops of the plants’ branches. But it makes little sense to plant a pepper for its appearance rather than its taste, because all peppers are great to look at in the garden.
Peppers need a warm start, so gardeners usually sow them indoors to get a jump on the season. Pick off the first flush of blossoms to encourage plant growth. Give the plants ample water and fertile soil, but not excessive nitrogen, which will encourage vegetation at the expense of fruit. You needn’t trellis peppers in a home garden because the plants are neither tall nor vining, but a bumper crop can sometimes topple a plant. For support, tie each plant to a bamboo stake poked into the ground next to the stem, or use the wire frames commonly sold as tomato cages. As with cucumbers, peppers are best harvested with snips or a sharp knife. Pulling the fruits off may injure the plant.
Peppers shine in cooked dishes, whether stuffed and fried, stuffed and baked, fried in hot oil, tossed into a curry, or roasted and then turned into a creamy soup or dip. They are also among the easiest vegetables to dry. String chiles up or lay them out on newspaper in any warm spot in the house. Store dried peppers in the dark to preserve their color. I’m apt to pulverize dried peppers in an electric coffee grinder to create homemade paprika or chile powders.
Barbara Damrosch and her husband, Eliot Coleman, own Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Preserved hot chile peppers keep their meals lively during Maine’s long winters. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.