Cucumbers and Watermelons

It wasn’t only that the Italian word for watermelon – cocomero – sounds a bit like cucumber that made me wonder about arcane connections between the two. It was also that there they both are, the cucumber and the watermelon, like characters in a fable, fruits composed generously of water and more modestly of flavour, their textures and their seeds similar. Lo and behold it is the same family to which they both belong, the Cucurbitaceae – a gourd family which includes squash, another watery light-flavoured example.

There the connections mostly end, unless you account for the essential summeriness of
the two. Unlike watermelons, cucumbers are mainly eaten in their unripe green state. They originated in India and have been cultivated in Western Asia for 3000 years. Available all year round, they are surprisingly versatile in cooking, considering their delicacy of flavour, popping up in many cultures as soups or pickles or salads or side-dishes. Consider the soothing raita alongside a fiery Indian curry, or a garlicky creamy tsatsiki as part of a Greek mezze or alongside Middle Eastern grilled lamb. Traditional peasant uses for stale bread such as the Italian salad panzanella and the Spanish soup gazpacho include cucumber to great effect. Jane Grigson in her gorgeous Vegetable Book cites a recipe for Stuffed Cucumbers in which the halved and hollowed fruit is blanched then filled with a mixture of cooked rice, garlic, onions, mushrooms and bacon. And in Aphrodite, Isabel Allende offers up ‘Cucumber Breeze’, a low-calorie blend of cucumber, chives, vegetable stock, honey, dill and yoghurt, with the comment that ‘I think a soup like this must have refreshed the impetuous lovers of A Thousand And One Nights.’ I myself have two favourite things to do with cucumbers (and my choice of type is the small, dark-skinned Lebanese followed by the very long Continental). The first is to peel them then slice them tissue-thin or to score the skins with the tines of a fork all around, the latter making for a frilly, pretty border for your exquisitely thin slices. Finely chop fresh mint and fold it through softened cream cheese or butter, spreading it on slender slices of white bread, then carefully assemble the cucumber slices on top and scatter on salt and freshly ground pepper. Top with its lid then cut into triangles, ideally removing the crusts if you wish to be truly dainty. The second is to place slices of cucumber on my tired eyes, an old old trick which always works. (Owing to this refreshing and slightly astringent quality, cucumbers have since at least the nineteenth century been used in the production of a large variety of cosmetics – fragrances, body lotions, skin toners, soaps…)

Watermelon, treated similarly, would no doubt prove as refreshing except that its 6% of sugar content would surely result in stickiness. Evidence of this fruit goes back further than 6000 years. In parts of Africa it was considered not only a food plant but also a vital source of water in arid regions: ‘botanical canteens’, according to one reference. Mark Twain wrote of it: ‘The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat…’ High praise indeed. When it comes to cooking, however, options are somewhat limited. You can pickle both the fruit itself and its rind – or you can whizz the fruit in a food processor until smooth, sieve it then stir sugar and cornflour into it over a low heat until it thickens, adding rosewater and cinnamon, then chilling it before serving it as a Sicilian sweetmeat, a sort of soup. Combine it with quickly cooked prawns and pan-fried, lemon-squeezed haloumi, add a scattering of mint leaves and pomegranate seeds and serve as a warm salad. I love impaling cubes of creamy fetta and cubes of watermelon on to toothpicks, interspersed with mint leaves, to serve with drinks. Astonishingly, someone has actually come up with a salad combining both cucumber and watermelon. Called Thanksgiving Salad, it consists of watermelon chunks and peeled, seeded, sliced cucumbers marinaded in a mixture of cider vinegar, water, sugar and poppy seeds. Salt and pepper to taste and a bunch of chopped green onions. Crunchy sweet and sour.

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