Ingredient Spotlight: CUCUMBER

cucumber

This is my first post from my new Ingredient Spotlight series: each week I will choose a seasonal fruit of vegetable that I love, and will highlight some of its health properties and will give you some new ideas on how to include more delicious, healthy and seasonal produce into your diet. Some weeks, I might give you some tips on how to prepare something you’ve never cooked with before, but most of the time I just want to shine a new light on what you might think as common (maybe even boring…) ingredients - and show you how exciting and tasty they can be, just by adding a spice, pairing them with something unexpected, or cooking them in a new way.

This week, I want to celebrate the humble cucumber. Ubiquitous in high street sandwiches and boxed salads, the British cucumber is hardly given the respect it deserves!

Cucumbers can be absolutely delicious, both raw and cooked. And they’re packed full of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients.

Cucumbers are a fruit, not a vegetable (fact of the day!) that belongs to the botanical family Cucurbitaceae, along with melons, and they have been used in Indian traditional medicine since ancient times, for their cooling and anti-inflammatory properties. Cucumbers contain fisetin, which have been linked to brain health; lignans, polyphenols found also in flaxseed, that may reduce inflammation and the risk of cardiovascular disease; and cucurbitacin, a phytonutrient with potential anti-cancer properties. The latter give cucumbers their slightly bitter taste - but I say, embrace the bitterness! And you can pair cucumbers with sweeter vegetables, fruit or dairy to dial down the bitter flavour while making the most of their healthful properties. They have a very low GI, and are a good source of vitamin K - essential for bone health - and of potassium. They’re 95% water, which helps you keep hydrated and along with the fruit’s insoluble fibre, can help prevent constipation. You can eat British cucumbers with their skin and seeds (I suggest you choose organic cucumbers and wash them well) - peeling them reduces the amount of insoluble fibre as well as some important nutrients. Though if you have diverticular disease, you might want to remove the seeds to avoid upset stomach.

Cucumbers are great for warmer weather because of their cooling effect on the body. Typically served raw, I recommend that you eat them at room temperature - food eaten straight from the fridge may over-cool the body and stress the digestive system. Especially in these last weeks of Summer, when temperatures are starting to go down and energy might feel a little low, you can pair cucumbers with warming ingredients to help maintain a healthy balance. This is why in my book Body Cycles, I use cucumbers in a classic Greek salad – made with tomatoes, peppers, red onion and feta – served alongside my homemade Light Quiche, made with warming spelt, oats and goat’s cheese, for a light yet flavour-packed lunch or supper.

Another late Summer dish I love to make with cucumber is a Green Gazpacho made with cucumbers, seasonal white grapes (also rich in fisetin) and honeydew melon, parsley, a touch of green chilli and some garlic, all blended together with a little water, a splash of Sherry vinegar and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. If you want to make it more substantial, you can add to the blender some stale bread or avocado; it is wonderful served with trout or salmon, or you can top it off with greek yogurt or crumbled goat’s cheese, and some chopped walnuts.

What I like about this recipe is that you can adapt to to your taste and to whatever is in your fridge - use more fruit if you favour sweeter tastes, add green peppers if you enjoy bitterness, swap dill or coriander for parsley and lime or lemon for the vinegar, or boost the fibre content by adding rocket, spinach, or celery.

I hope I have inspired you to add more cucumbers to your late Summer pantry, and to find new and delicious ways to enjoy this fruit’s impressive health benefits.

Next week: Plums!