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Louis XIV, king of France, was the longest reigning monarch in the history of Europe. He became king at the tender age of five upon his father’s death in 1643. Actual control of the government was in the hands of his First Minister Jules Cardinal Mazarin until Mazarin’s death in 1661. Louis then ruled until his death at age 76 in 1715. Louis, also known as the “Sun King” and “Louis the Great” was an absolute monarch who favored a centralized state. Politics aside, he was also known for his love of food.
Le Potager du Roi, (the King’s vegetable garden) was built between 1678 and 1683 by Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie, the King’s gardener at Versailles. Quintinie, who had been appointed “Director of All Royal Fruit and Vegetable Gardens”, was assigned one million square feet of land to produce a garden capable of meeting the court’s demanding needs for fresh produce. One of the many types of fruits and vegetables grown was the cucumber. In fact, Quintinie, borrowing from a technique used for cultivating melons, grew his cucumbers under glass. The glass acted as a greenhouse by capturing the sun’s warmth and thus expedited maturity.
Cucumbers, a member of the gourd family, have been cultivated by man for at least 3,000 years. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, probably in or near present day India. They eventually found their way to Egypt and were subsequently cherished by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Incidentally, the first documented use of the phrase “cool as a cucumber” was in the poem “A New Song” by English poet and playwright John Gay in 1732.
The skin, (if it is not waxed), and the seeds of cucumbers are edible. As the cucumber matures however, the seeds can start to become bitter. Thus, it is a good idea to scoop them out. The English cucumber is a long and narrow cucumber which is marketed as seedless but actually will contain a few seeds.
Cucumbers are available year round with a peak season from May until August. Choose specimen’s with firm, smooth skins, devoid of any blemishes or soft spots. They can be stored in the fridge in a bag for up to ten days. Cucumbers are high in potassium and fiber with moderate amounts of Vitamins A and C, as well as folic acid, phosphorous, and magnesium.
Although they can be cooked, cucumbers are most often eaten raw in salads, in cold soups, in cucumber based sauces, and as hors d’oeuvres. Cucumbers are also the vegetable of choice for pickles. Pickles are made by placing cucumbers in a seasoned brine or vinegar solution.
Cucumbers are used to make raita, (pronounced rye-ta), a classic Indian dish. Raita is a mixture of yogurt, cucumbers, seasonings, herbs, and possibly other vegetables. It can be used as a condiment or when mixed with larger chunks of other vegetables or fruits, made into an actual salad.
Similar to raita is the Greek cucumber and yogurt sauce tzatziki. Tzatziki is the classic sauce used on Greek gyros. Gyros are sandwiches of minced lamb on pita bread with onions and peppers. Again, the yogurt and cucumbers are mixed with herbs, and seasonings.
There are many variations for raita and tzatziki, (especially raita), and no matter what you call it, yogurt/cucumber based preparations are creamy, cool, low-fat, delicious, and can be utilized on numerous foods. Try them on lamb chops, sausage, chicken, or even fish. Use them as a dip, an alternative to sour cream on Mexican dishes, or even a substitute for mayonnaise on a sandwich. They are often used with spicy foods since their creamy coolness provide a harmonious balance with zestier flavors.
MARK’S CUCUMBER-YOGURT SAUCE RECIPE
• 1 pint plain yogurt • 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped • Juice of half a lemon, (more or less to taste) • Small to medium batch of mint leaves, chopped (Or try cilantro or a cilantro/mint combination) • Half teaspoon cumin • Half teaspoon coriander • Salt and pepper to taste
For a thicker sauce, place the yogurt in a colander on top of another pan and allow it to drain in the fridge for an hour or two. Similarly, after chopping the cucumber, press the excess water out in a fine mesh sieve. Mix all of the ingredients and serve as suggested above. Other optional flavor enhancers include finely chopped onion or garlic.
CUCUMBER & BEAN SPROUT SALAD
• 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and thinly julienned • 12 oz. bean sprouts • 1 red bell pepper, thinly julienned • 6 scallions, sliced • 1 small to medium batch cilantro, stems included, chopped
Mix all of the ingredients for the salad. For the dressing, combine everything but the oils. Whisk thoroughly to dissolve the sugar and salt as much as possible. Then slowly add the oils, constantly whisking, until an emulsion is formed. Mix with the salad and serve.