Anyone who ever said that cucumbers don't grow on trees never met Henry E. Allen. He's Montgomery County's small-space gardening expert and designer of The Cucumber Tree.
It wouldn't be accurate to call him breeder of The Cucumber Tree, even though plant breeding is one of his favorite topics. Actually, he created his tree from an old wooden door, some nails, venetian blind cord and four cucumber vines, and grows it in a mere square foot of garden space.
"I do a lot of experimenting in getting high yield from limited space," he said. In doing so, the "tree" is just one of many tricks he has developed for back-yard gardeners.
Known by local experts as one of the area's finest gardeners, Allen is quick to share his expertise over the phone with any caller, or in slide shows and lectures for the county's extension service and various garden clubs.
The problem with raising cucumbers, he said, is that the vines can take up to 20 feet of valuable garden space. Though bush varieties only require a square foot of garden space, they only produce about seven or eight cucumbers each -- a yield Allen considers hardly worth the trouble.
So in an effort to solve the problem, he decided to see whether the more productive vine varieties would grow up in the air if given the proper support. It would be ideal, he reasoned, if the support would require only a square foot of space -- the same amount of space that the bush varieties use -- while increasing yields 8- to 10-fold.
He sawed an old wooden door into six pieces -- one piece a seven-foot central beam onto which he nailed five 30-inch arms. He wrapped cord connecting one arm to another for the runners to grasp as they grow out from the vines. As his cucumber vines reached full peak Allen realized that he had constructed a spectacular green-leafed tower that was as much a conversation piece as a successful gardening tool.
Now if this seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a cucumber, then obviously you've only been exposed to commercial varieties, Allen said. "Commercial varieties are not as flavorful or tender as those you can grow in your own back yard," he said. Commercially grown cucumbers have to be a tougher breed in order to withstand shipping, and are usually covered with an inedible wax to extend their shelf life.
The homegrown varieties, on the other hand, can be picked at peak and enjoyed within minutes or held in the refrigerator for about four days and still taste terrific. The ideal time to pick them depends on the cultivar, Allen said.
The burpless type is best picked at 10 to 12 inches, the standard slicing cucumber should be 7 to 8 inches long, pickling cucumbers should be anywhere from 3 to 4 inches long and gherkins 1 to 2 inches long. The cucumber should be rigid, with a deep green luster all over; any yellow is a sign that the cucumber is past its prime. If you pick them at their peak, they will be "virtually seedless," Allen said. Those seeds that are there will be tender enough to eat.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the seeds that leave a cucumber bitter; it is a lack of watering while they are growing. Considering the fact that cucumbers are 95 percent water with very few nutrients, it stands to reason that this thirst quencher grows best when watered generously.
But even when well watered, a homegrown cucumber now and then will be bitter. To rid a cucumber of its bitterness, peel away the skin and top layer of flesh, then salt it and set it aside for 30 minutes. Rinse off the excess salt before using the cucumber in a mousse, sauce, soup or pure'e. If a cucumber is limp, crisp it in ice water for 30 minutes.
Allen's wife Elizabeth says they eat at least one cucumber every day during the peak of the season on sandwiches (mayonnaise, salt and pepper on white bread), or as a salad of onions and sour cream, or wilted with hot cider vinegar. While she does some pickling and turns many into gazpacho to freeze over the winter, many more get passed on to neighbors and family who eat them sliced plain. Here are some additional ideas for enjoying cucumbers all year round. CUCUMBER MOUSSE WITH CHIVE MAYONNAISE (8 servings)
2 ( 1/4-ounce) envelopes unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon minced scallion
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 bunch fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 medium cucumbers, seeded and peeled or 4 small pickling cucumbers, peeled
Chive mayonnaise (recipe follows)
Thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers
Soften gelatin in cold water in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add boiling water and process until slightly cooled. Add yogurt, scallion, lemon juice, mint, salt and hot pepper sauce and process until smooth. Add cucumbers and process again just so mixture is smooth with small flecks of cucumber in it. Pour into a 5-cup mold and chill overnight. Decorate with chive mayonnaise, thinly sliced cucumbers and radishes. Serve leftover chive mayonnaise in a separate bowl. CHIVE MAYONNAISE (Makes about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic
3 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon prepared mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh chives
1 1/2 to 2 cups olive oil or half olive oil and half vegetable oil
Mince garlic in blender or food processor. Add egg yolks, mustard and salt. Process until mixture is thick and foamy. Add lemon juice and chives and process 10 seconds. With the motor running, add the oil a few drops at a time until mixture thickens, then continue adding remaining oil a little more quickly until all the oil has been incorporated. If the mixture is too thick, add a few drops of lemon juice. BARBARA BOOTH'S WILTED SWEET-AND-SOUR CUCUMBERS (6 servings)
1/4 cup water
1 cup white vinegar or cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup sugar
4 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeded
Fresh dill for garnish
Boil water, vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar for 5 minutes. Peel cucumbers and slice thinly. Lay cucumber slices in a bowl. Cover with hot vinegar mixture and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours. Drain off liquid. Garnish with fresh dill.
Note: Marinade keeps up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Simply cut the cucumbers and keep adding as the need arises. FRESH-PACK DILL PICKLES (Makes 8 quarts)
10 to 12 pounds cucumbers, 3 to 5 inches long
2 1/4 cups salt
2 gallons, plus 2 1/4 quarts water
1 1/2 quarts vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons whole mixed pickling spice
16 teaspoons whole mustard seed
16 cloves garlic
1/2 cup dill seed
Wash cucumbers thoroughly; scrub with vegetable brush; drain. Cover with a 5 percent brine by mixing 1 1/2 cups of salt with 2 gallons of water. Let set overnight; drain.
Combine vinegar, remaining 3/4 cup salt, sugar, 2 1/4 quarts water and mixed pickling spices that are tied in a clean, thin, white cloth; heat to boiling. Pack cucumbers into clean, hot quart jars. Add 2 teaspoons mustard seed, 2 whole garlic cloves and 1 tablespoon dill seed to each jar. Cover with boiling liquid to within 1/2 inch from top of jar. Adjust jar lids.
Process in a boiling water for 20 minutes, starting to count the processing time as soon as the hot jars are placed in the actively boiling water.
Remove jars and complete seals if necessary. Set jars upright on a wire rack or folded towel to cool. Place them several inches apart.
From "Making Pickles and Relishes at Home," USDA Cooperative Extension Service BRAISED SALMON WITH CUCUMBER SAUCE (4 servings)
This works well with any fish fillet, but salmon steaks make a beautiful contrasting color.
2 medium cucumbers (about 1/2 pound)
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup fish broth or water
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 egg yolk
Freshly ground pepper
Peel, seed and finely dice or julienne the cucumbers. Salt and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes, then rinse, drain and pat dry. Set aside. Sprinkle the shallots into a baking dish or flameproof casserole. Cut the salmon into four 6-ounce serving pieces and place skin side down on the shallots. Pour in the wine and fish broth or water. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the dill. Bring just to a boil on top of the stove, cover, and bake in a 400-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through.
Meanwhile, cook the cucumbers for 1 minute in 1 tablespoon of the butter and set aside. Remove the fish to a warm platter and keep warm. Pour the cooking juices into a saucepan and reduce them to 1 cup liquid over medium high heat. Strain and return to the pan. Stir in 1/2 cup of the cream and boil for a few minutes to lightly thicken. Stir in the cucumbers. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolk with the remaining cream. Whisk a bit of the hot liquid into the egg mixture to heat it, then add to the sauce. Heat gently without simmering, or the sauce will curdle. Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in 1 tablespoon butter, if desired. Spoon over salmon and serve sprinkled with remaining dill.
From "The Victory Garden Cookbook," by Marian Morash