An acquaintance of mine, Damian, asked me, “Have you ever cooked cucumbers? You’ve got to try it,” he said. “Cook it in a stew with beef… but you have to know when to add it to the pot. Make sure the beef is fully cooked, and just a few minutes before the stew is done, add the cucumbers and turn it up in the nice thick sauce.” Damian air-licked his fingers to indicate the deliciousness of the stewed beef with cucumbers.
One of the many pleasures of writing this column is the discussions and exchanges that ensue. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cooking watermelon rind. There were a few skeptics, but people were excited to share their enjoyment of cooking other, similar vegetables – such as chichinga (chichira/snake gourd) and nenwa. While I had heard of people cooking cucumbers, I had never cooked it; however, I had eaten cucumbers in a Chinese-style stir-fry of vegetables. It was okay, nothing to motivate me to try cooking it, but Damian’s description of this mighty beef stew got me excited and I committed to making the dish.
Damian was adamant that the cucumbers be young, firm and green. I know that explaining that the cucumbers be green seems obvious but cucumbers can be a little deceiving.
Mature cucumbers look different depending upon the variety of cucumber in question. The type we grow and use most widely in the region is known as Kirby. When Kirby cucumbers mature, the rich dark green skin starts to lighten in colour and weight. It gets spongy when squeezed, and when cut, the flesh is white. It is best to cook the cucumbers when they are firm, heavy, and green because they stand up well to the intense heat of the final cooking stages of a stew.
I had no reservations about cooking the cucumbers, especially not after the excellent results of cooking watermelon rind.
Seasoned beef, dusted with flour was browned before a generous helping of aromatics consisting of sweet onions, pungent garlic, fragrant broadleaf thyme, flavour boosting celery and hot peppers were softened and mixed with toasted tomato paste. Soon the stew was bubbling; I set it to pressure and cook until tender.
Five minutes before the stew was done cooking, as instructed, I added the peeled, de-seeded, chopped cucumbers to the stew and gently tossed it to mix with the beef and thick sauce. At the end of the five minutes the cucumbers were not fully cooked but I shut off the heat and left the pot covered. From experience, I know that this kind of vegetable would finish cooking as it sits in the heated environment, a phenomenon we discussed in this column called carry over cooking.
I honestly did not have any expectations of what the stew would taste like. I was unsure as to what impact the cucumbers would have on the flavour of the stew. Raw sliced cucumbers have a distinct flavour that just a whiff of it suddenly makes you hungry. Well, the cucumbers added some of that flavour to the stew. It easily absorbed salt from the stew (just as a potato does), therefore, it is important to taste when it’s done cooking and adjust it to suit your taste.
The texture was very much like that of squash/bottle gourd. The beef cucumber combo made for a very tasty stew with succulent chunks of beef and tender pieces of cucumber. And you know what, eating the stew with some sliced cucumbers on the side dressed with freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sea salt makes it yummier. I’m definitely making this stew combo again.
Here’s to another blood pressure reducing vegetable to eat in more than one way. Thanks for the suggestion and inspiration Damian.