Cucumbers get such little love. They're like bell peppers; they're just sort of a default raw vegetable. A sad slice or two is a ubiquitous but uninspiring garnish to the dreaded garden salad; a couple of slices can be found tucked under the pickled vegetables on a plate of com tam.
Well, it's time for fresh cucumbers, and they're not the waxy, bitter phalluses you might think.
The waxy kind of cucumber that appear all over chain grocery stores are actually almost impossible to buy at a farmers' market. This is for good reason: at their best, they taste like bitter cardboard, and the waxy skin is so tough that they must be peeled, robbing them of any flavor they may have had in the first place.
By far the most common farmers' market cucumber in Orange County is the Persian cucumber. These cucumbers are about five or six inches in length, skinny, straight, ridged and a surprisingly light shade of green. They are the official cucumber of both Greek salad and its tomato-cuke-and-onion salad cousins, and they are the bartender's garnish choice due to the unvarying circumference and straightness.
You may see English cucumbers, eighteen inches or so long and ridged, like a longer, less consistent Persian. These are the cucumbers that are sold wrapped in plastic in Ralphs; at a farmers' market, they're permitted to breathe.
Pickling cucumbers are mottled white and green, fat, and look like their intended destination. If you do pickle your cucumbers, consider rescuing some about halfway through the pickling process. They'll still be vibrantly green, with an understated garlic bite; in New York they're called “half-sours” and prized by pastrami connoisseurs.
Armenian cucumbers are making their way in. Not technically a cucumber (Cucumis sativa) but a close relative, Armenian cucumbers have a slight sweetness that gives away their relationship to the melon family. They're identifiable by the stripes of dark and light green color running down the fruit, and by the length; Armenian cucumbers are often a yard long. Slices of fresh-cut Armenian cucumber stirred into a pitcher of ice water lend a new dimension of refreshment; this is what spas serve.
Pepino dulce is another non-cucumber that gets called “sweet cucumber”. It looks like a small crenshaw melon, but tastes like sweetened cucumber. This fruit, which is rare but growing in popularity, makes outstanding agua fresca.
Toward the end of cucumber season, you'll find lemon cucumbers, so called because they are yellow when ripe, and round like a fat, homegrown lemon. Despite their yellow color, they are the sweetest of all cucumbers and the best for stuffing full of seafood salad.
When selecting cucumbers, you want to see snap; avoid cucumbers with wrinkled skin or odd discolorations. (You may occasionally see a yellow mark on an otherwise-green cucumber; this generally means it was resting on the ground and is fine.)
With the exception of the lemon cucumber, the yellower your gourds are, the more bitter they are. These plants are from the same family (Cucurbitaceae) as bitter melons, after all, and like all gourds, larger seeds mean more bitterness. If you happen across a specimen that yields huge seeds when you slice it open, simply take a spoon and scrape out the seeds.