Today: Cucumbers evade heavy brines and thick cream dressings, and find a brighter future.
When it gets hot, the cucumbers come out to play. (And not a moment too soon -- last week, the sky was so hot over New York that it literally exploded.)
So often we forget to celebrate the sweet traits of cucumbers, their clean taste and unflagging pep, and we turn them into little more than a crunchy vehicle for vinegary brines or creamy dressings. Those can be delicious, but cucumbers have a flavor too, one that can be glossed up without paving over.
In Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford -- authors of six cookbooks born from their travels through Asia -- published a genius recipe that does just that.
I learned about this understated salad from food writer Lauren Shockey, who knows a few things about traipsing through Asia collecting recipes herself.
"It differs from other cucumber salads primarily in the light oily dressing that coats the vegetables. It's still light, but has that sort of glistening slickness to it as well, whereas most cucumber salads are stoic and all vinegar, or are leadened with mayo," Shockey explains. "This falls somewhere right in the middle."
Want to see? Here's how it comes together, in not much more time than it takes to slice a cucumber.
You peel your cucumber in zebra stripes and seed it if you like, then crush it lightly to breach its defenses and allow the dressing to filter in. Duguid and Alford say to bash it with the side of a knife, and how you interpret "bash" will depend on your priorities: fun vs. cleanup. I have a tiny, cluttered kitchen, and although I like attacking things, I find enough wayward clumps of food on the walls. A slow, nonchalant lean against the side of a knife works too.
From there, the dressing happens in two stages: first, a sprinkling of rice vinegar and sugar.
Then a wok-fired chili oil that clangs with three kinds of pepper: Sichuan, dried red chiles, and fresh serrano. You pour it on while it's still sizzling and the cucumbers drink it in.
Cilantro tumbles in too and the cucumbers are officially surrounded by bright splashy flavors, none so much to steal the show.
You can eat it right away -- with some grilled fish or lamb with cumin, perhaps -- or it can sit around in the fridge for a few days as a mellow pickle to snack on. It'll stay crunchy. It's also good for tempering spicier food -- the rush of cold cucumber helps you keep going when your Gong Bao Chicken is making you pant and sweat.
Either way, don't forget -- cucumbers just want to have fun. And look how much fun they're having!
Adapted very slightly from Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Artisan Books, 2000)
Serves 4 as a salad or as one of many dishes in a rice meal
1 large or 2 medium European cucumbers
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (if using seasoned rice vinegar, omit the sugar)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 Thai dried chiles, or 3 for milder heat
1/2 jalapeno, minced
7 Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup packed torn cilantro leaves
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom