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The Secret to a Not-Bland Cucumber Salad

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Alexandra Stafford shows us how to help cucumber salad live its best life. 

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A few weeks ago, a cucumber salad I brought to a neighborhood gathering threw me into a tizzy: It tasted bland. It looked tired. I couldn’t handle it.

I asked myself what went wrong again and again as I periodically made my way to the buffet table to give the cucumbers a toss, hoping the juices pooling at the bottom of the bowl might revive the salad. Breaking Julia Child’s cardinal rule, I apologized for my dull contribution to the dinner and continued to obsess until my husband gave me a look that said: No one cares about your cucumber salad but you. 

The following morning I opened Chez Panisse Vegetables hoping to find an answer. Indeed, Alice Waters had some insight: “Cucumbers dressed in advance or used in a sauce may give up too much water and dilute the flavor of the dish. To avoid this, lightly salt the prepared cucumbers, let them sit in a strainer for 10 minutes, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, and wring out the excess moisture.” 

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It made perfect sense. Like so many water-filled vegetables, cucumbers benefit from a brief salting, a simple but important step to draw out moisture and prime them to receive a dressing. So while the salad I had made promised to be great—farmers market cucumbers, basil from the garden, a flavorful dressing—it had been doomed from the get go: With all of that cucumber water, it didn’t stand a chance. 

I tested Alice Waters’ method later that afternoon, salting the cucumbers before tossing them with vinegar, olive oil, and herbs. One bite calmed my restive brain and reminded me how good cucumber salads can be—and, above all, assured me my public meltdown hadn’t been in vain.   

Choosing and storing your cucumbers:
This time of year, farm stands abound with both small pickling cucumbers and larger slicing cucumbers—look for cucumbers that feel firm and heavy for their size rather than spongy or soft. And because they dry out soon after they're picked, store them in a bag in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. 

Prepping your cucumbers:
Cucumbers—especially from a farmers market or a C.S.A.—tend to be dirty. Wash them well before using, and peel them if they're thick-skinned or bitter. If the seeds taste bitter, halve the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a spoon. (If you're cooking with English cucumbers, it's not likely you'll have to do either.)

Using your cucumbers:

Cucumber and Red Onion Salad

Serves 2 

2 cucumbers (about a pound)
1 small red onion or a few shallots
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon vinegar such as white balsamic, white wine, or rice
Fresh herbs such as basil, dill, mint, or parsley
Olive oil (optional)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Alexandra Stafford 


Tags: a bushel and a peck, red onion and cucumber salad, cucumber, weeknight cooking, summer