Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spicy Cucumber Salad

The Setting: Wednesday, already?

The Soundtrack: Just the gentle sleep-sounds of my little Oia-bug.

Steaming up the Oven: Nothing yet, but who knows what the night will bring?

The Scenario: The journey down the Mekong continues!

When the authors of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, first began exploring Southeast Asia in the 1970s, they were limited to visiting Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) because of wartime restrictions prohibiting outsiders from entering China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

One of the first formerly restricted areas to loosen its restrictions after the war was the Yunnan Province of China, where Alford and Duguid picked up today's tasty tidbit, layou huanggua, or Spicy Cucumber Salad.

This snappy salad that celebrates the tastes of hot, salty, and sweet is as simple to make as it is to inhale.

I snacked on some of the crisp cukes immediately after dousing them with the hot oil, as the recipe suggests, and Hoosband and I savored the rest, slightly softened, as a side dish with some burgers later that night--I know, probably not what the authors intended, but delicious nonetheless.

The only problem I ran into with this recipe was an inability to source Sichuan peppercorns.

I subbed in black peppercorns (no relation to the Sichuan, but I had them on hand) and used an entire jalapeno (instead of the half called for in the recipe) to make up for some of the lost heat. I considered throwing in a dash of Chinese Five Spice powder, since Sichuan peppercorns are one of its five spices, but I held back. Something to try next time!

This recipe is reprinted with permission from Artisan Books; my notes are in red.

Spicy Cucumber Salad (layou huanggua--Yunnan)
In this salad the cucumbers are first dressed with a little vinegar, then dressed again with hot oil. The contrast of smooth chile-warm oil and crisp fresh cucumber is a knockout. The salad has a mild but not aggressive heat made with the 5 dried chiles. Note that the cucumbers will soften if they're left standing, so don't pour the hot oil over them until just before you with to serve the salad.

1 large or 2 medium European cucumbers (1 to 1 1/4 pounds) I used 4 European cucumbers, as I felt mine were especially small
2 T rice vinegar
1 T sugar
2 T peanut or vegetable oil
5 Thai dried chiles, or 3 for milder heat
1/2 jalapeno, minced I minced and used the whole pepper with all the ribs and seeds
7 Sichuan peppercorns I used black peppercorns, but they are not a legitimate substitution from what I've read
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup packed torn coriander leaves (cilantro; I finely minced mine)

Peel the cucumber, leaving some thin strips of peel on if you wish, for a decorative effect.

Cut lengthwise into quarters and discard the seeds. I did not discard the seeds, as that would have left me with very little cucumber.

Use the flat side of a cleaver or large knife to bash the cucumber pieces several times.

Cut the pieces lengthwise into thinner strips, then cut crosswise into 2-inch lengths.

Place in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar and sugar. Pour over the cucumber, mix well, and set aside.

Place a wok or skillet over high heat. When it is hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the pan.

Toss in the dried chiles, jalapeno, and peppercorns and stir-fry for 20-30 seconds. Pour this over the cucumbers. Sprinkle on the salt and mix well.

Mound the salad in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle on the coriander leaves and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a salad or as one of many dishes in a rice meal.

Note: The traditional way to make this uses 3 tablespoons of oil, giving a well-oiled texture that may be undesirable. If you wish, try both and see which you prefer.

Excerpted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books). Copyright 2000.

Stay tuned for more tasty travels down the Mekong with Alford and Duguid, coming soon!

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

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