By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
The most sweltering part of summer is the time to reach for the coolest of cool produce — the cucumber, of course.
Long prized for their thirst-quenching, sweat-stanching properties, cucumbers are a hot-weather balm all over the world, making their way into chilled soups, fresh salads and juicy sauces, or simply eaten out of hand, under the shade of an awning or tree.
Any flavor combination that sounds good in your head will probably taste good on cucumbers. Like many other gentle ingredients, they’re a flexible canvas for showcasing stronger, brighter ingredients: citrus, olives, chiles, garlic, herbs and pungent, salty cheeses like feta and Roquefort.
This recipe was inspired by the smashed, salted cucumbers that are classic in many parts of Asia and vibrantly dressed, whether with garlic and vinegar or spicy Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and peanuts.
Here, I add cubed avocado for creaminess and body, and sesame seeds for crunch. For protein and heft, I tossed in some shrimp, which turns a side dish into a light summer meal.
To keep things as buoyant and summery as possible, I steam the shrimp, adding a little soy sauce and sesame oil to season them through and through. This leaves the shrimp tender and briny, without any of the browned, caramelized notes you would get from sautéing. And it’s just as fast, accomplished in under five minutes.
For me, though, the best part of this recipe is crushing the cucumbers, then ripping them apart with my fingers. Whacking unsuspecting produce with the flat side of my knife (or a rolling pin to really go at it) is more energizing and amusing than slicing neat pieces. It also serves a purpose, because all that smashing and tearing bruises the cucumber flesh, creating small fissures that are better able to absorb seasonings than smooth, even slices. The craggy pieces are more succulent to eat, too.
If you can find small, thin-skinned cucumbers, such as Persian, English, Japanese or Kirby, you don’t need to peel or seed them. But use your judgment, because if the skin is thick or waxed (as many supermarket cucumbers are), you’re better off peeling so that more flesh is exposed and ready for smashing. Which is, after all, the point — and the fun — of a cool summer salad like this.
Recipe: Smashed Cucumber, Avocado and Shrimp Salad
By Melissa Clark
Smashed, salted cucumbers form the base of cooling summer salads in many parts of Asia, whether dressed with rice vinegar and soy sauce or spicy Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and peanuts. This version pairs smashed cucumbers with avocados for creaminess, along with briny shrimp steamed with sesame oil. Served with rice or flatbread, it makes a light summer meal, but you can serve it on its own as an appetizer, to open for grilled or roasted meat or fish.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
- 1 pound English, Persian or Kirby cucumbers, rinsed and dried
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon chile crisp, more to taste
- 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined if you like
- 2 large ripe avocados
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, more to taste
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
1. Cut cucumbers crosswise into pieces about 4 inches long. Cut each piece in half lengthwise. Place each cucumber piece cut side down. Lay the blade of a large knife on top of the cucumbers and, with your other hand, push down lightly to crack the cucumber skins and break down their flesh (or use a rolling pin to lightly smack the cucumbers). Break (or slice) into bite-size pieces. (Ragged is good here; it helps the flesh absorb the dressing.)
2. Add cucumber to a colander, and toss with salt and sugar. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes, or until the pieces have released their moisture. Toss a couple of times while draining.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon soy sauce, olive oil, 2 teaspoons sesame oil and the chile crisp. Set aside.
4. Cook the shrimp: In a large skillet over medium heat, combine shrimp with 1 tablespoon water, remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Cover the pan and let the shrimp steam until pink and just cooked, 3 to 4 minutes, adding more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the pan looks dry. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to the bowl with the chile crisp dressing and toss well.
5. Pit and peel the avocados. Cut flesh into 1/2-inch pieces. Add to a large bowl and toss with the rice wine vinegar until well coated. Add the drained cucumbers, tossing gently to combine.
6. Add the shrimp and all of its dressing and the scallions to the cucumber and avocado mixture. Stir gently until combined and the avocado begins to break down and look creamy, but some pieces still remain intact. Taste and add more rice wine vinegar and salt, if needed. Garnish with sesame seeds and cilantro.
You don’t need to peel or seed thin-skinned cucumbers. But the waxed, thick-skinned cucumbers often found in supermarkets are best peeled and seeded.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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