Growing up, my mom often made a summer salad with cucumber, tomato, rice wine vinegar, a few drops of sesame oil and some salt. All of the vegetables came from our garden. It tasted cool and earthy, salty, acidic, and slightly exotic.
I was paging through Plenty, by Yottam Ottolenghi, and came across his recipe for Cucumber Salad with Smashed Garlic and Ginger. It instantly transported me back to my childhood, eating this salad on the back porch while listening to a symphony of cicadas, bullfrogs, crickets and the ubiquitous hum of suburban lawn mowers. I realize it’s the middle of winter, our garden is under a few inches of snow, and we won’t have fresh cucumbers for several months, but I needed to cook something that isn’t braised or roasted, in hues of orange or brown.
So, I picked up some bright green mini cucumbers at the supermarket, ignoring the little voice rebuking me for buying produce that probably traveled from a hothouse over 3,000 miles away. I made the salad, and for better or worse, forgot all about environmental responsibility after taking one bite. It’s a little spicy, nutty, and crunchy, with equal parts sour and sweet: The perfect mini-vacation from stews and roasted root vegetables.
The recipe instructs you to crush garlic and ginger and salt in a mortar and pestle. I know most people don’t have one of these hogging up precious counter space, so try slicing the ginger and garlic, combining it with the salt on your cutting board, and smoothing over it several times with the flat side of your knife until the components are crushed, but before they turn into a paste. The recipe also calls for sunflower oil. I replace the suggested two tablespoons with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. I’m sure the sunflower oil adds depth, but it’s not worth an extra trip to the grocery store at five PM with howling toddlers in tow, to buy something that will go rancid in your cabinet before you find another use for it.
I served it last night with pan-roasted salmon and a swirl of Greek yogurt, but when local cucumbers are once again in abundance, I’m also imagining this folded into a cold soba noodle salad with grilled shrimp, or on top of leftover grilled and thinly sliced leg of lamb. The possibilities are endless. I have a feeling this will pop up again and again, in the summertime, or the next time I need to break out of the winter food doldrums.
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 ½ inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled, green germ removed, and sliced
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 4 small or 8 mini cucumbers, peeled
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar and sugar until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Whisk in the vegetable, olive, and sesame oils. Add the sliced red onion, and toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 4.
- Place the ginger, salt and garlic on a cutting board. Flatten with the smooth end of a large knife, and push around the cutting board several times, so the slices crush and release juice, but stop before the mixture becomes a paste. Scrape the contents from the board into the bowl with the onion and dressing. Stir to combine.
- Slice the peeled cucumbers in half lengthwise, place them cut-side down on the cutting board, and slice at an angle into ¼ inch slices.
- Add the cucumber, sesame seeds, and cilantro to the bowl and stir to combine. Let sit ten minutes, then pour off some of the liquid that has accumulated. Stir, season again with salt if desired, and serve.