Smashed Cucumber Salad

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As spring approaches and we experience hints of warmer weather, many of us begin to crave lighter, less-hearty fare.

Alas, spring vegetables are still months away, but we can lighten our menus using the produce available to us now. The next few posts will feature dishes that highlight late-season vegetables in ways that shake off the heavy roasts and mashes to reflect the coming spring.

I found some lovely English cucumbers at my local grocery store. English cucumbers are longer than the regular ones, have thinner skins, fewer seeds and are said to be sweeter that the more-common varietals.

That same day, I encountered several recipes that called for “smashing” cucumbers. This seemed silly and a bit violent to me, but I gave it a try. The results were messy; I used a meat tenderizer mallet, and it caused bits of cucumber to sail around the kitchen.

I ended up pouring the resultant chunks into a bowl and dressed them; the salad was enjoyed immensely by all, and there wasn’t a seed left in the bowl. But I thought the process was silly, messy and gimmicky and not really worth the trouble. I had no intention of repeating it.

Then I did some research.

Apparently, the technique enables the cucumber to deliver a variety of textures to the dish; some are kind of smushed and porous, absorbing the dressing almost like a pickle does with brine. Others are crunchy and thin, and still others are chunkier. As I reflected on the salad that disappeared at dinner, I realized that maybe there was something to this technique — smashing in every sense of the word.

So I did some more research.

One clever chef suggested putting the cucumbers in a large Ziploc bag before smashing them, thus containing the mess. Another offered the idea of smashing them with the side of a wide knife blade or meat cleaver, pressing slowly but firmly down to squish the cucumber like you would a garlic clove.

My inaugural version of this salad used a specialty Persian lime olive oil that I purchased on a whim from the Tubby Olive in Reading Terminal Market. If you don’t happen to have this obscure ingredient in your pantry, fear not — the juice of half a lime mixed with the olive oil is a perfectly good substitute. If you want more lime flavor, increase the amount of juice you use and/or add some lime zest to the dressing.

The possibilities are endless with this dish because you can vary the dressing — use sesame oil, chili oil and soy sauce for an Asian flair, add curry powder for an Indian profile or add cumin and fresh cilantro to head south of the border.

One note of caution: The smashed cucumbers absorb dressing more quickly than their sliced brethren, so if a crisp texture is a high priority, don’t leave this soaking overnight, or longer than an hour or two.

Smashed Cucumber Salad

Serves 4

2 English cucumbers

2 tablespoons lime-infused olive oil or 2 tablespoons olive oil plus juice of ½ lime

¼ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)

Place the cucumbers in a large Ziploc bag, and pound them with a meat tenderizer or the bottom of a small skillet until irregular chunks form and all pieces are bite-sized. (If a few large bits remain, simply tear them with your hands when you assemble the salad; don’t overdo this process to the point of pulverization.)

Alternatively, place the cucumber on a cutting board and press the side of a wide knife blade to compress the cucumber. Repeat until you have a bunch of varied pieces and textures.

In a shallow bowl, mix the remaining ingredients, and then add the cucumbers.

Stir and serve, or allow the dish to sit for an hour so the flavors meld. This can be served at room temperature or chilled.

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