Monday, August 13, 2012

Cool As

There’s that old saying that in summer’s dog days you can sit by a country road and hear the corn grow.  Along those same lines, I do believe that I could sit myself down in a corner of my garden right about now and watch the cucumbers swell.  Not that I have the patience for that, nor do I mean to imply that our rural life is quite that somnolent.  We do have Dish TV, you know, and the New York Times, and fairly active minds.

However, it is certainly true that a pinkie-sized cuke the evening before can easily grow to kosher dill-size by the next morning.  Also, as all you gardeners will have observed, some cucumbers possess a sort of stealth technology that allows them to escape detection until they have reached near football size.  As diligently as one might rummage in the prickly leaves, a few fruits always get away, until one day when you reach in and your hand latches on to a cucumber as big around as your forearm.  Honestly, how does this happen?  It’s a phenomenon that has perplexed me over decades.

Cucumbers are easier to find, easier to pick, and more pleasant to behold when they are growing up a trellis.  We have this sort of rotty white wooden fence that I screwed a metal grid onto, and both cucumbers and beans have happily ascended it.  I have two kinds of cucumbers in my garden—Burpee Pickler and my favorite cucumber, the Suyo Long.  I used to seek out French cornichon cucumber seeds, until I realized that a cornichon is just a little cuke.  If you pick the Burpees at 2-inch size, they work just fine for those vinegary pickles, tel mignon, which must accompany a slice of terrine.  I’m not picking the babies this year, though, as I still have a good stock of cornichons in the fridge from last year.

I’m letting the picklers grow a bit more, and they’ll get fermented in a simple brine with dill, garlic, and chilies to make Russian-style (or is it Jewish?) sour dills.  Oh, how I love those pungent, fragrant cukes, slightly piquant, sour and salty.  I could eat a bowl at a time, but I help myself judiciously, to make sure they last me through the winter.  The trick of adding currant, oak, grape, or cherry leaves to the brine to ensure crispness really does work.

Now about the Suyo Long, a type of cucumber I first encountered in China, where this is the standard cuke.  How long is a Suyo Long?  Pretty darn long.  The one spanning the frame below would be a good 16 inches if straightened out, and they’ll go a few inches longer than that.  Growing them on a trellis causes them to grow straighter.  If they’re lying on the ground they tend to curl up.

The virtues of this type of Asian cucumber are many.  Let me count them:  First, although they come from the vine very prickly indeed, once the spines are washed off the skin is quite tender, and not bitter.  Then, while by no means seedless, they have fewer seeds, and less tough, than the typical cuke.  And the flesh seems less watery, with a slight fragrance of watermelon rind.  They really are a total taste of summer for me.  They’re my favorite for bread & butter pickles, sliced into a classic salad with sour cream or yogurt dressing, chopped for a cool and hot salsa.

And of course they make me nostalgic for the time I spent in China, where I would sit with my fellow teachers or my Chinese students in one of the little open-air restaurants along the narrow grubby streets just outside the university gates on warm, hazy evenings and order up mapo doufu (tofu in spicy pork sauce), hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork), and often a dish of liang ban huang gua, cucumbers in a dark, spicy dressing with plenty of garlic.  Indeed, cucumbers and garlic are one of those classic combinations found in cuisines all over the world.  There’s another Sichuan cucumber salad, suan ni huang gua, in which the dressing consists of little but very finely minced garlic.  Not for the faint of heart, or first-daters.

Printed on cheap, cheap paper, poorly bound, Selected Sichuan Recipes 1 & 2 from the Sichuan Culinary College are among the most cherished volumes in my cookbook collection.
Like the French, the Chinese often cook cucumber, pairing it in stir-fries with cubed chicken or pork.  If you haven’t tried it, cooked cucumber is a delightful surprise.  It retains some of its iconic coolness even while hot, and pairs wonderfully with the numbing and hot (ma la) flavors of Sichuan cooking.  The recipes below are copied directly from handouts for Sichuan cooking classes I taught a long time ago, almost no changes.  They worked then, they should work now.  Have a try.

Cucumber Salad (Liang Ban Huang Gua)

The Chinese don’t eat many raw vegetables, for a variety of reasons.  But this cucumber “salad” is a common summer dish in Sichuan.  Serve it right along with the other dishes in a multi-dish Chinese meal.  With the potent flavors of chili oil and pulverized garlic, it will hold its own.

2 medium cucumbers, about a pound

With tender summer cucumbers, leave the skin on.  With winter grocery store cukes, peel them entirely or just mostly, leaving some thin strips of the skin for color.  Cut them in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and cut each half lengthwise again.  Smack these quarter strips with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife a couple of times—this opens the flesh up a bit to take in more of the sauce.  Cut the strips into 1-inch pieces. 

3 cloves garlic  

Peel the garlic, then smash each clove flat with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife.  Mince and scrape the garlic on your cutting board till it is nearly a paste.  Adding a little bit of  salt will help this process but is not necessary.

2 scallions, minced        
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 Tbl Chinese dark vinegar       
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbl chili flakes in oil    
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp ground Sichuan pepper

Mix the garlic and the rest of the sauce ingredients.  Pour the sauce over the cucumbers and mix well.  Serve.

Chicken with Cucumbers (Huang Gua Ji Ding)

Cucumbers are often cooked in Chinese cuisine.  They must be treated rather delicately, cooked just enough to take away the raw flavor, but not so much that they lose their crispness.  This simple recipe combines diced cucumber with chicken, chilies, and a copious dose of garlic. [This is also very good with pork subbed for the chicken, and a bit of sugar (1/2 tsp?) and soy sauce (2 Tbl?) added to the marinade.]

1 medium cucumber                  
1/2 tsp salt

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds.  Cut the cucumber into 1/2-inch dice, put them in a bowl, and mix in the 1/2 tsp salt.  Let it sit for 20 minutes or so, while the salt draws off some of the moisture from the cucumber.  Then drain the cucumber, squeezing to remove as much liquid as you can.

6 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh meat, cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 Tbl rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cornstarch 
1 tsp sesame oil

Mix the chicken with the rice wine, salt, cornstarch, and sesame oil.  Let marinate at least 20 minutes.

1 1/2 Tbl minced garlic
4 whole dried red chilies (or more, to taste), broken in half
2 Tbl vegetable oil
1/4 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Heat a wok or fry pan over high, then add the 2 Tbl oil.  When the oil is very hot add the chilies and stir-fry until they begin to darken, about 30 seconds.  Then add the garlic and stir-fry for just 10 seconds.  Add the chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is white and firm, about 1 minute.  Add the cucumbers and stir-fry for 1 minute. 

 Remove to a serving plate, sprinkle with the Sichuan pepper, and serve.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


littlelichen said...

Hah hah..."stealth cukes"...soooo true. :) I did a nice gazpacho with some asian cukes tonight, along with garlic, tomatoes, red onions and lemon basil. They truly are the perfect warm weather food. Great post!

Sara said...

Gah, it's been such a bad cucumber year for us, just poor timing with the odd weather this summer I guess. I have hopes my fall planting will do better, in which case I'll return here for recipes!

Trout Caviar said...

littlelichen, your gazpacho sounds fantastic. I'm going to give it a try, even though the heat wave has broken here, and a bowl of hot soup might be welcome in our cool evenings!

Sara, seeing as how cucumbers are almost all water, your droughty summer has to have been tough for them. But I imagine you still have time; they go so fast once they get going.

Cheers~ Brett

minneville said...

Somehow the taste of raw cucumber doesn't appeal to me very much but this salad is an exception! And I have never made it on my own! I'll do that with my next batch of cucumber! And yes, I always prepare cucmber in a pork stir-fry.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Tina: This is definitely one of the more flavorful cucumber salads out there. It's fine with regular cukes, but the Asian type is worth seeking out. I've seen them starting to appear at the farmers markets more this year.

Cheers~ Brett

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing...

Jay said...

Dear Trout Caviar,

I love your post! I am an avid cucumber lover and cucumber blogger. I was wondering if I could use your Suyo Long picture if I reference you or your blog?



Unknown said...

Hello Jay: If you want to use the photo on your blog, feel free to do so with attribution. Cheers~ Brett