Monday, March 30, 2009
Who knew that the mild, unassuming cucumber could be the basis for a knock ‘em dead dish? Nancy Donnelly, that’s who.
Nancy is a D.C.-based television producer and an avid cook. When we met a few weeks ago at a baby shower we talked food pretty much non-stop. I asked her what she’s cooking these days and she got the look of an evangelist in her eyes and said, “Cucumber salad.”
Here’s the story, in her own words:
Back in 2004 I was on a shoot in China for two weeks. We went all around China in that time, and had many incredible meals. My DP on that trip was/is a native New Yorker but he had spent many years living in China. So he knew where to take us to eat authentic, fresh Chinese food that normal tourists wouldn't easily find but that we as Westerners could stomach - and a few that were definitely experimental.
Everywhere we went we would order enough food to share (family-style) with our 4-person crew, our minder, our fixer, and anyone else who may have been joining us for that meal. Those meals were the best part of the trip. Just about every restaurant we went to brought out as an appetizer - without our even ordering it - a heaping plate of cucumbers drenched in a yummy dressing that I could only guess included cilantro and some kind of pepper flakes. Probably soy sauce. So garlicky and spicy but cool with the cilantro and cucumbers. Each restaurant had a different variation on them - spicier, milder, peeled cucumbers, unpeeled cucumbers, neatly sliced cucumbers, broken-up cucumbers, etc. But they were always wonderful. I asked what the dish was called and was told that it was simply called "Huang gua." Translation: Cucumbers. After only a few meals with these cucumbers our team took to asking for two heaping plates of them: One plate for the team and one plate just for me. I LOVED huang gua.
So when I returned from China I missed the huang gua so much that I emailed my fixer, Lu Bo and asked him if he could figure out the recipe for me. It was one of those things he as a Chinese man just took for granted - like a basket of bread in one of our restaurants - but had never thought about the recipe. He said he guessed it had cucumbers, cilantro, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, and sesame oil. And to achieve the often broken-up appearance of the cucumbers, he suggested cutting the cucumbers into 3-inch sections, then cutting those sections in half, then flattening them with the flat side of a wide-blade knife (cleaver?) or something. Doing it that way instead of slicing them allows the scrumptious dressing to be absorbed into the cucumbers' little nooks and crannies!
I have been to a couple relatively authentic Chinese restaurants in the States since then and have asked for "huang gua" by name. It's almost always not on the menu but if you ask for it sometimes they'll bring some out for you. Even in the out-of-the-way, authentic places I've been to the Huang gua has not been quite as tasty as they were in China. And if you're looking for it at a Chinese joint mostly frequented by Westerners, forget it.
So, after much experimentation, here is my simple recipe - very much estimated, but easily adapted to your taste!
1 English (seedless) cucumber
1 handful cilantro leaves
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 T rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1-2 tsp roasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed pepper flakes
1/2 tsp chili oil (optional)
Randomly (but not completely) peel the cucumber and cut it into 3-inch sections. Put the sections into a plastic bag, take a heavy can of beans or something you can easily wield in your hand, and use the edge of the bottom of the can to lightly smash and roughly slice through the cucumbers. You just want them to appear broken-up, not mutilated - it may be a fine line! Open up the plastic bag and take the cucumber pieces out. Leave behind any mush you may have inadvertently created.
Combine cucumbers with all other ingredients in a bowl, toss, and enjoy!
This should feed two-four people, but I can eat the whole damn thing myself in one go.
I’ve made the cucumber salad twice now (and I currently have a cucumber in my fridge for another), and my mouth is literally watering as I think about it. The beauty of this recipe is that everyone can customize it to his/her own taste. I added a 1/2 teaspoon sugar to punch up the salty/spicy/sweet quotient, and one time I omitted the garlic and red pepper flakes and subbed in Chinese chili garlic sauce. It was truly awesome – once I had eaten all the cucumber I tipped my plate and drank the remaining sauce.
The pic above is mine (actually Dave’s); these are Nancy’s: