Cucumbers? Yup, that’s what I said. Truthfully, I have no idea if cucumbers have a special meaning in Chinese lore. But for decades, I have making this fabulous Chinese cucumber salad that is at home as much in a Chinese banquet as it is at a barbecue.
It comes from Craig Claiborne’s Chinese cookbook with Virginia Lee, The Chinese Cookbook.
Craig is part of a triumvirate of my personal cooking heroes – Julia, James and Craig’s books all inspired and instructed me and still do. Virginia Lee, herself, was part of a trio of Chinese cooking teachers in the U.S. in the second half of the previous century. Lee, Grace Chu (I studied with Madame Chu – wowee zowee – a story for another time) and Joyce Chen were the first three standout Chinese cooks and authors who brought Chinese authenticity to the American table. More about Madame Chu here.
Back to The Chinese Cookbook. This book is full of wonderful, although not always easily accomplished, dishes. Chinese COOKING may be quick, but the mis en place is not.
The chopping must be precise, many ingredients in small quantities must be mixed together in advance and then often remixed as the often used cornstarch becomes concrete-like in the bottom of the bowl. Plus bringing together a Chinese meal of many dishes is often challenging and reminds me of why the best
Chinese cook I ever knew never actually sat down with us.
Having said all that, this Chinese Cucumber Salad is a wonderful addition to many different meals. It's spicy and cooling at the same time.
This recipe has a lot of interesting techniques – cooking the cucumber pieces, sautéing vegetables in sesame oil, which is usually used for finishing and, of course, the finicky shaping of the cucumber pieces.
The funny thing is that the way I shape them is NOT the way Craig and Virginia Lee instructed in their original recipe. It came about from my misreading of the rather obtuse directions. I decided I liked MY way better anyway.
Chinese Cucumber Salad
Adapted from from The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee
3 cucumbers, peeled
1 tsp. Kosher salt
3 slices ginger, each cut in half
½ jalapeno, shredded
1/3 red pepper, shredded
5 tbls. sugar
5 tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tbl. low salt soy sauce
2 tbls. sesame oil
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
Cut the peeled cucumber into 1 inch pieces.
Place in a bowl with 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt. Mix well. Let sit for one hour.
Stir together 3 tablespoons of sugar with all of the red wine vinegar and soy sauce. Set aside.
Drain and rinse cucumber pieces well. Bring a medium pot of water to the boil. Turn off and add cucumber pieces. Time exactly 15 seconds. Drain cucumber and place back in rinsed-out bowl. Mix with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
Heat sesame oil in small saucepan over medium high heat. Add red pepper flakes. Take off heat just as the flakes start to turn brown, no more than a minute. Strain oil into small frying pan.
Heat oil over medium high heat. Add the ginger, jalapeno and red pepper pieces and stir fry for 30 seconds.
Pour the vinegar and vegetable mixture over cucumbers in bowl. Chill for at least an hour.
Using a slotted spoon, place cucumbers and vegetables into a serving dish, removing ginger pieces if you wish. Serve.