In my kitchen, cucumbers are always the bridesmaid, never the bride. They find their way into so many of my salads, and play supporting roles in soups and even cockails (working on a sake-ginger martini…). But still, I’ve never been one to swoon over a dish composed entirely of cucs. In my mind, it’d be like eating a bowl of nothing but tofu. Meh. Where’s the good stuff?
I hope cucs can forgive me for overlooking their star power. In this salad, this humble combination, cucumbers need no company. In fact, what makes this salad great is that without the dominating flavors and textures of their usual salad accompaniments, the cucumbers can really shine. Their fresh crunch provides a perfect canvas for an addictively spicy dressing of lime juice, hoisin sauce, chopped scallions, and the real magic — freshly ground chili powder. Subtlety has no place in this dish. The combination is at once sour and salty, tongue-lashingly spicy and utterly clean. Make enough for two, and I guarantee just you will eat it all.
There were several inspirations behind this salad. First, the buns at Momofuku, which come with a few slices of pickled cucumber, a dab of hoisin, and a generous squirt of sriracha. The combination is like crack, and I had it in mind in creating this dish. Second, a salad I saw this week in NYMag that combined cucumbers with lime juice and fresh chili powder, which lodged itself in my mind. Third, David Chang’s ginger scallion noodles, also from Momofuku, in which the scallions essentially become the dressing. It was a brilliant idea, and the scallions in this dish have a similar effect. I could go on about what caused me to make this dish, but once you make it, you really won’t care. You’ll be making a B-line for the kitchen to get some more.
ALSO: After nearly three years of blogging, the time has finally come: I’m doing a giveaway on the blog! better late than never, right? The wonderful folks at Marx Foods sent over a chili sampler, which is where I got the smoked serranos for this salad. They’ve graciously offered to send one lucky reader a chili sampler as well.
Leave a comment sharing your favorite use for chilies, and I’ll pick a commenter at random on Monday, June 14th to get the sampler. Good luck — I can’t wait to hear your favorite chili recipes! Wow, you guys rock! Love these recipe ideas. Mango-jicama salad with chiles? Yes, please!
The giveaway has ended, and our lucky winner is commenter #1. Congrats, Natalie! I’ll email you with the information about your free chile sampler. Enjoy, and thanks everyone for participating!
Spicy Smoky Sour Cucumber Salad
serves 2, questionably
Note: The freshly ground chili is what makes this recipe great. If you use the jarred stuff, your salad may taste a bit like sawdust. Just sayin’. In terms of how much chili to use, you’ll have to taste and adjust, as heat is clearly a matter of preference. I used two smoked serrano chilies, which have a moderate level of heat. They’re certainly not mild. Ground, they amounted to about 1.5 teaspoons. I added the chili slowly, starting with 1/2 teaspoon and working up to the level that tasted best. You should do the same. If you want to use a milder chili, try ancho (smoked poblano) or something else smoked; that smoky flavor is key.
1 Japanese or (small) English seedless cucumber, or 3-4 small Mediterranean cucumbers; aim for 6 oz. total
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (I needed 1 long scallion for this)
1/4 cup lime juice
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon flavorless oil, such as grapeseed or safflower
1/2-1 teaspoon freshly-ground chili (see note)
1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Combine all ingredients except cucumbers in a medium bowl, starting with 1/2 teaspoon of chili and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Taste and adjust heat and salt levels according to your preference.
Trim ends of cucumbers, and slice into thin coins, 1/8-inch thick if possible. Don’t fret if some are slightly thicker than others; call it textural contrast. Add to bowl with dressing and toss to combine. That’s about it. Salad will be ready to eat in about….now.