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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thai Cucumber Salad

Order in not out:

"What is that interesting spice flavor," my father asks, spearing a coin of cucumber.
"I think you mean the basil, Dad," I say, hoping I sound patient.
He raises his eyebrows and continues munching.
"Basil and cilantro are really common in Thai food," I say, relinquishing responsibility for the strange but harmonious spicy, sweet, sour flavor of the salad.

Dad seems slightly startled but eats most of the salad before pulling out the seasoning salt (offense of offenses) and making a crash landing in his comfort zone. I guess it was asking a lot of him; he is new at this. His only encounters with Asian food have been at busy, salty, heat-lamped buffets. But, in my father's defense this recipe even surprised me, patroness of Thai salads everywhere, with its sharp, fresh flavor. With just a handful of ingredients the salad comes together in about ten minutes and tastes like it has been marinating for hours. I had higher hopes for the coconut marinated chicken we had with the salad but it fell a little short of my expectations. That's what I get for hacking the marinade time in half...

You see, I have been going through a little bit of a dry spell, as far as inspiration goes. Monday I picked through my pile of magazine clippings looking for an arsenal of recipes to carry me through another long week manning the fort. Nothing really struck my fancy but, seeing how I was going to be cooking for just one most of the time, I decided to take the opportunity to explore new flavor territories. I even went so far as buy the sweetest (USDA certified organic, locally grown) basil plant. His name is Reginald.

While my father remains secretly skeptical we (Reginald and I) believe this salad was a definite success. In fact, it was so good it reminded me of a green papaya salad I had a few months ago at a very scrumptious Thai cafe in Maryland. According to the original recipe one cuke yields about 4 cups. My only complaint was the texture of the big circles of cucumber. In my mind grating the cuke would be an ode to the juliened carrots and papaya in that salad but I have yet to try it. If you would rather not risk your knuckles, thinly sliced rounds, or any other shape for that matter, taste just as good.

Notes: When buying a cucumber seedless is usually preferred. These are very often called "English" cucumbers and are designated as seedless. If you can't find one, just cut the regular cuke in half and use a spoon to gently scoop out the seeds. Personally, I don't mind seeds one bit. A cucumber that is thin and fairly free of blemishes (look for smooth, dark green skin) is usually the tastiest. Be sure to thoroughly wash your veggies before using them. The cucumbers and limes are often sprayed with wax to make them shiny and appealing so be sure to use a mild detergent. Do not make this salad more than an hour or so in advance, otherwise your herbs will wilt and your cucumber will begin to break down.

From Good Housekeeping August 2006

2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or a scant 1/8 teaspoon cayenne)
1 seedless cucumber (peeled if you prefer)
1 tablespoon green onion (or chives) finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped, unsalted peanuts

1. Wash the cucumber and lime and set aside. Place your basil and cilantro in a bowl of cold water, giving it a little shake to remove any dirt and then dry on paper towels. Rinse the chives or green onions.
2. Cut your cucumber in half lengthwise, placing the cut side on the cutting board. Cut the cucumber into slices. Place in a bowl.
3. Stack 5-6 basil leaves one on top of the other. Roll the leaves tightly then, holding the roll together carefully with your fingers, finely slice the basil. This is called a chiffonade. Add to the cucumber.
4. Remove the leaves from the cilantro stems and discard before chopping the cilantro leaves roughly. Add to cucumber and basil.
5. Remove the roots from the scallions, if using them. Finely slice the chives or scallions and add cucumber.
6. In a small bowl mix the lime juice, sugar and crushed red pepper. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and add the lime juice mixture to the cucumber and toss to coat, seasoning with salt if needed.
7. Serve with chopped peanuts.

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