Slick, watery vegetables are notoriously hard to season. Even if you manage to get a dressing to stick, the flavors get diluted as the produce weeps.
It’s the main reason we shy away from cucumbers, particularly in salads. Except we knew that across Asia there is a whole class of well-seasoned salads made entirely from cucumbers. What do cooks there know that we don’t?
Our answer came from China’s pai huang gua, or smashed cucumber salad. Though boldly seasoned, it’s not the dressing that sets the dish apart. It’s how the cucumbers are prepared: smashed, banged and whacked to thoroughly break down the delicate vegetable.
The rough treatment does several things. First, it ruptures more cell walls than our usual slicing and dicing. This makes it easier to remove the seeds, the main culprit in overly watery cucumbers.
More importantly, unlike the smooth surfaces created by a knife, the smashing creates craggy, porous surfaces that better absorb dressing.
Traditional methods for smashing call for placing the wide, flat side of a Chinese vegetable cleaver over the cucumber, then striking it sharply with your hand. This worked well, but a Westernstyle chef’s knife, rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet did the trick, too.
Though removing the seeds helped cut the wateriness, we still weren’t happy. So we borrowed another Asian technique for prepping vegetables: salting and sugaring. Both seasonings are hygroscopic, meaning they attract moisture. A toss with a salt-sugar blend—followed by a brief rest and draining—helped remove even more water, leaving crisp hunks of cucumber that wouldn’t weep into our dressing.
Next, we turned to the dressing. In China, dressings vary by region. In Beijing, they load pai huang gua with garlic; in Sichuan, it’s heavy on the chili oil. In the U.S., the options veer away from tradition, with restaurants reaching for Mexican, Japanese and Middle Eastern flavorings.
We wanted to stick to classic Chinese flavors, but we favored blurring regional lines, combining garlic, soy sauce, fresh ginger and chili oil. Instead of using store-bought chili oil—which can vary in heat—we made our own by toasting red pepper flakes in neutral oil. One last note: In China, pai huang gua is eaten with chopsticks, so the dressing drips off the pieces of cucumber. To avoid an oily salad, use a slotted spoon to dole out portions.
Salting Produce: Salt helps draw excess moisture out of produce such a cucumbers, firming the flesh and concentrating flavors.
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Tuesday Nights, Tuesday Night Mediterranean, Fast and Slow and Cookish