Smashed cucumbers seem to be everywhere, from restaurant menus to recipe columns. Whether the inspiration is Asian, Middle Eastern or European, the technique is universal – but it is not new. Smashing cucumbers is an ancient Chinese practice, pairing the heady, intense, spicy food of Sichuan province with the coolness of cucumbers to offset the heat.
The secret to smashing cucumbers is to get various textures in the same dish. Harder pieces and softer, raggedy pieces give a range of surfaces that have different absorption levels, making for layered eating.
While there are many varieties of cucumbers, I find the best ones for smashing are long, thin English cucumbers, or small, firm Persian cucumbers. Both have less water and fewer seeds than other types
To smash a cucumber, lay it on a cutting board and cut off the ends. With a cleaver, the back of a frying pan or the flat side of a chef’s knife, smash down on the cucumber to break it apart, but not crush it. Some prefer to place the cucumber in a plastic bag so the seeds don’t fly around.
Once the cucumber is slightly flattened and cracked, cut it into bite sized pieces, about 1-inch. They will be irregular; you will have rough, shaggy pieces and smoother ones. The variety of textures is important and what makes this dish satisfying. Sprinkle with a teaspoon of Kosher salt, which will draw out any water and soften the skin. Set aside in a colander while making the dressing. Discard any liquid before tossing with the dressing. These salads should be eaten right away, as they get soggy over time.
Should you end up with soggy leftover salad, I have thrown mine into a stir fry, or I purée the cucumbers with ½ the amount of yogurt by cup measure (1 cup cucumbers, ½ cup yogurt) and 2 tablespoons dill to make a spectacular sauce to accompany salmon. If you have enough leftover, make cold cucumber soup. Purée in a blender and add some vegetable or chicken stock, along with enough buttermilk or yogurt to give it a slight creaminess. Garnish with a handful of little shrimps and chopped mint.
For the traditional dressing, mix 1½ tablespoons rice vinegar with 2 teaspoons sesame oil, 1 or more teaspoons grated garlic, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and ½ teaspoon sugar. Optional but excellent ingredients are either ½ teaspoon chili oil, such as sambal oelek, or two finely chopped bird’s eye chilies. Toss the dressing with the drained cucumbers and eat immediately. (This recipe makes dressing for two smashed English or five small Persian cucumbers.)
For a spicy take, inspired by a recipe from Superiority Burger, the excellent vegetarian restaurant in New York, combine ½ cup yogurt with the juice of and zest of a lime. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add 3 chopped green onions, white and light green parts. Smash 2 English cucumbers and cut into pieces. Toss with about half the dressing, adding more as needed. Don’t drown them. Combine 1 tablespoon honey and ½ teaspoon hot sauce and drizzle over the salad. Garnish with 3 or 4 bread sticks broken into large bread crumbs.
For a Middle Eastern take, change the yogurt to tahini, and sprinkle with parsley.
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