A big part of my cooking life is the love of experimentation. I've fiddled and tweaked and added to already established recipes countless times because of curiosity, or carelessness in the shopping process, so that I've had to substitute something for whatever I forgot to buy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes that additional ingredient lifts that dish from the norm to the outstanding (often, it's fresh herbs) but other times it just doesn't need anything else. It's perfect as it is. But you don't know until you try, and with Smacked Cucumbers I've tried many things.
Stripped down to its basics, it consists of these main components: Salt, chilli oil, garlic, sugar and vinegar. Salty, sweet, sour and spicy, in a happy balance, soaking into the bland cooling cucumber. What if you were to take each of these flavour profiles to the extreme?
I started off with making an infused garlic oil, made by frying garlic chips of uniform thickness as a base. This then became the chilli oil, and to it, I added some spices. Fennel seed and coriander seed for fragrance, and a star anise for depth. Palm sugar went in next, for the most caramel-rich of the sugars, and the salty aspect, with a little sweet for good measure, came in the form of soy sauce and white miso. Chilli was provided by Korean chilli flakes - mild, but vivid red. Sichuan peppercorns give tingle, and the punch was provided by finely minced fresh green jalapeno peppers. Sour? Sherry vinegar, Chinkiang black vinegar, and a squirt of lime.
It works marvellously. With a simple crisp-skinned salmon fillet and some rice, the richness of the sauce takes centre stage. For something to accompany meat stews or stir-fries, the simpler option is probably best for some cooling relief - otherwise, this turbo-charged version is a winner.
Serves 4 as a side
200ml vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced very thinly
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 star anise
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tbsp Korean chilli flakes
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp palm sugar
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 clove garlic
1 fresh green jalapeno, minced
2 long, slim cucumbers, washed and topped and tailed
1/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
A few coriander leaves
Place a clean tea over the cucumbers and smack lightly with a rolling pin, until squashed. Chop roughly and place in a colander - sprinkle with table salt and leave over the sink for the juices to leech out.
Place the oil in a small saucepan with the garlic chips, cold. Place on a medium heat, and watch like a hawk. When the oil starts to bubble, swirl the garlic chips around to separate them. When they start to turn a light golden, take off the heat and carry on swirling - they will become browner in the oil. Do not let them go beyond a peanut brown, or they will become bitter.
Drain the oil into a heat proof bowl, and place the chips on a piece of kitchen towel to soak up excess oil.
Pour the oil back into the pan, and place back on a medium heat. Add the star anise, fennel seeds, sichuan peppercorns and the coriander seeds. Bubble for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat and add the chilli powder. Return to a low heat and stir continuously until the chilli powder darkens but does not burn. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Remove the star anise, then add the sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegars, and clove of garlic. Place in a small chopper or blender and process until smooth. Add the miso and process again.
Rinse the cucumber well and pat dry. Place in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over. Toss well to ensure all the pieces are covered. Place the cucumber on a plate, and garnish with the minced jalapeno, garlic chips and the coriander leaves.