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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thai cucumber salad (Yum Tang Gwa)

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I picked four fat cucumbers from my garden the other day.  This is my first time growing cucumbers - in fact my very first time growing a garden of my own.  I've never before tasted cucumbers this fresh from the plant.  They were crisp, sweet, and perhaps - no, definitely - the best cucumbers I've ever tasted.  I am sure these cucumbers are the best tasting in the same sense that my cat (or your dog, or your kid for that matter) is the cutest thing ever.  But hey, why burst our bubble?

Anyway, since these cucumbers were the best ever, I couldn't possibly just use any recipe for it.  I grew these babies with blood, sweat, and tears.  Ok, not  really, I put the starter plants Cynthia gave me into the grown and gave them water and they practically grew themselves.  Hmm, now where were we, oh, yes.. growing them with blood, sweat, and tears - or just dirt and water, rather - I wanted something special the celebrate them.  A little bit of tinkering in the kitchen produced this recipe, a salad of crisp cucumber slices.  It's not exactly Thai, but the inspiration certainly is from that general direction.  

The dressing here is a classic Thai blend of lime juice, fish sauce, chilli, and a pinch of sugar.  I don't want the lime juice to be so pronounced and to overpower the brightness of the cucumbers, so I use a little less and temper it with a bit of rice vinegar.  If your fish sauce is old and getting quite stinky, I suggest using a bit less and adding some salt instead as well.  You want the dressing to be light, bright, and delicious, not stinky, sharp, and muddy, so be careful.  A little bit of herb gives the salad a lovely complexity, so I suggest Tia To or Vietnamese Perilla if you can find it (regular Shiro leafs or just plain mint will do in a pinch), and also a bit of cilantro.  Finish the salad with a generous sprinkle of toasted coconut flakes and fried shallots, and there you have it.  The salad in the picture has some poached shrimp in it, since I had that for lunch and thought I needed a little protein.  You can skip it entirely, or use poached chicken torn into strips, or tofu, or nothing at all.

Oh, you want a recipe, that was it.  Ha. Ok, not really.  

Thai cucumber and shrimp salad

(served 4 as a light-ish lunch, and more as part of a meal)

2 large cucumbers (about 2 cups)

2/3 lbs shrimp, preferably shells on (optional, but remember to add more cucumber if you're not using any protein at all)

about 1/4 cup of roughly chopped Vietnamese Perilla (use more or less to taste)

about 1/4 cup cilantro leafs (ditto)

1 cup of shallots, cut into thin slices

1/4 cup of coconut flakes (desiccated coconut)

For the dressing

about 1/4 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

about 2 tablespoon rice vinegar

about 1 tablespoon of palm sugar (white sugar will do just fine, but start with only 1/2 tablespoon)

5-10 Thai bird-eye chilli, chopped (to taste)

In a small pot, add 1/2 cup of water and the shrimp. Place the pot with the lid on over high heat, bring it to a boil. As soon as the water comes to a full boil, turn the heat off and let the steam finishes the cooking for a couple more minutes.  Drain the water and let the shrimp rest until they are cool enough, then peel and devein them and set aside.

Peel, seed, and cut the cucumbers into thin slices.

Place a dry wok over low heat, add the coconut flakes and stir constantly until they are evenly brown.  Set aside.  Wipe the wok clean, add 1 1/2 cup of frying oil into it and place it over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add the shallot slices and fry, stirring occasionally, until brown and crisp.  Be careful not to over cook them.  Fish out the fried shallots from the pan ontp a plate lined with paper towel and set aside.  You can strain the oil and keep it for another use.  The perfumed oil will be perfect for a stir-fry, for example.

To make the dressing, first you nuke the palm sugar (in a bowl in the microwave) for 20-30 seconds just to melt it and make it easier to blend with the other ingredients.  Then add the fish sauce, stir to blend.  Add the lime juice, then the rice vinegar.  Taste it and see if you need more acidity, if so, add more rice vinegar to taste.  Add the chopped chilli.

In a salad bowl, add the shrimp and cucumber slices.  Reserve a bit of the fried shallots, coconut, and the herbs for garnish.  Dump the rest into the salad bowl.  Pour in about 2/3 of the dressing, toss well.  Taste it and see if you'd like a bit more dressing, then add more as needed.  Sprinkle the reserved shallots, coconut, and herbs and serve.  

A great trick for egg lovers

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I love to serve this salad with a boiled egg on the side.  I boil the eggs just until the white is set but the egg is still somewhat gooey.  This is a bit tricky to do, as it depends on how hot your stove is and a lot of other factors, but generally what I do is this: I put 4 eggs, cold right from the fridge, into a 2-3qt. pot.  Fill it with enough water just to cover the eggs.  Put the pot on the stove over medium heat, lid off.  Set the timer to 11 minutes.  Just before the 11-minute mark, I fill a bowl with water and ice, to wait for the eggs. As soon as the timer rings, remove the eggs from the pot, put them into the ice water bath.  When the eggs are cooled enough, peel them gently under running water.

I cut each egg into halves and serve 1 egg per serving if it's for lunch, and just 1/2 if it's a part of a meal.

Before I eat, I use the fork to crush the egg, then stir to mix into the salad.  The partially cooked yolk basically dissolve into the dressing and slightly thickens it.  It's beyond perfect, to me at least. 

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