Here’s what happened: global warming. It has been hot hot hot all over the nation and Maryland is right smack dab in the middle of it. (The heat, not the nation. Unclear pronoun reference. Deduct 5 points.) It has been so hot here (“HOW HOT IS IT??” — I don’t have a punchline for this) but more oppressive than the heat is the humidity. I walked to the car at 10 AM last week and as long as it took me to get my keys ready my hands were moist like I was about to go on stage. Humid. Your-lungs-feel-wet humid. Mercy.
Anyway, it’s not really cooking weather except for some quick grilling, so I pulled out a recipe I found awhile back for Sichuan (Szechuan) Cucumber Pickles and now I can’t stop nomming on them. Pair this dish with a Thai Melon Salad from my cooking school textbook and a recipe for rice cooker coconut rice I am seriously bananas for right now, and you’ve got some goodness happening. Throw some lightly marinated chicken breast tenders on the grill the last 5 minutes of prep and you are set. Nutritious, cooling, and a crazy amount of texture. Pan-Asian delight.
Both of these salads should be made a few hours before serving leaving you plenty of time to put your feet up and drink some sweet tea before dinner.
First up, Sichuan (or Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers.
Sichuan Pickled Cucumbers
The Gourmet Cookbook
2 lbs. small Kirby (pickling) cucumbers or 1-2 seedless English cucumbers
4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1/3 c. Asian sesame oil
1 (1-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, finely grated
8 (1-inch-long) dried hot chiles, seeded if desired
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
First of all, I love sesame oil and its distinctive flavor makes this dish, so I can’t imagine subbing it out for any other oil, so don’t you try it, either. Well, I mean, you can if you want to, but… Next, a neat trick for “peeling” fresh ginger is to actually scrape the peel off with a spoon. Works like a charm and is not nearly so wasteful as peeling it with a knife or traditional peeler. While we’re on the subject, a spoon is just the ticket for scraping the seeds out of the cucumber wedges, too. And while the Szechuan peppercorns are optional, I’ve tried it with and without and although I love the tongue-numbing taste of Szechuan peppercorns, I would grind them first since they are a bit distracting if left whole.
Halve each cucumber lengthwise, then halve again to end up with long quarters. Scrape the seeds out, then chop. The recipe calls for 2-inch pieces, but I dice to medium. Toss cucumbers with salt in a bowl and let stand 20 minutes.
While the cucumbers are salting, heat sesame oil in a wok or small deep skillet over moderately high heat until just smoking. Stir-fry the chiles and peppercorns for about 30 seconds or so, until the peppers turn dark. Add the ginger and stir-fry, being careful not to burn the ginger – it can happen quickly. Remove from heat and cool completely.
Rinse cucumbers well, drain in a colander, and pat dry. Stir together the rice vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add cucumbers, tossing to coat. Pour spiced oil over cucumbers and toss well. Marinate at room temperature for 3 hours before serving. The cucumbers can marinate, covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days; stir occasionally. The longer the cucumbers marinate, the spicier they will be. Note: Leaving the seeds in the chile peppers will make a considerable difference in their heat level. Adjust accordingly. Makes about 6 cups.
Next up, Thai Melon Salad (my textbook calls it a salsa, but I prefer to use it as a salad).
Thai Melon Salad
On Cooking, 5th ed.
2 assorted melons (honeydew, cantaloupe. Crenshaw, etc.), peeled & diced
1 tsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. minced Serrano chile
2 fl ounce lime juice
4 tbsp. unsalted peanuts, roasted, chopped fine
4 tbsp. chopped mint
Cut the melons into small dice, or shape into small balls using a parisienne scoop. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss with melon pieces. Chill thoroughly. Garnish with more mint before serving, if desired. Serve with fish, shellfish, or chicken. Yields 1 quart.
And then there’s the rice.
Rice Cooker Coconut Rice
(this was scribbled on an index card, so not sure to whom to give credit but I modified it a bit so that makes it mine, right?)
Rice Cookers…I know, I know. I used to be against rice cookers — uni-taskers, and all, blah blah– but now I’m converted since it babysits its own self and leaves all my stove burners free — can’t argue with that!
I have unintentionally left out the salt on two occasions and the rice tastes just dandy to me, so you may want to try it, too.
2 c. jasmine rice
1 c. coconut milk (not light)
2 c. water
½ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. shredded coconut , plus more for garnish, see note
Combine all ingredients in the rice cooker. Stir to combine. Activate the rice cooker and let it do its thing. Allow to sit 10 minutes after it finishes cooking. Fluff with a fork before garnishing (see below) and serving. Serves 4.
Note: I highly recommend taking another 3-4 tbsp. shredded coconut and toasting it lightly in a pan over med.-high heat until the coconut begins to release its oils and browns. This can be done while the rice is bubbling away in its cozy coconut milk bath. Crumble toasted coconut over rice before serving.
And the chicken? Well, y’all know how to cook chicken, so I won’t bother with that. But, I will say that I came late to the party when it comes to chicken breast tenders. And now I’ve fallen hard. Sauteing or grilling them literally take about 3-4 minutes per side (if that). There’s not even time to walk away so it’s easy to avoid overcooking them and drying them out. Just remember to cut out that tendon at the tip, because it’s super annoying to chew on that. Really harshes the chicken tender mellow. I chucked mine in a quick marinade of soy sauce, mirin, ginger and oil as I put the rice on, and 25 minutes in the bag was just about right to keep them juicy on the grill without overpowering their mild meat.
And that’s it. That’s the hot weather dinner du jour. So grab some sweet tea and enjoy!