Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Relish Those Cucumbers

I've written before about my brother-in-law Dave's tradition of creating Friday night dinners that provide a quick, flavorful, and satisfying start to the weekend. Since mid-spring, when wild Pacific salmon began appearing in the seafood case at Philbricks Fresh Market in Portsmouth, those dinners have frequently centered around whichever species of oncorhynchus happens to be in season. I'd been dying to try the recipe for Wild Salmon with Vietnamese Cucumbers  from David Tanis' A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, which is probably my go-to cookbook of the moment. As soon as I saw the first cucumbers of the spring at the Copley Square Farmer's Market in Boston, I knew what we'd be serving that Friday.

The key to the cucumber dish is fresh herbs (as opposed to dried!) and the fish sauce, which is made from fish that have been allowed to ferment. Whether you use nuoc mam (Vietnamese) or mam pla (Thai) it has a distinctive, salty, savory taste (umami!)-- and is an essential ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. You don't need to add a lot, but there really is no substitute. Most grocery stores carry it in the International Foods section.
These Vietnamese cucumbers are very easy to prepare, but it's best made about 20 minutes in advance of serving so the flavors can meld. And if there's time to chill it a bit, you get a lovely contrast with the hot fish.

As for cooking the salmon, Tanis drizzles it with a little olive oil and bakes it for 20 to 25 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Dave drizzled ours with a marinade of soy sauce, ginger, and scallions and grilled it. Tanis suggests serving this dish with jasmine rice, but we chose to have soba noodles with sugar snap peas in a ginger sauce and some sauteed tat soi .                                                                                   

Vietnamese Cucumbers ala David Tanis from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes
4 large cucumbers
Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) or  or Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices
1-3 tbsp palm sugar (available at Asian or Indian grocers, or use raw brown sugar)
2 or 3 limes
1-2 Fresh Thai chilies (or serranos or jalapenos), finely chopped
A few mint sprigs
A few basil sprigs
1-2 thinly sliced scallions
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Peel the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds with a spoon, if they are large. Slice the cucumbers into thickish half-moons and put in a large bowl. Sprinkle lightly with fish sauce, then add the ginger and a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (The fish wauce is very salty.) Toss well and let cucumbers sit for 5 minutes or so.

2. Depending on the level of spiciness you desire, add anywhere from a teaspoonful to a tablespoon of finely chopped serrano or jalapeno chilies, (seeds removed if you prefer) or finely slivered Thai chilies. Squeeze in the juice from two limes, toss again, cover, and refrigerate until serving.

3. Just before serving, add a fistful of roughly chopped mint and basil leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning with lime juice, salt, and pepper. Garnish with thinly-sliced scallions.

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