Nigel Spence: A Recipe for Caribbean Cucumber Salad (In a Jar)

nigel spenceChef Nigel Spence.
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The summer is finally here and immediately the oppressive heat and humidity that NYC is famous for has me craving lighter fare.

I can’t say if it’s the plant-based diet, an evolving palate or just plain old age that has me seeking out much simpler preparations. I now even hanker for a great salad. Not as a starter but as my main course dinner. Just a few short years ago a salad would serve about the same purpose as a bouquet of flowers on my dinner table; requisite furniture whose only tangible role is nothing more than to complete the optics for gorging on the much more important meat, starch and alcoholic beverages that command the grand stage.

Those days are quickly becoming a distant memory since I now go far and wide to find markets with great produce, preferably grown locally by someone who actually cares about its journey from seedling to plate. Those attributes make for the beginning of a transformative salad and is now the way I roll.

My latest craving has been cucumber salad. English cucumbers to be exact, also known as seedless cucumbers or European cucumbers, They are a bit denser than standard issue cukes, devoid of the huge seedbed found in the center of the layman’s cucumber.  These also tend to be a bit longer and can weigh as much as a pound or more, making one cucumber plenty for one person to consume.

I am equally obsessed with the preparation trick I came up with to prepare this simple salad.

Let me explain:

 I have been using many different sized mason jars lately for sprouting and have since found so many additional uses for them including this particular discovery.

I have two different screw caps for the jars.  The first is the standard issue solid top, the other, a nontraditional mesh top with legs, which acts as a strainer to prevent my washed sprouts from getting waterlogged as they grow in the bottle.

I have found that these jars make an easy job of cleaning, drying, and dressing a salad, and in this case also for wicking away the water from salted cucumbers.

For salads and herbs, I will put the fresh leaves in the bottle with water and veggie wash, cover with the solid cover and shake it vigorously to loosen the dirt and grit from the leaves, then switch to the strainer cap to remove the water and dirt while keeping the leaves in place.  If there happens to be any large particles that don’t make it through the strainer, I will then remove the cap while still upside down and remove any particles caught in the mesh. I will then recap the jar and continue to shake to dry the vegetables sufficient enough that I won’t need to use a salad spinner before dressing them.  I actually don’t keep a salad spinner in my small kitchen because they are so bulky and most of them are a pain to wash.

I now go one step further by adding the dressing to the leaves still inside the jar and cover with the solid cap and once again I shake rattle and roll to have complete dressing coverage on my freshly cleaned leaves. I then strain out the excess dressing, plate my well-dressed salad and reuse the leftover dressing for another round of salad making.  GENIUS!

When it comes to cucumber salad, salting the cucumber and allowing it to rest for about 30 minutes to remove excess water will much improve the final product as it will not leach much more water on the plated dish, nor water down the flavors of whatever dressing you choose to coat the cucumbers.   I like to cut the cucumbers in many different shapes for the fun factor of the aesthetics and different textures and levels of crunch while enjoying the salad. What can I say, I get bored easily, and when you eat as many cucumbers as I do, you keep looking for new ways to create excitement around them.  It’s not lost on me that cucumbers can seem very boring to most folk.  I will slice some thinly on a mandolin, I may cut some thicker rounds, and I may just cut random shapes while turning the cucumber after each cut.

I will then salt them lightly while still on the cutting board, then stuff them into the mason jar, add mesh cover, and turn upside down for 30 minutes to allow for the water to drain away from the brining process. You may collect that liquid and use in another dish; you can drink it or discard it. At this point you simply add your dressing into the jar of brined cukes, and activate the solid cover for shaking. Strain the excess dressing for future salads and you can now plate your amazingly fully coated cucumber salad, or you can re-install solid cover and take it on the road or keep in the fridge for later use. If I happen to have some early bloomers of cherry tomatoes, I will cut them in half and add them to the jar before shaking to add a splash of summer, and to allow some of their juices to add complexity to the simple dressings that I prefer. In most cases, I opt for my holy trinity for salad dressings which simply amounts to fresh lemon juice, my BEST olive oil, and a dollop of stone ground mustard. That is the jump off dressing to which I may add a little something else here or there depending on my mood. In this case, I only added some feta cheese to the salad to elevate and add some protein.

The total experience of that simple combination is much greater than the sum of its parts.

SUMMER CUCUMBER SALAD

1 large whole English cucumber, cut in 3 equal pieces

2 teaspoons Salt

4 tablespoons fresh squeezed Lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin Olive oil

1 teaspoon stone ground Mustard

½ teaspoon Maple syrup

6 cherry Tomatoes, cut in half

¼ cup crumbled vegan Feta cheese

METHOD:

Thinly slice the first piece of cucumber on a mandolin, cut the next in ¼ inch rounds, and the last one can be cut in random shaped small pieces while turning the cucumber.

Thoroughly salt all the cut cucumber and add then to a mason jar fitted with a mesh cover.  Turn the jar upside down to allow for drainage for 30 minutes.

Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard and maple syrup until well incorporated.

Add dressing to the mason jar along with cherry tomatoes, cover with solid cap and shake vigorously for a few seconds till cucumbers are well coated with dressing.

Strain the dressing for future use and you may now plate the cucumber salad, garnish with crumbled vegan or regular feta cheese and enjoy. It will also keep in the jar for a few days, although the cucumbers do get significantly softer and more watery as time passes.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.

 

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