Monday, October 31, 2016

Cucumbers with eggs

Once in a while you get a combination of ingredients in a Chinese dish that sounds completely odd. This is definitely one of them. 

The main reason Westerners find even the idea of mixing cucumbers with eggs strange is that we almost invariably eat our cucumbers either raw or pickled. But in China, cucumbers quite as often as not are cooked to a certain degree, for these are indeed members of the squash family. Refreshing squashes, yes, but squashes nevertheless.

My first run-in with cooked cucumbers was in Taipei where they were served in a soup. I hadn’t a clue what was floating around in there among the tiny pork meatballs until a friend informed me that they were in fact peeled, fat cukes. They were veggies that had gone a bit to seed on the vine, but were then rescued for the soup course. 

Anyone who has ever grown cucumbers will attest that you almost invariably end up with a couple hiding long enough to turn into monsters. Until I had traveled to Taiwan, I usually tossed these onto the compost heap. But the Chinese are a practical people who tend to find a way to make just about anything not only edible, but delicious. 

And they are right on the money with overly mature cucumbers: when peeled and seeded, their flesh turns out to be firm and just barely fibrous enough to withstand a hot bath. So next time you are faced with a yellowing cucumber, julienne some ginger, fry up some little meatballs, and make a soup with that cubed up squash. It’s actually extraordinarily good that way.

But back to cukes when they are at their absolute prime. Chinese-style cucumbers are called xiăohuángguā 小黃瓜, or "little cucumbers," because they are around 5 to 6 inches / 12 to 15 cm long. They are usually sold as Persian or Japanese cucumbers in Bay Area grocery stores. These are sometimes called "seedless" because the seeds are so undeveloped as to be negligible, at least when they are harvested correctly. The skins are also tender, dark green, and only slightly spiny.

My friend Chiaying was gathering the last of her homegrown "little" cucumbers the other day, and I happened to stop by just as she was wondering what to do with all of them. That counts as exceptional good luck in my book. Some were eaten raw right on the spot, as little can improve a cuke fresh off the vine. But I also took a big bag home and started fantasizing about what I could do with this lovely bounty.

The cukes, salted and squeezed
And then I remembered that I had noticed this particular dish on a menu in San Francisco a couple days earlier. I didn't order it at the time because few people make it well, for the eggs and cucumbers need to mesh juuuust right. I’ve had it with the cucumbers appearing as wide slices or fat batons, but in those cases the eggs just slithered off to one side because there was nothing there for them to grab onto. Also, restaurant egg dishes are usually tasteless, for they are generally neither of the greatest quality nor cooked with care. And so I like to make this dish myself. 

In China, eggs are considered a rich ingredient because of their butteriness, their depth of flavor, and their silky texture. That whole Chinese concept of yin and yang gets a bit of a workout here in this dish because cucumbers are considered bland, and so their nature gets emphasized when they are paired with eggs. Also, with a combination like this, there is soft against crunch, yellow against green, cooked against fresh. 

Wonderful aromatics also can be found wandering around in here to perk things up and turn this into something really lovely. I like garlic and green onions to bounce against my senses, and you can add some chopped fresh chilies in there, if you are so inclined.

The next thing that has to be addressed here is the proper way to prep the cucumbers. Like I noted earlier, the eggs will happily slide off of the cucumbers if given half a chance, so you have to get creative here. 
Cut them into slivers

My contribution to this homestyle classic is to cut them into relatively small julienne – not shreds, mind you, which would just dissolve into mush when heated, but large enough to handle a quick turn in the wok – and then lightly salting them. I've never heard of anyone else doing this, but that last step releases most of the juices and also roughs up the surfaces just enough to give the eggs a bit of a grip. Another benefit is that the cucumbers are then seasoned all the way through and so offer punchy little sparks with each bite.

And now we get back to the eggs and how to prepare them. Simply put: don’t overcook them. 

The best way to achieve this is to first quickly toss the cucumbers with the aromatics over high heat and then immediately empty them into a bowl. Only then should you cook the eggs over much lower heat. This will give you fat, yellow curds that are pleasant to look at and even more pleasant to eat, as they will be soft and tender – the perfect contrast to the slightly crisp and still very fresh cucumbers. Magic.

This is great over rice, wrapped in a flour tortilla, served with congee, or made as an accompaniment to toast.

Cucumbers and eggs
Xiăohuángguā chăo dàn 小黃瓜炒蛋
Northern China
Serves 4

4 seedless cucumbers (like Japanese or Persian)
1 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons / 90 ml peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Your main ingredients
1 green onion, green parts only, finely chopped
1 fresh red chile, seeded and finely chopped, optional
3 large or medium eggs, lightly beaten (free range, organic ones are highly recommended)
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the cucumbers, pat them dry, and remove the stems and blossom ends. Cut the unpeeled cucumbers into 2-inch / 5 cm lengths (more or less), and then into strips about ¼ inch / 5 mm wide on the skin side. Place them in a colander set in the sink, toss well with the salt, rub them a bit with the salt to rough them up (pretend like you are washing your hands with them), and then let the strands soften slightly for around 30 minutes. Squeeze small handfuls of the cucumbers to release as much of the moisture as possible and then place them in a work bowl.

2. Set a wok over medium-high heat, and add half of the oil to the wok when it is hot. Swirl the oil around and add the garlic, onions, and optional chiles. As soon as they smell delicious, toss in the cucumbers, sprinkling them in so that they don’t clump up. Raise the heat to high. Toss these together just until the cucumbers are barely heated through but the garlic isn't browned, and then return everything to the work bowl.
Fluffy, soft eggs

3. Lower the heat to medium-low and set the wok back on the stove. Swirl the remaining oil into the wok, and then add the eggs and pepper. Cook the eggs slowly, adjusting the heat as necessary, so that they congeal rather than fry. Stir them gently to encourage the eggs to form fluffy clouds, and as soon as just a slick of raw egg remains, gently toss in the cucumbers to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning - you probably won't need more salt, but use your own judgment. Serve immediately.

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