The most sweltering part of summer is the time to reach for the coolest of cool produce — the cucumber, of course.
Long prized for their thirst-quenching, sweat-stanching properties, cucumbers are a hot-weather balm all over the world, making their way into chilled soups, fresh salads and juicy sauces, or simply eaten out of hand, under the shade of an awning or tree.
Any flavor combination that sounds good in your head will probably taste good on cucumbers. Like many other gentle ingredients, they’re a flexible canvas for showcasing stronger, brighter ingredients: citrus, olives, chiles, garlic, herbs and pungent, salty cheeses like feta and Roquefort.
This recipe was inspired by the smashed, salted cucumbers that are classic in many parts of Asia and vibrantly dressed, whether with garlic and vinegar or spicy Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and peanuts.
Here, I add cubed avocado for creaminess and body, and sesame seeds for crunch. For protein and heft, I tossed in some shrimp, which turns a side dish into a light summer meal.
To keep things as buoyant and summery as possible, I steam the shrimp, adding a little soy sauce and sesame oil to season them through and through. This leaves the shrimp tender and briny, without any of the browned, caramelized notes you’d get from sautéing. And it’s just as fast, accomplished in under five minutes.
For me, though, the best part of this recipe is crushing the cucumbers, then ripping them apart with my fingers. Whacking unsuspecting produce with the flat side of my knife (or a rolling pin to really go at it) is more energizing and amusing than slicing neat pieces. It also serves a legitimate purpose, because all that smashing and tearing bruises the cucumber flesh, creating small fissures that are better able to absorb seasonings than smooth, even slices. The craggy pieces are more succulent to eat, too.
If you can find small, thin-skinned cucumbers, such as Persian, English, Japanese or Kirby, you don’t need to peel or seed them. But use your judgment, because if the skin is thick or waxed (as many supermarket cucumbers are), you’re better off peeling so that more flesh is exposed and ready for smashing. Which is, after all, the point — and the fun — of a cool summer salad like this.