While cooking, listen to this: Missing You by Ingrid Michaelson
When I first moved to New York City, a feat I never in a million years thought I’d choose to do, I was terrified. Not just because I didn’t know many people in the city, but also because New York felt so massive and full of crazy people who talk to their hands and shout at strangers on the subway.
My great aunt has lived in this city since she was 20, first attending Barnard, then getting a law degree at Columbia (one of the first women to do so), then working for the ACLU, and eventually, getting herself appointed to the bench as a New York City justice. She’s seen this city cycle through its best and its worst both from the street and the bench.
I moved to New York, completely rattled by the insane process of renting an apartment, intimidated by the twisting turns of the subway line, and reeling from an insane sense of imposter syndrome. And so, my great aunt took me under her wing, let me live with her for a month before my apartment lease started, and gently prodded me on my way to becoming the high-powered city girl I am now (lol).
We developed a closeness that’s hard to explain. Even though I don’t see her as often now, I adore our time together and feel at home when I’m in her lovely apartment. Once, I was having an especially rough Sunday - work drama was piling up, the water in my building was shut off because of a main break and I was quickly running out of clean clothes. Without thinking twice, she offered I stay at her place for as long as I needed. That night, as I laid on the blow-up mattress in her den (which was once my room), I felt comforted by the familiarity of her place. It made an especially rough few weeks a little easier.
My aunt is always discovering new fun restaurants in Greenwich Village, where she lives, and her latest discovery is a dry pot Szechuan restaurant that hails all the way from Flushing. The place has every kind of add-in imaginable from chicken feet to tripe, and while we, of course, always order a dry pot stir fry to share, we also get these magical little cucumbers, doused in chili oil.
I knew from the second I had my first bite that Rina and I had to recreate our own version. What I didn’t realize was that it’d be insanely easy to do just that. This recipe is practically mindless - all you have to do is chop and smash the cucumbers, throw them together in a bowl with some vinegars and sauces and load on the red chili flakes. Easy. And addicting. Score one for my great aunt who knows a good spicy cucumber when she sees one, which is admirable for someone in her 80s.
So, here’s to going outside your box - whether that’s picking up and moving to the craziest city on Earth or trying something completely new for dinner. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my nearly five years of being a New Yorker its that nothing good ever happens without taking a little bit of risk. Easier said than done, of course, so maybe I’ll just start with adding some extra chili flakes to my cucumbers and seeing if I can take the heat. Care to join?
SPICY SZECHUAN CUCUMBERS
Yield: 4-6 servings
Active Cook Time: 10m | Inactive Cook Time: 15-30m | Total Cook Time: 25-40m
Category: Sides, Vegan, No-Cook
Source: The New York Times
2 pounds thin-skinned cucumbers (about 8-10 mini, 4 medium or 2 large)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for cucumbers
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, plus more for cucumbers
1 ½ Tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon grapeseed or extra-virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Chopped cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds, toasted
Smash the cucumbers: cut the cucumbers lengthwise into 4 pieces, then cut those pieces in half. Working with one or a few at a time, lay the cucumber pieces cut-side down. Place the blade of a large knife flat on top of the cucumbers and smash down lightly with your hand. Press down until the skin starts to crack and the seeds pop out. Repeat with the remaining cucumber slices and chop into bite-sized pieces.
Strain the cucumbers: place the cucumber pieces in a strainer and toss with a big pinch of salt and a big pinch of sugar. Place a large bag of ice (or whatever is hanging in your freezer; we used bags of corn) on top of the cucumbers to weigh them down. Place in a large bowl and strain for 15-30 minutes, up to 4 hours. You can do this on your counter or in the fridge.
Make the dressing: in a small bowl combine the salt, sugar and rice vinegar. Stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved, then stir in the sesame oil and soy sauce.
Assemble! when you’re ready to serve, drain the cucumbers and shake off any excess liquid. Place in a bowl and drizzle with the grapeseed/olive oil. Add the dressing, garlic and red pepper flake and stir to completely coat. Add more seasoning to taste and serve immediately with any optional garnishes.
To keep: these will keep for a day or so, but should be eaten directly after dressing.