Cool Off This Summer With A Cucumber Salad
The first weekend that we opened Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York City, I learned what it was like to feed 5000 people a small plate of food. Talk about trial by fire! In addition to our restaurant opening, it was the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party which in its heyday fed more than 125,000 attendees.
I thought I was being efficient when I paired long slow-smoked Texas-style brisket with a quick salad, but little did I know that I was creating the restaurant’s signature dish.
That salad was my Cool as a Cucumber Salad and to this day it is still my favorite accompaniment to succulent smoked brisket. The vinegar dressing is very simple and does not have any oil—or any fat—which makes it a perfect companion to fatty brisket.
The tart apple-cider vinegar is sweetened with sugar and balanced out with a little bit of salt before dressing the thin-cut cucumbers and rings of shallot. It’s a 4-ingredient salad that tastes like so much more. It is also impossible to mess up even if you aren’t [yet] a cook, and that makes it a great dish to take to cookouts all summer long.
It didn’t hit me until the other day when I was making the salad that this combination could be interpreted as a modern-day version of the pickles and white onions that people in Central Texas have been eating with their brisket for generations and generations.
I wish that I could say that I was that strategic, but I wasn’t. Truthfully, It was a happy accident but one bite is all you need to be convinced that they go together like bread and butter.
I say happy accident because I was introduced to a version of this salad a few years before when I spent some time with Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland. If you aren’t familiar with Darina, you should be. She and her husband, children and other relatives have created the definitive cooking school in the UK and have written many fantastic cookbooks. You may have seen her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen on television as she is a celebrity chef and writer.
While I was visiting, I made my American barbecue for them and in exchange, I learned how to make scones and fresh raspberry jam, elderflower lemonade and Irish bread in addition to the addictive cucumbers.
At Ballymaloe, the dish was called “cucumber pickle” because it is similar to making refrigerator pickles. When I took a bite, it took me back to the platters of white onion and cucumbers that lined the tables at the summer camp that I went to. The Ballymaloe cucumbers were so much better as they were seasoned through and through and those camp platters were only sprinkled with a little white vinegar before serving.
As cooks are wont to do, I took the idea of the Ballymaloe Cucumber Pickle, and made a salad version that lived up to my taste memory. It continues to live as one of my favorite recipes and a dish that I make at home frequently.
In my version, you don’t boil the vinegar like you do in a traditional pickle, and I don’t think you need it. I like my cucumbers to retain some crunch and snap and the longer they sit in the vinegar, the softer they become. If you like cool, refreshing side dishes and are a fan of cucumbers, and pickled foods, this salad is for you.
It is a salad that is versatile as it is equally good with fatty meat, and leaner fish and poultry. I love it as a bed for shrimp and crab salad and is nice with a few garden-ripe slices of tomato as well.
Cool as a Cucumber Salad
This simple salad beats coleslaw hands down as an accompaniment for barbecued brisket. The vinegar dressing and the fresh cucumbers cut through the richness of the beef in a sweet and savory salad that is as refreshing as the name sounds. It is also a terrific substitute anytime you serve coleslaw, and makes a great healthy snack!
2 English (seedless) cucumbers (or garden-fresh cucumbers)
1 large shallot
¼ cup granulated white sugar
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 cup apple cider vinegar
- Wash and dry the cucumbers.
- Peel alternating strips of the green skin off the cucumber with a vegetable peeler.
- Slice thin either by hand or with a mandoline-style slicer. Set aside.
- Peel shallots and slice at the same thinness as the cucumber.
- Mix cucumber and shallots. The shallot slices will un-ravel into small rings which is what you want. Set aside.
- Whisk sugar, salt and vinegar together until completely dissolved.
- Pour over cucumber and shallot slices and mix well, separating the slices to make sure none of them are sticking together.
- Put vegetables and all the liquid in a non-reactive (plastic or glass) container with a tight lid and refrigerate, turning occasionally for at least 3 hours or overnight before serving. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.