By Karen Schulz
And just like that, calendars are full, gatherings are plentiful, and it feels like catching up socially will require a few go-to recipes so you can participate stress-free.
For many, social reentry will be like drinking from a fire hose; so many things to do, people to see, and places to go. Or, if you are like me, maybe you over-adapted and your social muscles have atrophied during Covid, your inner introvert is now in charge, and you have gotten comfortable in the quiet zone. Either way, you will need to eat, you will be gathering around the table with family and friends, and you do not want to get overwhelmed with menu planning or wondering what to bring.
Summer side dishes are a great option because they are delicious room temperature and often require few ingredients since seasonal offerings are so plentiful. You can cook up couscous in five minutes and add just about anything to it — from dried fruit to nuts to all kinds of blanched veggies — for a perfect side dish. My new favorite way to enjoy it is with sliced and quartered English cucumbers, plum tomatoes cut into half-inch diced pieces, scallions, and fresh lemon juice, with a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil.
If you want to give it a Greek feel, toss in some feta. Toasted pine nuts and fresh mint are a great combination as are blanched chopped asparagus with lemon zest. I also absolutely love Israeli couscous, which is just a larger version of the traditional processed grain. It is so satisfying and just as versatile, maybe even more so because it can hold up when you add proteins like tuna, grilled shrimp, or chicken.
For a little more pizzaz, this smashed cucumber salad that goes with just about anything off the grill. The mini cucumbers are in every grocery store and maybe even your local farmer’s market. I highly recommend you get a small handheld microplane, which is inexpensive and much easier to grab and clean than a box grater. It is like a magic wand and makes adding fresh parmesan and zests to your dishes, as well as ginger and garlic to your marinades and dressings, a no-brainer.
This salad is a bright, colorful addition to any potluck or family style al fresco dining table. The flavor is light and a little sweet and the cucumbers are a cool element on a hot summer night. You will notice the recipe calls for fish sauce. Unless you are vegan, do not skip this ingredient. It smells terrible, so people often avoid it, but think of it as a form of salt that adds depth of flavor, which takes the dish to a different level. I promise it is worth it and once you buy a bottle of fish sauce, it will last quite a while in your fridge, so you can make the salad all summer and only need to buy ginger and cucumbers to put it together.
Whether you are drinking from the social fire hose, or slowly easing back into entertaining and gathering, this recipe is just what you need at the table.
Smashed Cucumber Salad
6 mini cucumbers, ends trimmed
2 garlic cloves, grated with microplane
2 T. rice vinegar
2 T. sugar
1 T. chili oil
1 T. toasted sesame oil
1 T. fish sauce
2½ t. kosher salt
1 t. (2-inch piece) of ginger, grated
2 t. lime zest
2 T. fresh lime juice
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 scallions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced on an angle
Cut the cucumbers into 1-inch pieces and arrange them on a cutting board. Using a large knife, gently smash down on each piece so they flatten just a bit, some will break which is fine.
In a large bowl, combine the garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, chile and sesame oils, fish sauce, salt, and ginger. Add the cucumbers and toss. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Right before serving, toss in the lime zest and juice, cilantro, and scallions.