Just when you think a dish is so simple that who needs a recipe, some bright person (or two) comes along and starts asking for details. Yesterday I posted on Instagram a picture of a simple cucumber salad.”Cucumber salad with sweet onions and fennel pollen. Unexpected and delicious. Dress with lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. There’s your recipe. You’re welcome,” I wrote, smugly.
I’m in Italy, staying at my friend the chef Nancy Silverton’s house. She and I had come home from a trip to Brunello Cucinelli, located about three hills over from the medieval hill town where Nancy has a house. The trip had been a bust, and now we’d changed our goal from finding 20-ply cashmere at an affordable price to the more attainable: putting together a simple lunch with what we had in the fridge. What we had, as it happens, is about 15 pounds of various leftover meats, all from the famous Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini who’d brought them to a party earlier in the week, but the only vegetable in our possession were cucumbers that a neighbor had brought earlier in the week. (And in case you’re wondering why we didn’t just go to the store, it’s because stores in the countryside close during lunchtime.) At the same party for which Dario had brought the meat, Faith Willinger, the American-living-in-Florence-Italian-food-authority, had joined me in the kitchen where I was cooking and asked if we had fennel pollen in the house. We didn’t. She was crestfallen. “What did you want it for?” I asked. “To sprinkle on these cucumbers,” she said, pointing to a bowlful of sticks she’d sliced up for guests to snack on. As we drove home, taking mental inventory of what was in the fridge, I reported the fennel pollen request back to Nancy and we decided to give it a go with our one vegetable. Since we didn’t have a can of the pollen, I used some I’d picked on the side of the road on our morning walk. We came home. We made the salad. “Whoa! never would have thought of that!” Nancy said. The combo was simple and delicious–just the way summer “cooking,” should be: throw together a few great things and say: Wow.
Since this is an all-about-the-ingredients kind of recipe, I’m now going to say a few words about the ingredients.
1. The cucumbers. Since this recipe is pretty much nothing but cucumbers, I hope you’ll buy yours at a farmstand or farmers market. Buy Persian or Japanese cucumbers if you see them. Don’t buy the long things wrapped in plastic sold as “hothouse” cucumbers. These and other crappy grocery store cucumbers have thick, bitter skin. You’ll have to peel them, and then you just won’t have the same salad.
2. The onion. First of all, I used a fresh onion, the kind sold with the green part still attached. You too can use this, but again, you’ll probably need to buy them from a farmer. In any case, use a sweet onion. Both questions I had pertaining to this recipe had to do with how the onion was treated, so listen up. First, my friend The Foodinista took one look at the salad and knew I’d done something to the onions that I hadn’t told her about. In fact, I’d used some I’d found in a little Zip-lock that had been marinating in vinaigrette ever since that aforementioned dinner party. I’ve given you instructions for recreating this, below. Thank The Foodinista for that. The second question, from the wonderful writer and intrepid home cook Laurie Sandell, had to do with how the onions were sliced. For that: Read on.
3. The fennel pollen. Although my salad looks cute with the little blossoms of fennel pollen I threw into the salad, the good news is that the salad you will make, with store-bought fennel pollen, will be even better. The fennel in these blossoms just doesn’t have the flavor or aroma as the dried stuff. In a perfect world, you might season with the canned pollen and if you happen to see some fennel pollen growing on the side of the freeway (all you Southern Californians!) throw a few of these little flowers in just to be cute.
4. Olive oil. By this time in your life you’ve heard all you want to hear about using good olive oil. But this salad is dressed with nothing but. If you don’t use good olive oil, I’m telling you: your salad will suffer. Buy good olive oil at a fancy food store (and no Trader Joe’s doesn’t apply). If you happen to live somewhere that good olive oil is simply not available, jump on the Information Superhighway and stock up for summer recipes just like this. Capezzana is one I like a lot. And from the Dept of One Stone, the same source that carries this also carries fennel pollen. Since this recipe is really just the story of an afternoon in Umbria, look for an Italian olive oil–Tuscan or Umbrian, even better.
5. Here’s how you put it together.
First, cut off the top and bottom of one small sweet onion, cutting off as little of the root end as necessary so the layers stay intact. (You’ll see why in a minute.) Now cut the onion in half root to tip. Peel off any papery layers and discard anything that you don’t want in your salad. Now put the onion on the cutting board, flat side down with the layered part facing outward. Now slice as thinly as you can. The root end will hold the layers together so they’ll look like what another chef friend calls “eyelashes.” Once you’ve sliced the onion, put the onion eyelashes in a small bowl. Squeeze the juice of one lemon over them and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of kosher or fine sea salt. Toss the eyelashes so they all have lemon juice and salt on them and walk away. Go fold your laundry or make a phone call or set the table or get out your leftover steak. Let the onions hang out in the lemon juice and salt for at least 15 minutes, or all day if you want. This will make them soft and sweet.
Cut 1 pound of cucumber slices into 1/4-inch thick rounds. (If you listened to me and bought them from a farmer, that’s all you’ll have to do. If you think Whole Foods or Piggly Wiggly is the same thing as a farmers market, then you’ll want to taste your cukes first. If they’re bitter, peel them, halve them, and scrape out the seeds; it’s the seeds and peel that are bitter.) Now cut the cukes into 1/4-inch rounds (or halfmoons if that applies).
Put the cucumbers in a large bowl. Dump the onions on top of them, including all the juices in the onion bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon more salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fennel pollen. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of good green flavorful olive oil. Toss, taste, and add more lemon juice, salt, or fennel pollen if you think that will make you like your cucumbers more. Serve the cucumbers right away for maximum crunch.