Can we talk?
I just want to say — this winter has been brutal. It’s all I can do to drag my corpse out of bed every morning. I don’t know if this New England winter is worse than the last few I’ve lived through, or if last year’s jaunt to Southeast Asia has forever ruined me. For those of you lucky enough to find yourselves in warmer climes, you should know that winter in New England lasts about six months. It doesn’t just seem that way — it’s true. From late October through March — and some of April, even — the skies are low and gray, the trees black and leafless, the ground damp and icy (or at least cold), the windows leaking precious heat like a sieve. It is truly unpleasant. Unless you like to ski, or snowboard, or snowshoe, or one of those other baffling, going-outside-in-sub-freezing sports — and if you do, the above won’t resonate, I suppose. (What is wrong with those people?)
Winterphobes need some coping mechanisms, and one of mine is food from other places, places that are tropical, warm, and sunshiny. Places that liberally dose their food with heat, and bright, mouth-tingling flavor — chiles, ginger, garlic, tamarind, coconut, lime. I give myself a locavorish break in winter, and shop ruthlessly in the Asian grocery store. If, like me, you’re suffering through an interminable New England winter, I encourage you to do the same.
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Malaysian Pickled Cucumber and Carrot Recipe
This colorful, stunningly bright pickle is from James Oseland’s terrific Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In an era rife with full-page, full-color, low depth of field food photography, this friendly, minimally designed, conversational book is a breath of fresh air. (Dan and I both have a bone to pick with the type choice for the recipes, though — no fractions!) In any case, Oseland’s tone is delightfully persnickety, and he walks the reader through recipes with care, perfuming them with tales from his long love affair with the region.
Shallots here are Asian shallots, the tiny, infuriating-to-peel ones. Sorry. And I was unable to find candlenuts even in my normally pretty well-stocked Asian grocery, and subbed macadamias instead. Oseland says to eat these pickles within 5 days, but ours held up for weeks. They are terrific with rice, eggs, and fish.
The recipe is long, but outside of all the chopping it’s pretty easy. A small food processor is very helpful.
- 4 or 5 small Kirby cucumbers (14 ounces or 400 grams total), unpeeled, stemmed, and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long and 1/4 inch wide
- 2 medium carrots (about 7 ounces or 200 grams), peeled and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long and 1/4 inch wide
- 3 shallots (about 2 1/2 ounces or 70 grams), thinly sliced lengthwise
- 1 or 2 fresh Holland chiles, or other fresh long, red chiles, such as Fresno or cayenne, stemmed and sliced on the diagonal about 1/4 inch thick
- 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
For the flavoring paste:
- 4 shallots (about 3 ounces or 85 grams), coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 3 candlenuts or unsalted macadamia nuts
- 1 piece fresh ginger, 2 inches long, peeled and thinly sliced against the grain
- 1 piece turmeric, 2 inches long, peeled and coarsely chopped or 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 2 to 8 small dried red chiles such as arbor, stemmed and coarsely chopped
- 5 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 4 tablespoons palm, cider, or rice vinegar
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- Place the cucumbers, carrots, shallots, and chiles into a nonreactive bowl and sprinkle salt over them. Massage the salt into the vegetables, then cover the bowl and set it aside for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring every half hour or so.
- Meanwhile, make the flavoring paste. Put the shallots, garlic, candlenuts, ginger, turmeric, and chiles in a small food processor and pulse until they’re the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. (Alternately, pound in a large mortar and pestle.) If the paste won’t puree properly, you can add up to two tablespoons of water, a teaspoon at a time, and scrape down the sides of the processor.
- Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the mustard seeds. As soon as they start to pop, take the pan off the burner and let it cool a bit. You may also want to cover the pan, as the seeds have a tendency to fly off as they pop. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and return the pan to heat. Add the ground paste and sauté — it should sizzle a little, not fry aggressively. Stir to prevent scorching, cooking until the shallots soften and the ginger and garlic become fragrant, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar and stir. Raise the heat a bit and bring the liquid to a simmer. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves and everything is well-combined. Set aside.
- Taste the vegetables after they’ve been curing for at least 1 1/2 hours — they should be pleasantly salty with still a bit of crunch. If they’re too salty, immerse them in cold water, massaging to remove brine. (You may need to do this a couple of times.) Either way, drain, pressing gently to remove brine, and pat dry on a kitchen towel.
- Add the vegetables to the cooled flavoring paste and stir well.
- Transfer the pickle to a serving dish and allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes before serving. Or, store in an airtight jar in the fridge.