Recipe: Cucumber and mint salad

21:48, Mar 18 2013
Vietnamese-inspired cucumber mint salad

Scrabbling about under the tomatoes removing branches in an attempt to get some air circulating, I realised we are smack-bang in the middle of summer.

This decluttering outside has also seeped into the kitchen. The kitchen junk drawer has been tidied in search of labels, string and cellophane, the glass jars that have accumulated all year are being dusted off, bung lids discarded. I am impatient for crop numbers to reach worthy quantities so I can start preserving. Jams, canned fruit and vegetables are not expensive nowadays, but it isn't about the cost.

In my cupboard are the remnants of last year's late-summer preserving, half a jar of strawberry vanilla jam, one pot of bitter lime marmalade from the winter, a bit of plum sauce, a chilli sauce and a green tomato chutney. These jars form the backnote to the hastily thrown-together casseroles, soups, pizzas and mince dishes that sustain us when no one is looking. Often they create the flavour that is purely my own home cooking. This, sadly, is the kind of cooking that can't really be shared in a recipe; it is as much about haste as it is intuition or training.

Having a jar of something homemade on hand is sunshine when winter sets in. It is the bowl of pickles overflowing on the bench that will become the sharp hits of flavour in burgers, salsas and tartar sauce, will brighten up a pastrami sandwich and knock a bit of overly fatty salmon into place.

Peering in the fridge, the top shelf is piled with sauces and pastes, most sent for me to taste by local companies, some personal inventions, bits left over and long-lasting dressings, like the one below. Tall jars hold cordials and flavoured oils steeping for years and relegated to the back row. These get an overhaul in a search for good jars. Sweet things will be watered down and sent to the compost pile, the sugar acting as an activator and giving it a welcome burst.

Without the bizarre hoarding, discarding and creating that goes on each season, I fear my year would disappear unmarked. It is this perpetual turning over that allows me to be present in the year. Each time a new season rolls in I try to treat my life like my cupboards. I cast my mind back to what worked last year, what was useful and enjoyable, discarding what failed or make a note to have another go.

This dressing has survived the cull for a good five years now. A staple in my fridge, it is equally useful tossed through a shredded salad or boiled rice as it is when used to brush on fish, as a dip for spring rolls or as it is used here to macerate cucumber. It's sweet, spicy and a lovely foil to the chilled freshness of the cucumber.

A dish that can be whipped up quickly to serve with something simple, either alongside a takeaway Thai or Chinese meal to keep the palate fresh or with a bit of grilled fish. Either way it is likely to become one of those sauces that lives regularly on the top shelf of your fridge.



Half a  disc of palm sugar (or one rectangle), or 1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons water
3 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 small chilli, seeds removed, sliced
1 cucumber, peeled
A few fresh mint leaves

2. Peel the cucumber and slice.  Arrange on a platter with the mint leaves.  Pour over the chilled dressing.  

This salad can be served immediately or left for the dressing to infuse for an hour first.

This salad can be served immediately or left for the dressing to infuse for an hour first.

Sunday Star Times