Anatomy of a Classic

Smashed Szechuan Cucumber Salad

Cool cukes meet Miami heat in chef Raymond Li Jr.’s surprisingly refreshing summer side

photo: Johnny Autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry


The way he tells it, Raymond Li Jr.’s path from a trouble-prone kid to the executive chef at Palmar, a modern Chinese restaurant with Latin influences, is a tale worthy of its own Netflix series.

Li’s grandfather owned a Cuban Chinese restaurant in Havana. His father landed in Miami in the 1980s and met his mother, who is Colombian. “Growing up, I would have a Cuban empanada in one hand and a Chinese sausage in another hand and eat some Colombian soup later in the day,” he says. He also got into plenty of trouble. Eleven years ago, drunk, Li got in a fight with a friend, who pulled a gun on him at a house party; he retaliated with a drive-by shooting. No one was hurt, but Li spent a year in jail. When he got out, he made a vow. “I dedicated my life to make it the best I can,” he says. “I used my past to help me move forward.”

He enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami, graduated, and then wove his way through kitchens in upscale hotels and a series of restaurants, including Corey Lee’s Benu in San Francisco. He liked San Francisco and wanted to stay, but his mother back in Miami was battling liver disease. “Working at a three-star Michelin, you learn a lot of techniques, and it makes you into a badass,” he says, “but my mom was sick.” So he headed home and cooked on yachts, consulted, and landed at Palmar in the Wynwood district, where he started cooking progressive modern Chinese food that he calls “Miami-fied.”

His version of pai huang gua, the Szechuan salad built from slightly smashed cucumbers, is a great example. Li uses English cucumbers, but the technique works well with small Southern garden cukes, too. Slice them lengthwise, use your palm or the side of a knife to slightly crush them, and then give them a rough chop.

Johnny Autry

All those craggy surfaces help hold the spicy dressing. Li adds a dose of lemon and lime juice to the traditional blend of vinegar and chili oil. “I love Florida citrus and use it a lot in my dishes,” he says. Li makes his own chili oil, but you can save time with a bottled version. It is worth the time, though, to find some shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice blend of peppers, sesame seeds, orange peel, ginger, and seaweed, that adds character to the salad.

“It’s great for hot weather,” Li says of his creation. “Although it’s spicy, it’s actually refreshing.” 


Ingredients

  • For the cucumber salad

    • 1 large English cucumber

    • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced

    • 1/8 cup each fresh lemon and lime juice

    • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt

    • 1 tsp. shichimi togarashi

    • 1 tsp. Szechuan oil (recipe follows; or substitute bottled sesame chili oil)

  • For the Szechuan oil

    • ½ cup Szechuan peppercorns

    • ½ cup coriander seeds

    • ½ cup red pepper flakes

    • 3 cloves garlic, smashed

    • 2/3 cup fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

    • 2 cups grape-seed or other neutral oil


Preparation

  1. Wash the cucumber, slice lengthwise, and place on a cutting board cut side down. Using the side of a chef’s knife or the palm of your hand, smash the cucumber, then cut into bite-size chunks. Put cucumber pieces in a mixing bowl and add garlic, citrus juice, vinegar, salt, and shichimi. Mix well and let marinate for at least 10 minutes. Stir in the Szechuan oil and mix well. The salad can be served immediately but is best chilled for a few hours.

  2. For the Szechuan oil: 

    Toast the peppercorns and coriander seeds in a small pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until the aroma begins to rise, tossing frequently to avoid scorching.

  3. Put the toasted spices and the remaining ingredients in
    a saucepan and heat over medium-high until the oil just begins to bubble, then reduce heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

  4. Cool, and pour into a container. You can use the oil as is, or alternatively, strain the oil, blend the solids into a paste, and mix it back into the oil for a more pungent flavor. Store in the refrigerator. Makes about 3 cups.

Meet the Chef: Raymond Li Jr.

Hometown: Miami

Most cherished cooking tool: A Wüsthof knife engraved with his name. A friend of his father’s who has since died gave it to Li while he was in culinary school. “The guy went to Germany and got it from the factory. I’ll never forget that.”

His motto for great cooking:  “Victory needs preparation. If you want to win, you have to be prepared for anything that comes.”


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