Monday, February 2, 2009

West African Cucumber Salad


It seemed that salads accompanied almost every meal I had growing up. In the late spring we would have baby greens thinned from our garden; lettuce, spinach leaves, baby beet and chard greens were always on our table. After the lettuce turned bitter and the chard grew tough, we turned to the grocery store, buying green leaf lettuce, or heads of romaine. I grew to like the crunchiness of the greens, usually dressed with bottled dressing: French, Italian or lo-fat ranch as I recall. (Though I still love salads, I can’t stand Italian, French or ranch dressing, but that is another story!) Salads are still a favored partner to most dishes I cook, sometimes coming from the small garden that my six-year-old son and I tend as the weather warms. He might even admit that he likes them.

When I traveled in West Africa, salads were eaten in the cities, but rarely, as far as I saw, in the villages. A dish of raw chopped vegetables was viewed as a luxury. It is not “food,” I was told. When your belly is empty and you need fuel for a long day of physical work, salad doesn’t cut it. I guess in our relatively sedentary culture, one where obesity is the all too common, salad is sometimes all the fuel we need.

Even while I lived in Mali, West Africa, my taste buds craved salad, and frankly, I was not working the fields all day. I knew there was some risk eating raw vegetables; I was asking for “Komo’s Revenge” as it might be called in Mali. However, my body’s cravings won out over my logical mind. At night, some of the women in the neighborhood would set up a table and make salad -- a basic combination of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, dressed with a simple vinaigrette. It felt like the perfect companion to the heavy starch diet that I was consuming. It was the perfect food.

This is my rendition of West African salad. I love the pairing of the cool cucumber and crunchy lettuce, with the slightly spicy, and subtly sweet flavor of this vinaigrette. Serve with rice and sauce (such as tigedigena) for a truly African experience. Or, if you need something lighter, pair with ½ chicken salad sandwich or a cup of lentil soup. It might be all the fuel you need.

For the salad:

One head green leaf lettuce
One cucumber
1/4 cup preserved, chopped sundried tomatoes (Trader Joe's brand are sweetest in my taste tests.)

Wash lettuce and shop into thin slices, about the size of your pinky finger.
Peel cucumber and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and then slice.
Place lettuce and cucumber in a bowl and top with tomatoes. Mix dressing (see below) and then toss salad to coat with dressing. Delicious!!

Salad Dressing:

3 tbsp canola oil
1/2 -1 whole serrano pepper seeded and chopped finely,
1 tsp grated ginger, or powdered ginger root
1 clove garlic, crushed
2-3 tbsp red onion chopped finely

2 tbsp olive oil or olive canola mix
2 tbsp orange juice, fresh squeezed
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
½ tsp malt vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar


Heat canola oil over low heat.
Gently saute first four ingredients, stirring often, for about 1 minute.
Remove from heat.
Add remaining ingredients and stir well.
Toss with lettuce and cucumbers.

Adjust amount of dressing so that salad is well coated. (You might need to double recipe).

Eat!