Wok, Meet Cucumbers: Your New Stir Fry Secret Weapon

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Cucumbers, not just for salads. [Photographs: Shao Z.]

When most people think of cucumbers, they tend to think of uncooked preparations like salads and pickles. But cucumbers are a top-notch stir-fry ingredient. They become juicy and tender after taking a spin in a sizzling hot wok, with an almost silky smooth texture. Their juiciness makes them a perfect balance to spicy and bold flavors—whether those flavors are in the very same dish, or in an another dish on your dinner table.

When I want cucumbers to be the star of the dinner, such as in this full-flavored dish with garlic and chili flakes, I usually add meat such as chicken or pork to ah...beef it up. Here's how.

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I start by marinating the ground meat. This recipe uses ground pork, but you can substitute chicken or turkey, or even vegetarian options like sliced tofu. You can do this the night before or the day of cooking. As the ground meat marinates, I prep the cucumbers.

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After washing, I partially peel the cucumbers, so that they have alternating peeled and unpeeled vertical stripes. You'll want to scoop out the seeds, or opt for seedless English cucumbers. Then cut them about 1/4 inch thick on the bias—any thinner and they will wilt too much from the salt and heat.

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Your next step is to put the sliced cucumbers in a large bowl, adding salt and letting them stand for a half hour, which does two things. First and most importantly, it draws water out of the cucumber. This produces a less watery stir-fry and gives the cucumbers a more meaty texture. Second, the salt seasons them in advance, improving their flavor. Before cooking the cukes, I rinse them and let them drain thoroughly, patting them with paper towels to remove excess moisture.

With the cucumber and ground pork ready, I next whip up a quick sauce, in this case made with soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. You don't need much of it for this dish since the cucumbers release some liquid when they cook—in fact, aside from adding a little flavor, the sauce is largely useful for thickening those juices with the help of the cornstarch.

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When it's time to stir-fry, I start with the marinated ground meat, adding the chili flakes and cooking the meat until golden brown. Once cooked, you'll remove the meat and set it aside—you don't want to overcrowd your wok, especially when cooking over not-so-powerful home burners.

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Then I add garlic, which I slice to reduce the chances that it burns in the wok's intense heat.

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After a few seconds I add the cucumbers and stir-fry them for a few minutes, then add the meat back to the wok.

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Next I give the sauce a quick stir to mix any cornstarch that's settled on the bottom back in and add it to the wok.

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When the cucumbers begin to look a little glossy, the dish is done.

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It's time for cucumbers to not only be in your salad bowl, but also in your hot sizzling wok.

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