Chopping Vegetables, or “Get a Big Knife”

 

 

 

Ok, blog people, let’s talk about something important: chopping vegetables.  Nope, I’m not kidding, in fact I think that being able to do this efficiently can make a real difference in how much work it is to cut up veggies, and therefore how many we cut up and eat.  I have not been to cooking school, so I learned most of my “knife skills” just by experience, and reading cookbooks.  But there are a few simple principles I use now that really make quite a bit of difference.

First of all, get a big sharp knife.  This does not have to break the bank.  When we were renting in Madison, we went to the thrift store, got the most solid-looking/feeling knife (from a rather large and alarming bin of them) went home and sharpened it, and it worked great.  If you use a tiny knife, you will have to cut each piece of each vegetable separately, and that will take forever, and you will be grumpy and think that vegetables are too much work.

Ok, second thing, and this really the key as far as I’m concerned, chop the vegetable into sections, which you can chop together into pieces the size that you want to end up with.  I’ll demonstrate on this squash: cut the ends off (any part you don’t want), and then cut it in half.

 

 

Then, cut the halves in half again, so that you have four sections of squash.  You can pull the knife in a curve as you cut if your veggie is curved.  If you want very small pieces at the end, cut into eight sections now, dividing each one one more time.

 

 

Now, line up the sections and chop all at once!  You can chop thin or thick pieces, whatever you’d like for your dish.  Notice that the tip of your big knife can stay touching the cutting board as you lift the thicker part near the handle and chop chop chop.

 

 

At this point I should perhaps point out that I am usually holding whatever I’m chopping (not the camera) with my non-dominant hand.  And that if you are left-handed, you’ll do exactly the same things, but your chopped squash pieces would appear on the left side of the frame above.  When you’re holding something that you’re chopping, lots of cookbooks advise you to keep your fingertips tucked under, I think on the theory that if your knuckles are sticking out the furthest, they are higher above the thing being chopped, and more likely to bump into the side of the knife than being accidentally shaved by the blade.  Most of the time, I forget to do this.  Use whatever works for you without chopping your fingers.

Also at this point, you may be thinking, “Ok, fine, but not all vegetables come in such a straight and manageable shape.”  Ah ha!  True, but use the same principles to break them up.  For example, I cut this crookneck squash into a (more or less) straight part, and a very curvy part.

 

 

Cut off the ends and divide into sections as before.  If one part is noticeably thicker, I’ll cut it into quarters, and leave the thinner section in halves, to get pieces of about the same size.  That way they will all cook in about the same amount of time.

 

 

There wasn’t an easy way to line up the curvy sections flat, so I stacked them on top of each other.  It’s all about chopping more pieces with one cut.

 

 

Another thing that’s not illustrated, but helps a lot, is having a big bowl (or two if they are not all going to the same dish) to collect your chopped veggies in.  Having a cutting board cluttered with things you’ve already chopped will force you to make smaller, less efficient movements.

 

 

Apply the same principles to a round eggplant: slice first, crosswise this time, then stack and cut into pieces the same size as the squash.

 

 

A few vegetables have their own variations on these ideas, like onions.  Any other ones you’d like to see covered?

What to do with all these lovely freshly chopped veggies?  All of the ones illustrated here went into ratatouille.

 

Try it, trust me, it’s faster, it’s so worth it.

When I say “faster,” I don’t mean “hurry” or “rush” (which in my case always leads to mistakes and/or injuries, usually and), I mean more efficient, less time spent doing the same task, even though you are doing it well.  Whenever I think about efficiency as applied to hobbies (like cooking is for me), I think of this quote, it’s from a weaving and sewing book that my grandmother gave me off her shelf when I liked it.  I love the way the authors write about craft:

 

In all human pursuits there seem to be fast, efficient ways of doing things and slower ways of doing things.  Some weavers hesitate to look for and adopt efficient methods in their craft because they think of themselves as amateurs.  In their heart-of-hearts they feel that it is not appropriate for them to become more proficient.  . . . Loving the craft of weaving and wanting to pursue it more efficiently are certainly not mutually exclusive.  There is every reason, in fact, for all weavers to try to become efficient.  The first benefit of increased proficiency is the production of a better fabric.  There are very few satisfactions that compare with that of a job well done!”

– Handwoven, Tailormade by Sharon D Alderman & Kathy Wertenberger

 

There’s a lesson here for all of us who make ourselves anything as a hobby.  I’d love to spread this attitude, and the resulting more and better sewing/cooking/weaving/whatever you make.  What do you think?  How to you view efficiency in your hobbies?

 

Recipe Sketch – Summer Tomato Bruschetta

About time for a post about food, don’t you think?

Although I haven’t had very many opportunities to cook on the road, we’re coming up on the part of summer where there is so much fresh lovely produce, it hardly needs actual cooking.  We found some local heirloom tomatoes last week in Maryland, although they are from the hothouse, they put me in mind of late summer bounty.

Bruschetta is one of those foods that doesn’t need much of a recipe, you can vary it infinitely to suit your taste and what’s available.  It’s also easy to present in a variety of ways; either everything mixed together to spoon on toast, or all the ingredients laid out for everyone to layer on their own.  If you are just learning to cook, it’s a wonderful way to experiment with mixing flavors and proportions.

Summer Tomato Bruschetta

I like the bulk of mine to be tomatoes, the fresher and more colorful the better.  Any size will work, bigger ones cut into smaller pieces will make the bruschetta more juicy than baby tomatoes cut in half.

I also like a lot, a lot of basil, it’s one of my all-time favorite favors.  When we rented in Madison I would get a few little basil plants at the farmers’ market in the spring and keep them going though the season.  If I’m mixing everything together, I stack the leaves, roll them up, and slice the roll into strips to sprinkle in.  If you are setting things out buffet-style, whole leaves are fine.

This is tasty with cheese, but don’t feel limited to mozzarella!  Try any kind you like, or what’s locally available where you are.  My favorite recent find was a goat cheese with the soft texture of brie.  I like not too much cheese, not to overwhelm the tomatoes, but of course you can vary it.  A soft cheese will blend more with the other ingredients, especially if you mix it all in a bowl.

A little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper will really bring the flavors together.  You can set them out if you are doing make-your-own, and drizzle them on top.

 

A feast so simple to make, you can enjoy it in your hotel room.

Here’s to the coming joys of summer!

How to Chop an Onion

 

 

I have been thinking a lot lately about how it seems like the people who can already cook, or sew, or whatever it is we want to be able to do (mine right now is drawing), it seems like they have been able to do it forever and it’s just easy for them.  Of course this is not true, they practiced right through the learning process, just like we will if we want a new skill.

As you know, I have been sharing some tips for beginning sewers (more to come!) and I’d like to do the same from time to time for those who are learning to cook.  It is awfully helpful if those on the “knowing” side of a particular skill share things with those on the “learning” side.

This is probably the most actual-chopping-time saving trick I know.

Cut your onion in half and chop off the tip.  Peel off the skin.  Now make long slices with the knife perpendicular to the rings (all the way back to the root if you are chopping the whole thing), but don’t chop them free of the onion, leave them attached at the root.  Make these slices as close together as you’d like your finished onion pieces to be wide.  They can be finer than the ones here, or larger.

 

 

Now, chop through all your slices parallel to the rings, and diced onion will magically appear!  Or, large chunks, whatever you need.

 

What’s your favorite kitchen tip?  If you are learning to cook, what questions do you have?  Let me know!