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?