The other day, this guy waved at me, beckoning me to come over to where he was sitting, and he was pretty hard to miss, since his hand was wrapped in an elaborate bandage.
“I wanted to ask you about handling knives,” he said. “I think I made a few mistakes.” He told me he cut himself severely. Turns out, he committed four cardinal sins in handling knives.
Before I tell you any more about knives, let me recount for you what he did wrong: First, his knife was dull. Second, he didn’t use a cutting board. Third, when the knife slipped out of his hand, he tried to catch it before it hit the floor. And finally, he was using the wrong knife for the job.
So let’s deal with these no-nos one by one.
No. 1: There is nothing more dangerous in a kitchen than a dull knife. I’m not saying you’ll never get cut by a sharp knife, but cuts from dull knives frequently are more severe because the blade has tiny irregularities. If the blade won’t make a clean cut on a carrot, imagine what it will do to your skin.
No 2: Always use a cutting board. Wood is good and so are the composite plastics. Glass, metal, marble and granite are not good. Glass will not only dull your knife, it will ruin it.
No. 3: A cardinal rule in the culinary world is that a falling knife has no handle. If a knife drops, let it drop. Unless you’re wearing gloves made from chainmail, let the knife drop.
No. 4: If you’re chopping vegetables, don’t use a steak knife. If you’re slicing tomatoes, don’t use a boning knife. But let’s put a positive spin on this: Always use the right knife for the right job.
There are some other basics about handling knives, too, and briefly they are: Always cut away from yourself and curl your finger tips so that your knuckles guide the blade; always watch what you’re doing and don’t take your eyes off the blade; if you’re carrying a knife from one spot to another, carry it properly and that means pointing the blade straight down; and finally, never ever put a knife in a sink full of water, especially soapy water.
If I had to choose only one tool to have in my kitchen, it would be a razor sharp chef’s knife with good balance. And if I get to add to my tools, the next two things I would choose would be a sharp paring knife and vegetable peeler. Give me these three things and I’m a very happy kitchen person.
In the culinary world, especially in the schools and in sanctioned competitions, fancy knife skills and precision cuts are de rigueur. But in your kitchen, basic dicing and mincing are all you really need. No one will be measuring the dimensions of your diced potatoes.
If you’ll remember to create a flat surface on round vegetables, you’ll do just fine. Just slice off some of the potato or carrot or whatever, so that it lies flat and doesn’t roll around your cutting board as you try to cut it.
Here’s an exercise in slicing and dicing that I use in my classes after teaching basic knife skills. It’s a simple ratatouille:
1 lb. eggplant, cubed
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil
5 slices bacon, diced
2 large red bell peppers, diced
2 small onions, diced
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 medium zuccini, sliced thin
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1 pound pasta (optional)
Put the cubed eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with the coarse salt. Toss well and set aside to drain. Meanwhile, in a heavy Dutch oven, heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally until lightly browned.
Mix in the red pepper, onion, and garlic. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in the zucchini, cover and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Rinse off the eggplant, pat dry and add to the Dutch oven, along with the tomatoes and their juices. Stir in the remaining olive oil and teaspoon of salt and black pepper. Cover and continue to cook until eggplant is soft, about 20 minutes.
Drain the vegetables in a large strainer over a bowl and pour the juices into a medium non-reactive saucepan. Boil over high heat, adding any additional liquid that drains from the vegetables, and cook until the sauce is syrupy, about 10 minutes. Add the vegetables to the sauce and mix well. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve the ratatouille as it comes from the pot, or over pasta.
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