Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Saturday, January 9, 2010


A few weeks ago I attended my first ever cooking class. We prepared nothing, no oven or burners were lit, we did not consume anything during or after class (except for some female hipsters I was unfortunate enough to share a metal counter with who kept munching on the raw produce in the way rabbits would if rabbits were annoying), we in fact did not cook at all during this cooking class. Because this was a cooking class about one of the most elemental aspects of cooking: knife skills.

The class took place in a converted-warehouse space in Williamsburg with a butcher/cooking supply shop in the front leading to two classrooms, one on the ground floor and one upstairs, their entrances just next to the meat counter. The space was once a mattress storage facility that little by little was being transformed into a teaching kitchen. On polished metal kitchen islands set diagonally in front of a large counter space, about ten cutting boards lay side by side awaiting the arrival of knife-toting students wanting to learn how to cut things more betterer. Our teacher was fairly young, a professional cook with a thick Brooklyn accent a la Joe Pesci (you-know-what-I'm-sayin'), a fun sense of humor about cutting into arteries, who was completely and cleanly bald, with tattoos peaking out from under his long-sleeved shirt and a really wonderful ability to explain things quickly and understandably.

In a little under two hours Joe, as I'll call him, went through a number of French cutting techniques with us that were life-changing. Dinner will be ready that much quicker, be cooked that much more evenly, look that much better and our carpal tunnel syndrome will not get worse. Those 90+ minutes were an emotional roller coaster ride, comparable to some of the best action films like Independence Day or The Poseidon Adventure. There was fear at first, German steel flashing as we learned how to realign the knife's teeth (more on that soon) to a perfect 20 degree angle on an iron. Then enlightenment when banging our knives down on defenseless vegetables became easy gliding blades. Surprise at the ease with which we could now make plateaus, juliennes, and itty bitties (forgot the proper French name for these) and humor when Joe pointed at the plateaus "$12 salad," the juliennes "$14 salad" and the itty bitties "$18 salad, add some truffle oil and you got a $22 salad." (It was funny to us.) Then there was the turning point, a whole new perspective on life as Joe showed us a move that should be patented in how obvious yet not obvious it is. It involved an onion, that's all you get for now.

The class itself was a lot of fun and the things learned were worth every cent of those $40. If you are interested in a Knife Skills or even a butchering, pickeling, wine making, or any number of other potentially life-chaning one-nighter cooking classes like this one check out Brooklyn Kitchen Lab (look for the cow outside, you'll see what I mean).

But now the...

Top 5 Things I Learned About Knife Skills:

1) A knife is a saw. The millimeter wide edge of your German steel or Japanese chef knife is dotted with tiny teeth which ideally should be at a twenty degree angle. Normal knife use will push them out place which can be fixed with an iron (in a technique I'm not comfortable with enough to explain) or a sharpener if you're in a pinch. Slamming the knife down on a surface, like you do when you're chopping, displaces them drastically and dulls your knife, plus its inefficient, takes much longer, and requires more effort on your part. A knife is not an ax, its a saw. As such the best way to cut with a knife is not slamming it down and breaking through the vegetable or meat but gently gliding it in a sawing motion. As Joe put it, doing small slicing motions over an imaginary vegetable, "When you see those chefs on TV and it looks like they're doing nothing, no effort, they're not." When you slice rather than chop everything turns into butter.

2) Hold your knife like you would hold a pen. Joe pointed out the different ways people hold their knives from in a fist to having their index finger over the back of the blade applying pressure (and causing carpal tunnel). He had us press the heel of the blade against the cutting board, with the teeth touching the surface, then slip our index finger under the broad side of the blade and pinch with our thumbs. Lift it up and wrap the rest of your finger around the handle, relax your thumb and relax your index finger, move them back a little if its uncomfortable but stay as close to the heel of the blade as possible. What does this do? It gives you control. To take Joe's example, in the same way that you wouldn't write with a pen holding it from the back and wobbling it over paper, you shouldn't work with a knife holding it so far back down the handle. Keep your hand close to the blade, the idea is for the knife to become an extension of your hand. The more control you have, the less likely you are to cut yourself, the cleaner your slices, and the better for your knife's teeth.

3) What to do with your non-knife-wielding hand. I remembered seeing the whole clawing your non-knife hand over the vegetables or meat so the knuckles stick out and protect your fingers from the blade. I just never understood HOW you could do this and still feed the vegetables to the blade. Well... that's the whole point, you're not supposed to feed the vegetable or meat to the blade. The only hand that should be working is the knife hand, with the other hand keeping the vegetable or meat steady and simply backing away from the approaching knife. The easiest way to do this is to center yourself in front of you board, hold the knife, blade-side down, on the center of the cutting board and then angle it towards the corner of your knife hand. This will give you a 45 degree angle similar to the one we use when we write (or at least that's where you want it to be, adjust it until you feel comfortable). It should be an organic position. From there you move your knife hand in SLICING motions down the length of the vegetable. Meanwhile, your non-knife fingers are hooked with the knuckle sticking out and the

thumb hidden (pressed against the palm, "Think in terms of chess," said Joe, "your thumb is your king, protect it.") hold the vegetable steady and back away slowly.

4) Plateaus, Juliennes, and Itty Bitties. This was the second biggest Duh! moment in the class. I've always thought of juliennes (those matchstick sized cuts of carrot that you see in salads) as Advanced Cutting. Difficult, time consuming, and utterly not worth it. I was a fool. Take a carrot and cut it into even sized segments. Stand it up and slice off the sides creating a longish rectangular cube. Cut the rectangle length-wise into flat slabs the thickness of matchsticks. Those are your Plateaus. Take a plateau and slice length-wise into matchstick-sized slivers. Juliennes. Take three or four juliennes together and cut across them creating tiny squares. Itty Bitties. Nothing to it.

5) The Onion Technique. This can be used for anything but is especially useful for cutting onions and garlic, which is all I ever cook with. Start by cutting off the dirty bit of the onion's butt but leaving the butt itself in tact. Cut off the opposite end and stand it up on the flat side that you've just created. Now the onion won't slip and slide as onions are wont to do. Cut that in half from top to bottom down the middle of the butt, again keeping it in tact so the onion doesn't fall apart. Place the half onion on its flat side and place the heel of your hand on the top of the onion, fingers extended upward, pressing down to keep it steady. Come down to the level of the table and slice through the onion horizontally, keeping an eye on the knife so its parallel to the table and not tilting downward or upward. If you feel resistance stop and just gently slice through it, don't try to force your way through. Stop 3/4 of the way in before reaching the butt. Make parallel lines all the way until just under your hand. Turn the onion with the butt facing away from you. Starting on the edge of the onion, insert the tip of the knife near the butt then slice down toward you until the blade reaches the cutting board. Slice parallel lines in this way across the onion, making sure to keep it together and keeping the butt in tact. If the onion is falling apart then you're chopping and trying to force it rather than slicing it. Just a little movement makes all the difference. When you're done, you'll have created a grid of cuts. Turn the onion back with the butt facing towards your non-knife hand which you will then hook over the onion with the thumb hiding and then just slice through the grid, you'll get even, perfectly cut pieces in two minutes. Do the same for garlic, except use a pairing knife, which is smaller and gives you more control.

With that I'll leave you with three more tips. If you have any questions either comment or email me or take the class. You'll even learn how to carve a whole chicken in under 10 minutes.


- For a slippery cutting board: Dampen a kitchen towel or paper towel, place it under your cutting board, and voila. If it doesn't work, try folding it in half or doubling up.

- For a red or green pepper: Cut off the top and the bottom, create an incision all the way down one wall, and flatten it out. You can remove the core, seeds, and membrane with your hand then slice and dice it with the skin-side down. Much easier.

- All leftover pieces of produce and animal should not go to waste. Onion butts, carrot tops, celery leaves, chicken bones, herb stems, peels, all of that has flavor. Fill a pot with water, toss in all your leftover pieces,toss in a few dried herbs, a bay leaf, and just simmer them for hours. Strain it, discard the solids, and you have homemade stock. From that you can make soups, sauces, braise, etc. you're saving money, and you're using up your whole ingredient.

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