I like shortcuts. Most of mine evolved from years of relatively long preparation and cooking times until those light bulb moments became daily inspiration. Suddenly your knife is chopping an onion in the opposite direction of most chefs and voila, you’ve saved yourself time and tears and added yet another trick to your trade.
Here’s the deal: cut the ends off the onion and peel it. Now cut the onion down middle from each cut end to the other. With a good sharp knife and the onion cut side down, cut across the onion, parallel to the cut ends without cutting all the way through. Now cut across your parallel cuts and the onion will be “chopped” (or minced, depending on the size of your cuts) without really chopping.
Along with most vegetables, I am mad for avocados. Guacamole, avocados with grapefruit sections, avocados with chopped tomatoes and cilantro, or tomatoes and sweet onion, or tomatoes and basil, you name it. But when you want perfect little squares of avocado for a pretty presentation and find that the scooped out half shoots from your hand across the room more often than you’d like, try this. Halve the avocado without peeling.
Remove the seed with another trick: whack the sharp blade of a knife into the seed, twist it a little and pull; the seed will come out on the knife blade ready to knock against the side of the garbage can. Now, with a sharp paring knife, cut down the length of the avocado inside the shell in parallel lines; cut across the lines to form squares. With a large soup or serving spoon, carefully scoop out the avocado, which will fall into your waiting bowl in perfect little Martha Stewart cubes.
Another trick you probably know: nestle the seed in a dish of guacamole to keep the mixture green and fresh.
Inspired by an American Mag article on nut-less pesto by Annie Shapero , let me suggest that there may be other nuts to which one is not allergic. The secret of my pesto is to use pistachio nuts or almonds, sautéed first for a few minutes in a pan with a little olive oil and the requisite 2 or 3 cloves of garlic. Raw garlic can be hard on some, and taking the edge off with a quick sauté before making the pesto lessens the after-effects for most pesto lovers. When using pesto on pasta, a little shot of warm milk in the sauce will also help soften the blows from one of the world’s great bulbs.
Many cooks throw out water in which various foods are often steamed. I keep all of my broths for soups and risotto, along with the bouillon in which you steam shrimp or fish. Guard like jewels the fragrant elixirs from roast meat, fish or fowl, and have them ready for the next recipe that calls for a particular broth.
As for vegetable tricks, I never waste time or nutrients seeding or peeling tomatoes, peeling potatoes (except when used in salt cod dishes like brandade and fritters, or mashed potatoes), shucking fava beans, or peeling asparagus. I do, however, use only the tender part of the asparagus stalk, first snapping a spear in two to see where the rest should be cut to match. An asparagus spear will break at its most tender part. I chop the rest of the green stalk into small slices and use for fritatte and soups
To prepare fruit more easily without work, serve halves of kiwi with a small coffee or serrated grapefruit spoon; cut off the ends of an orange and with a sharp knife, score at 3-to-4 cm intervals from stem to stern to make peeling easier. Tangerines with slightly loose skin but firm fruit peel more easily than tight-skinned fruit.
When buying peaches, nectarines, and melons, weigh them in the hand to feel if they are full of sugar. In addition, they will almost always smell delicious if they are ripe and ready to eat. The mottled skin of stone fruits is indication of high sugar content, so choose the ugly ducklings over the swans.
To me, a lazy cook cleans as she/he goes, which avoids too many pots in the sink or too much to think about while enjoying the results of your labor. I was boiling pasta one day for bucatini all’amatriciana while chopping an onion, and instead of turning on the faucet to rinse my small kitchen tools, thus using up precious liters of water for a small task, I dipped them in the boiling pasta water, wiped them clean, and put them away. Just make sure your hand doesn’t go in with it.
More quick tricks:
- Use bread (the mollica) to clean marks off of walls.
- Use your hand to measure-salt, flour, etc. The bottom of almost anyone’s tight, cupped hand is about one generous tablespoon.
- Pasta is almost always ready a minute before you think it is, and it should swirl around like soft pebbles in the pasta strainer.
- If you must peel tomatoes, drop them in boiling water for a minute or two and the skins will slip off easily-the same goes for peaches and nectarines.
- To tenderize squid (or meats), marinate them in milk for an hour.
- Freeze hard-to-find cheeses, wrapped in foil, for future use. Freeze raw summer berries, whole apricots, string beans and peas in tight containers for winter dishes.
- Keep an apple with potatoes to help inhibit sprouting.
- Use large kitchen scissors for everything-cubing meats, cutting whole chickens into serving pieces, cutting pizza, and snipping herbs. A
- Bordeaux wine bottle makes a great rolling pin.
And speaking of rolling pins, I shall share with you my unusual tarte Tatin recipe in the next column. Everyone loves a tart now and then…