Sunday, April 27, 2008

    Chopped Pleasures

    Yesterday I spent 30 minutes chopping one onion, one yellow bell pepper, and one orange bell pepper. The actual time required to chop these three vegetables should be less than half that, even for a slow, methodical, cook-in-training like me, but yesterday I wanted to teach myself the best way to chop the vegetables.

    I've been watching a lot of Top Chef lately -- marathons, repeats of last week's competition to refresh me for this week, and one night when I had a bad stomach flu I even watched two of the same episodes in a row. From the bed I cradled my bucket in my hands and angled it to the right, so I could puke and watch simultaneously. Somehow I missed the same scenes during each airing.

    While I've been enjoying the drama and the creativity, I've really been watching to learn technique. I admire the way their knives glide ever so smoothly and easily, and how cutting/dicing/chopping/paring is more an art than a means to a meal. I wonder, how to be efficient yet thoughtful with food, how to gain speed and control with a knife, without cutting or losing a finger?

    One of our many kitchen-related wedding gifts was a block of Henckels, and yesterday I pulled a few out to experiment on the peppers and onion. The simple act of taking that much time to chop three vegetables was glorious. It's not that I didn't have time to spend on such things when I lived in New York, but time moved more quickly, and a moment of sheer downtime was most often given over to plopping on the couch. In New Orleans, most days still pass me by with surprise, but they allow time for a turn in a rocking chair or a mozy around Audobon Park before they go. That hour or two extra I wished I had at the end of most days in New York, actually seems to find its way to me here. It's only 8 o'clock? In New York it'd be at least nine...Oh, in New York it actually is 9...I've never lived in another time zone before!

    I pulled out a huge cutting apparatus, a smaller serrated one, and a paring knife, and set to work. First I tried the large, scary knife, going at all the veggies at once. If I had bigger hands or better control, this could become the most efficient method, but it left too many pieces the wrong size that time around. Next the paring knife, which wasn't large enough, and finally the serrated, which mostly did the trick. I set to work getting all parties approximately equal, and ended up with an inviting, luscious, citrus-colored rainbow on my cutting board. I should mention that I am allergic to the smell of chopped onions -- they make me tingle, ache and cry -- so during this whole affair I was sporting my new onion goggles, which are as dorky as they are adorable. The process was calming and instructive, and the only pressure was that of the knife edging its way through the vegetables.

    No matter how well I did or didn't finesse the peppers and onion into their culinary school-approved sized cubes, the chopped salad they later went into was crisp, refreshing, and full of flavor. I chopped mixed greens -- the big knife is very good for quick greens chopping -- and added cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, gorgonzola crumbles, and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The sparse leftovers are featured above, and made for a good snack before I settled down to write today.

    Chopped salads seem destined to become my signature dish (another one I made recently had pears, blue cheese, plus good olive oil, and was creamy yet tart). They make any Plain Jane meal a little more fun and are so much more appealing and easier to eat than a big plate of leafy greens that more often than not cries out for a little more coating of dressing here and a little less there. Plus, they give me ample and enjoyable cause to continue my cutlery practices. Just don't be surprised if my signature dish also leads to a signature finger bandanna, aka, a bandaid.