Palo Alto cooking instructor Peter Hertzmann was kind enough to invite me to be a guest at his recent knife skills class at Sur La Table in Los Gatos. You may recognize his name from his regular comments posted on my FoodGal blog.
Admittedly, my brunoise may not be the world’s most perfect looking, but I know my way comfortably around a chopping board and chef’s knife. Even though Hertzmann is the author of “Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual” (W.W. Norton & Company), I did wonder just a tad how much new information I would pick up from the class.
The answer? A whole heck of a lot.
Just as my pilates instructor often points out to me that I have a bad habit of standing with one hip higher than the other, Hertzmann quickly noticed that I don’t always stand facing the chopping board straight on. Yes, another odd quirk, probably because I’m so used to talking to people while I cook that I naturally turn my body toward them.
Among his other tips to the class: Avoid making a banging noise when the knife blade forcibly hits the chopping board. In other words, don’t wield your knife like an axe against your vegetables. Use a quieter sawing motion instead.
But what I will forever be indebted to Hertzmann most for is showing me an ingenuous way to dice an onion and to julienne a carrot more quickly. Here’s how to do it. We’ll start with the onion first. (By the way, in the top photo, those are Hertzmann’s hands. In the next photos below, the hands belong to my husband, aka Meat Boy.)
The classic way to dice an onion starts with cutting the peeled onion in half through the root and stem ends. Take one half of the onion, cut side down on the board, and make parallel horizontal cuts from the stem end to the root end, without cutting through the root end. Next, make parallel vertical cuts, again keeping the root end intact. Finally, make successive vertical cuts across the cuts you just made, thereby creating individual tiny cubes. If any of this is confusing, Hertzmann’s book is full of step-by-step illustrations.
Now, here’s Hertzmann’s way to dice an onion with fewer steps: Place one half of the onion, cut side down on the board. Again, keeping the root end intact, make a series of fan-shaped cuts around the onion, with your blade starting on top of the dome of the onion and aiming toward an imaginary center mark on the onion each time. Continue doing this until you have made cuts around the entire dome of the onion.
Now, make successive crosswise cuts, which will leave you with tiny cubes. Voila!
Hertzmann says he’s even seen the Food Network’s Alton Brown adopt this method of dicing now.
The classic way to julienne a carrot is fairly laborious. It’s why I often dread having to do it. You must trim the carrot so that it is no longer conical, but rather cube-like, with flat edges so it will not roll around on your cutting board. Then, you must cut thin planks. Finally, you make successive cuts through the long edge of the planks to produce the julienne. Whew.
With Hertzmann’s method, you simply slice your carrot at a sharp angle, producing elongated ovals.
Then, you stack three or four of the ovals on top of one another, and make successive cuts through the length of them, creating the julienne. How easy is that?
I can’t say I now can chop at the speed of light while not even looking at what I’m cutting à la cleaver-wielding Martin Yan. For sure, I’ll need a lot more practice before I can master that. But I did come away with invaluable techniques I have since put into practice regularly.
Merci beaucoup, Peter.