Friday, February 3, 2012

Knife Skills Part 2, or Ode To The Humble Onion

Its been a busy few weeks for shewearsboots.  Among the myriad of January adventures (6 shows in 4 days with the Don't Tell Darlings, June Apple Kitchen debut impending, selling more produce for Horse & Buggy, oh, and Western wear shopping adventures),  I've been reading Mark Ruhlman's Twenty.  The "cook manifesto" genre appeals to my little home-cooking soul. This isn't really a book of recipes to follow, but a series of techniques/concepts that Fancy Pants (that's Ruhlman) decided were the 20 most important things a cook could know and understand.   Seriously people: this is my kind of book. There's an entire chapter on things like "Onion" and "Butter" and "Poaching" and "Water".   Ruhlman works his way through the building blocks of how we create, build, and manipulate flavor, instead of just giving a set of instructions.  You know the old adage: give a woman a fish, and she'll eat for a day, but teach a woman to cook, and she'll make that truffle-duck-aspic-flambe she saw last week on the Food Network. (Not true. There was no duck-aspic-flambe. Actually, there might have been, I don't know. Who's got cable?!)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Knife Skills, Part 1, or Butternut Squash Gets its Revenge

We've recently had a minor come-to-Jesus financial moment in our household, and as such, we've decided to cut way back on eating out. Like, almost eliminate it entirely.  Two people, it turns out, can spend a HECK of a lot of money on food, and as two people dedicated to eating, we were really good at blowing money on local, wholesome, fresh, EXPENSIVE meals for ourselves.

Now, don't get me wrong, Jefferson and I work hard for value. We get our produce from Horse & Buggy Produce, basically the cheapest way to get fresh, local produce in our area.  We shop at Fresh to Frozen, a local grocery salvage (yes, you heard that right) that takes those pallets of smashed spaghetti sauce jars, cleans up the ones that are perfectly fine and sells them for super-cheap prices. Alongside the occasional 10-lb. bag of mustard.  We love it so much that I'm a little afraid to tell you all about it, lest you also become bargain afficianados and we end up fighting over a plastic bag in the aisles, its contents identified only by black Sharpie writing on the plastic bag that reads "Cheerios".  So, yes, in an effort to trim our budgets, my husband and I are spending more time at the grocery salvage and the Love of Jesus Thrift store (only 1 mile up the road!), and less time at Relay Foods and Amazon.  But I digress...

So, in the spirit of thrift, I was recently visiting my fabulous bandmate and best friend Camilla in Charlottesville, and we decided to make some butternut squash-kale-chickpea salad delightfulness. At home. To save me some money. So, good for me, resisting the desire to go out to dinner with my lovely friend, in an effort to follow the rules that my household had set forth. Kudos to me. Well done. (Plus, we went out to dinner the night before.)

Now, there is a right way and wrong way to cut up a butternut squash. The WRONG way is to use a paring knife (sorry, Camilla, I generally respect your choices in such matters, except when they're WRONG. :)  The right way begins with the sharpest, heaviest knife in your arsenal.  Camilla was prepared with a lovely, heavy santoku knife, a Japanese style knife that includes a more rounded tip than a traditional chef's knife, so there's less rocking and more straight downward cuts. They are also incredibly sharp, which, when you're cutting a very dense vegetable like winter squash, does you a big favor.

So, here's how to cube an entire butternut:

  1.  Peel and lay on its side.  Cut off the stem end.
  2. Bisect the squash so that the top skinny neck is separate from the rounded bottom.
  3. Take the "neck" piece, and cut off a small plank alongside one side, to create a flat surface.  **Pro tip #1: ALWAYS position what you're cutting on the flattest surface it has. If it doesn't have one, give it one.**
  4. Now, make several planks, cutting the squash into even widths. Any width is fine, but 3/4" is a nice cube size. So, let's roll with that one for now.
  5.  Stack those planks, and cut down through all of them, in 3/4" strips, so you have large "matchsticks". Like, these are the Jolly Green Giant's matchsticks, people.
  6.  Stack again, and cut crosswise so you end up with 3/4" cubes.  Halfway done!
  7. Grab the rounded bottom piece. Place on its FLAT (see Pro Tip #1 above) end, and bisect it into 2 halves. Scoop out the seeds and separate from the gooeyness. Discard gooeyness. **Pro Tip#2: Save those seeds, dangit! Y'all buy a totally useless Jack-o-Lantern and get all excited about the seeds, and then you toss perfectly good toasting material? BOO! Separate the seeds, rinse, and toast as you would pumpkin seeds. They're AWESOME, and, it feels like you just got away with something free.**
  8. Now, with your emptied out, rounded halves, place the hollow, concave side face DOWN on the cutting board.  Cut that half into 3/4" strips, then, rotate the strips 90 degrees, and cut again to cube. Do the same with the other half.  Throw away the blossom end of the squash.

Right, so, pretty easy-peasy right? Sure, as long as you hold the knife firmly, keep the hand holding your squash away from super-sharp-knife-of-destruction and for PETESAKE PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU'RE DOING!

But why, you might ask, are there no pictures with this post?

Oh, there are. Oh, yes there are. But for the squeamish among us, I'm saving them until the end of this post.  Because my dear reader, when you fail to Respect The Knife, it fails to respect You. And so, as I type this, there are currently 4 stitches in my left hand, holding together what used to be my squash-holding apparatus.  Because I did not do EXACTLY AS I SAID above.

Fortunately, the knife was so sharp, it was a pretty clean cut. And bonus, after the trip to the Emergency room and watching the 28-year-old second-year Resident with shaky hands squirty lidocaine into my open wound and stitch me up, we went out to dinner. BOOM. And THAT'S what you get for trying to save a buck. So, hell, treat yourself.

*Carnage below. You've been warned.*

Its way more Frankenstein now. For realsies.