Tasty knife practice (and a bonus!)

As many of you know, I’ve subscribed to a lifetime membership at Rouxbe, and right now I’m going through their Cook’s Roadmap: Level 1 course. For a while, I’d stalled out, because I couldn’t really do any of the practical tasks while my kitchen was being renovated. But by yesterday we finally had things under control enough that I could start cooking again, and that, my friends, is what I did.

The Cook’s Roadmap starts really simple: with how to handle a chef’s knife. As some of you might recall, I’d managed to acquire a chef’s knife from a friend of mine and even practice with it a little before the renovations started. I skipped out on Rouxbe’s task to cut a whole lotta celery, both because I’d already done it before as part of another course and because I figured I’d get plenty of cutting practice with the next two tasks:

1. Couscous with vegetables

The first task was to practice cutting a variety of vegetables and then throw them into a couscous dish. I chose to dice a red onion and two stalks of celery, concassé three small tomatoes, and mince three cloves of garlic.

Here’s what I learned: tomato concassé is a pain in the ass. I think it took me a half-hour to concassé three tomatoes. (Can you use “concassé” as a verb? Would it be “concasse”? “Concasser”?) This is especially true because the tomatoes I used were quite small and quite slippery once they were peeled, making it very tricky to deseed them with a chef’s knife. I could have done it with my paring knife more easily, but this was chef’s knife practice, and using a paring knife would have defeated the purpose. Also, tomato concassé wastes a lot of tomato. Probably a half or more of the tomato was wasted, between the peel, seeds, and “evening out” of the edges. (I now know that I could have saved the leftovers to make tomato sauce or something. I did not know that last night.)

The other stuff went faster, probably about 20 minutes for the onion, celery, and garlic, which is still longer than I’d like. I found that I was often switching between my trusty paring knife and my chef’s knife, especially for tiny foods like the garlic. (Note: I *have* cut these foods before, but I was trying to use the “proper” technique that Rouxbe teaches. I imagine I’ll eventually fall into a technique that’s something of a hybrid between theirs and my old one.)

I should also note that I really hate horizontal cutting, especially for slippery items like the tomatoes. I’m always nervous that I’ll slice into the fingers of my guide hand. I wonder if there’s a special technique for horizontal cutting that I never learned, or if it’s just something you learn with practice.

Once all the vegetables were chopped, about an hour later (have I mentioned what a pain in the ass tomato concassé is?), I folded them into some couscous I’d cooked with chicken stock. Friends, after three weeks of making couscous with nothing more than boiling water — kitchen renovations = no stovetop, only a kettle — the couscous with chicken stock was divine. And the added vegetables were a nice touch, especially given that they were cut very small and didn’t cause huge crunchy bits in the couscous.

 

2. Vegetable salsa

The second knife skills task was to make a vegetable salsa. The recipe in brief:

Dice 1 small red onion, 1 medium zucchini, 1 medium red pepper, and 2 tomatoes and place into a bowl. Roughly chop 1 bunch of cilantro and mince 2 cloves of garlic and add them in. Add 2 tsp of date paste (or maple syrup, or agave), 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1/2 tsp chili powder, and 1/2 tsp sea salt. Fold everything together. Remove 1/3 of the mixture and place into a food processor. Pulse several times until fairly smooth, then add this mixture back to the bowl of salsa and stir to combine.

The only changes I made was omitting the zucchini (because the grocery store didn’t have any that looked decent) and replacing the sea salt with fleur de sel, because I misread the recipe. Oh, and I used honey instead of date paste. The recipe says you can make date paste by pouring some boiling water over a pitted, dried date and then mashing it up, but this didn’t work for me. Date paste is apparently also a pain in the ass. And since I was out of maple syrup (horrors! angst!), I used what I had on hand.

In terms of cutting practice, I found that once I’d sliced the tomatoes, the seeds just fell right out, leaving me with little semi-circles of flesh to cut. Now, this actually suited me fine, because I don’t like tomato seeds, but it did mean that I couldn’t really use the proper “rolling technique” method to dice them efficiently. Ah well.

The seasonings for this one were spot on, though. Very, very tasty. I’d make this again, for sure. I might not process the smaller amount in the food processor, just because it’s annoying to wash my food processor and I’m not sure how much the puréed bit adds to the overall texture, but I’m sure it’d still be just as tasty.

 

Bonus: Seasoning with salt practice

One final lesson I did yesterday (actually, I did it first) involved salt. First, learning how to sprinkle it so it’s even. Second, buying a bunch of different salts to figure out the differences and see which you like best. Finally, making two small batches of pasta, one in seasoned water, one in unseasoned water, to see what the difference is.

The sprinkling part was pretty easy, at least with the coarse sea salt I was using. I might need to practice a few minutes with table salt, though.

The “different salts” exercise was actually a lot of fun. There’s a spice store about a 10-minute walk from my house with a bunch of cool stuff, including a variety of salts. In the end, I came home with the following:
– table salt
– coarse sea salt (packaged, from the grocery store)
– coarse dead sea salt
– fleur de sel
– hickory smoked salt

The table salt was… well, it was table salt. Fine-grained, very salty, and pretty one-dimensional in terms of flavor. The two sea salts tasted more or less the same, and may in fact have been essentially the same thing in different packages. The salt crystals were very coarse, and I would only use this in cooking, where it could dissolve into the food, and not as a finishing salt. The fleur de sel was almost the opposite: very delicate grains, and almost a sweet undertone to it. It was definitely my favorite. Also, sadly, the most expensive of the bunch, at about double the price of any of the others, about $5.50 per ounce. The smoked salt I got for Marc, because it really smells like wood-smoke, and Marc’s a huge smoke fan. (His favorite tea is lapsang suchong, and this salt smells almost exactly like lapsang.) This one’s also best as a finishing salt, I think, and Marc’s probably gonna use it more than me, but still. A different take on things.

The “seasoned vs. unseasoned pasta” task was unexpectedly revealing. I’ve been in the habit of adding a little salt and oil to my pasta water, but nowhere near as much salt as Rouxbe recommended: 1 tsp per liter of water. However, the results were clear: Marc and I both definitely preferred the taste of the pasta that had been cooked in the salted water. So, if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned at least that. I trust it’ll serve me well in the future.

I also bought the ingredients for minestrone soup (the final task in the knife skills section of the course), but I was so tired by yesterday evening that I didn’t make it. I’m out of the house tonight, so I’ll probably be making minestrone soup tomorrow. After that comes a lesson on pan frying, where the two cooking tasks are to pan-fry some chicken breast medallions and then some thicker cuts of meat. The task calls for pork tenderloin, but I might do beef instead, because we don’t eat a lot of pork. So Marc won’t be eating a wholly vegetarian diet. (I oopsed yesterday. I hadn’t realized Marc was waiting on my cooking practice recipes for dinner, so we wound up having couscous, salsa, pita, and humus for dinner. And while all the components were very tasty, there was definitely a feeling of missing a “main dish.”)

Anyway, that’ll be for later this week. For now, we’ve got three large tupperwares of couscous in the fridge. I imagine we’ll be giving some of them away, because there’s absolutely no way Marc and I can eat that much couscous before it goes bad. Luckily, there are new parents in the family who might be willing to take some off our hands. *grin*

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