Of Things Sharp and Sweet

The Kitchn’s Cooking School
Lessons 1 & 2

Apparently I had been holding the knife wrong way—you know, the very comfortable way of holding the knife by placing the index finger on top of the blade. I had no idea that it’s actually less stable, making it more difficult to control.

That’s the thing with skills—something I wish I knew back in college while studying acting and writing—it’s not supposed to feel natural. Pinching the blade near the handle with your thumb and index finger and wrapping the other three fingers around the blade doesn’t feel natural. Neither does curling the fingers of your other hand into something humans don’t have—a claw—to hold the food you’re cutting. But the claw protects your fingers from the knife.

Another thing with skills, unlike talent—again something I realized way after college—is that it can be improved with practice. I may not have a talent for chopping, slicing, or anything knife-related, but I’m good at learning, especially when I decide to patient about it. Yes, I have come to accept that I am a good-student kind of person. That was not what I wanted to hear from teachers when I was younger. God, how I longed to hear that I was talented, not that I had improved.

These days, it’s more important that I gain new skills and am constantly learning. I don’t need to be talented with the knife, thinly slicing vegetables at lightning speed. But since I care about cooking and am a kind of culinary student, I want to use the knife with more ease and efficiency and less trepidation.

My knife skills are somewhat atrocious. I mean, I get things done and all, but I definitely need a lot of work in this department. And before the first Cooking School lesson on knife skills, the one vegetable that eluded me to no end was the onion. I used to be a mess when I cut an onion—lots of crying, highly uneven pieces, coming really close to slicing off my fingers. So I was glad that the first two lessons are about these two things—knife skills and onions and garlic.

The Knife
For over four years, I used a cheap chef’s knife I bought at Tesco Lotus. I sharpened it maybe twice the entire four years on an oil stone, which I did not oil. When Sascha came to visit earlier this year, he showed me how unstable my knife was by firmly pressing the blade down on a flat surface so I could see that, under pressure, the blade bent from side to side very easily. A few days later, he surprised me with a brand new and solid chef’s knife. The new knife sliced into everything so smoothly and cleanly. The previous one didn’t even do that when I had first bought it. It’s changed the way I prepare food and the way I feel about kitchen utensils. I take better care of that knife—oiling that oil stone and sharpening the knife every couple of weeks or so—partly because Sascha gifted it to me as a show of support for my new endeavor and partly because I should treat the most important tool in the kitchen well if I want to take cooking seriously. You want it to stay with you a long, long time.

And that was how I began the first lesson in The Kitchn’s Cooking School. I sharpened the knife.

The Onion
I hated the onion as a kid and way into my adulthood. I still don’t like raw onions and always take them out of burgers and sandwiches—too sharp, too hot. Maybe it was in France or when I moved into this apartment in Bangkok five years ago that I realized that it’s such a wonderful vegetable when it comes into contact with heat—the incredibly sweet and comforting smell and the even sweeter taste. But it was definitely in France that I began to enjoy other types of alliums raw. While having dinner one evening at my second WWOOFing home in Brittany, the host grabbed a shallot and sliced it into her salad. I don’t know what came over me, but I said yes when she offered it to me. And I fell in love with it. After that, I began experimenting with other vegetables in the allium family. These days, I love putting raw scallions or leeks on scrambled eggs to brighten and sharpen things up a bit.

The Cutting
I held the knife the correct way and sliced the onion lengthwise in half. When I peeled, the skin came off easily. So far so good. I placed the flat side of the onion on the cutting board and began slicing, forgetting to do the claw at first, then correcting that mistake. I was surprised to find that it felt comfortable almost right away to hold the knife in this new way. The more difficult thing to remember was to use the claw and to tuck the thumb in while chopping. The real achievement here, though, was the fact that I wasn’t reduced to a teary mess. Before this, I would sometimes handle the onion so badly, so impatiently—peeling the skin before cutting the onion half, onion juice everywhere, tears streaming down my face, my eyes struggling to stay open. This time, I did everything according to the instructions on The Kitchn site, and everything went just fine.

The Cooking
At first I was going to use the white onion that I had chopped in Luisa Weiss’s German potato salad. I had even boiled potatoes the day before and let it cool overnight. I was forced to abandon that plan because I had neglected to put the potatoes in the fridge (doh!)—a food-safety no-no. So I used some of the chopped onions in scrambled eggs instead. Always a good way to jazz your scrambled eggs up a bit.

For the two red onions I had bought, I sliced one of them into thin half-moons for pickling. I learned that the first time I made this recipe from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories cookbook, I had sliced the onion the wrong way. In any case, I’ve been putting these pickled onion slices in my roasted beetroot salad. They’re also great with oven-toasted bread and feta. It not only adds crunch and acidity, but also that refreshing hot-and-cool contrast.

As for the second red onion, I caramelized it, following The Kitchn’s recipe, which is a bit different from the way I usually make it. The Kitchn tells you to add the liquid of choice at the end (I used both water and chicken broth), instead of in the middle of the cooking process. I had no idea you could also caramelize onions with balsamic vinegar, broth, or wine. The recipe also challenges you to cook the onion for a long time and to taste it every 10 minutes or so, which is perfect for my goal to form a new habit of tasting ingredients before and during cooking. I was using only one onion, so it took me only 20 minutes. A few strands came out overcooked. Now I know to cook them at an even lower temperature. I put the caramelized onion in my scrambled eggs, along with feta cheese. It was delicious. The dish had different textures and this sweet-and-salty contrast that I love. And if you like to eat oven-toasted bread and feta, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but don’t like the pungency and acidity of pickled onions, substitute caramelized onions for pickled onions. It’s gentler, and the sweet-and-salty contrast is hard to beat!

Other Links
I found these videos on knife skills and chopping onions that are great addition to The Kitchn’s Cooking School:

How to Cut Onions Like a Pro
Rajshri Food
This is a very good video by a Mumbai chef for learning different ways to cut an onion. He also has videos on how to julienne vegetables and cut potatoes. The instructions are super clear.

Jamie Oliver’s Knife Skills
Jamie’s Dream School
Jamie Oliver is one of my favorite food personalities. Here, he’s teaching high school students the basics of knife skills, like what knives you need in your kitchen and three basic chopping techniques.