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       Volume I - March 12, 2010

Making the Cut:
The Definitive Word on Cutting Techniques

by Alice Osborne

I discovered a stash of my Aunt Annie’s Eating Well magazines, and in a 1998 issue I found a really helpful article I thought should be shared. Here’s what I read: “For every time you’ve stood with your chef’s knife poised over zucchini, pondering the difference between recipe specifications like “finely chopped,” “minced,” or “diced,” take it from the chefs at the Culinary Institute — size DOES matter.”

This great article then went on to explain the difference between the specifications and how to go about achieving them. Here’s the scoop:

FINLEY CHOPPED (especially appropriate for herbs): Using guiding hand to bunch stemmed leaves of your herbs, cut them into large pieces. Keeping guiding hand at knife tip, rock knife from tip to heel until herbs are in about 1/8-inch (or less) pieces.

MINCED (garlic is appropriate for this example): Hold chef’s knife above garlic cloves. Press firmly on knife with heel of hand to smash and peel garlic. Keeping guiding hand at knife tip, rock knife from tip to heel until garlic is in about 1/16 pieces.

DICED VEGETABLES: For medium dice, cut vegetable crosswise into ½-inch slices. Stack slices and cut into ½-inch strips. Cut strips crosswise into ½-inch cubes. For small dice, make 1/4-inch cuts; for large, make ¾-inch cuts.

COARSELY CHOPPED VEGETABLES: Quarter or halve vegetables and cut them into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Keeping guiding hand at knife tip, lift and lower knife heel until vegetables are in ½- to ¾-inch pieces.

The article concluded by saying that when a recipe tells us to cut an ingredient a certain way, there’s a reason why. Different cuts will affect how quickly and evenly the pieces cook, as well as the textures and flavors of the completed dish. Now, here’s a traditional recipe from Eating Well that gives us a chance to try out their cutting tutoring:

Makes about 8 cups, or 10 small servings

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 red and/or yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into medium diced pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 medium eggplant, cut into medium diced pieces
2 large zucchini, cut into medium diced pieces
6 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
¼ C finely chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley (preferably Italian flat-leaf)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In Dutch oven, heat 1 Tbsp oil over medium heat. Add onions and bell peppers; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, 8-10 min. Add garlic and fennel seeds; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 min.
more. Transfer vegetables to large bowl.
Add ½ Tbsp oil to pot. Add eggplant and cook, stirring frequently, until browned in places, 7-8 min. Transfer to bowl with vegetables.
Add remaining ½ Tbsp oil to pot. Add zucchini and cook, stirring frequently, until browned in places, about 5 min. Add tomatoes, basil, thyme and reserved vegetables to pot and bring to a simmer. Cover and transfer to the oven.
Bake ratatouille for 35-45 min, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot and garnish with parsley before serving.

  Download this recipe.

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