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Excerpt from Essentials of Cooking
How to Cut Up Vegetables and Herbs
The best way to cut up vegetables depends on their size and shape and how you're going to use them. Usually, they are chopped, diced, minced, or sliced; occasionally, they are shredded or julienned. How do you decide whether to chop, slice, or julienne?
Chopping usually means to cut foods into smaller pieces of no particular shape and no particular size. Chop vegetables and herbs when appearance isn't important, or when the vegetables will be strained out of a sauce or broth and not served. Generally, vegetables are chopped larger for longer-cooking dishes and smaller for shorter-cooking dishes. Mincing simply means to finely chop, and it is used for dishes that cook very quickly, or when you want to leave the minced food in the dish, as in a pan sauce.
Dicing means exactly what it sounds like, cutting the food into cubes, like dice. Dice when appearance is important. The French give different names, such as brunoise and macedonie to refer to different-sized dice.
Shred, julienne, and chiffonade all mean to cut into thin strips. Leafy vegetables such as cabbage are shredded; leafy herbs and greens such as basil and spinach are cut into chiffonade. And other vegetables, such as root vegetables, are cut into julienne. Julienning is the first step in cutting a vegetable into the tiny dice called brunoise.
Vegetables may also be cut into larger shapes to be used as garniture for braises, roasts, and stews or for serving on their own. Vegetables such as turnips and fennel are often cut into wedges. Vegetables can also be "turned," which means to trim the vegetable into an attractive oval shape with rounded sides.
Chopping and Mincing
To Chop and Mince Onions
Onions, shallots, and garlic are chopped in the same way.
1. Place a peeled onion half, root end away from you, on the cutting board. Cut it lengthwise into thin or thick slices, depending on how finely or coarsely you want it chopped, leaving the slices attached at the root end.
2. Slice horizontally through the slices, again being careful not to cut through the root end.
3. Slice the onion crosswise. For minced onions, continue to chop until very fine.
To Mince Garlic and Make Garlic Paste
Garlic paste has an even finer texture than minced garlic. Use garlic paste when you want a very smooth texture, as in a mayonnaise or in a soup or for making pesto without using a mortar with a pestle.
1. Place the side of a chef's knife on the garlic clove and give the knife a quick whack with the heel of your hand. Pull off the skin. Trim the tiny root end off the peeled garlic clove. Place the garlic flat side down on the cutting board. If the clove is large or doesn't have a flat side, cut it in half through the root end and place the cut side down.
2. Slice the garlic lengthwise with a very sharp paring knife, leaving the slices attached at the root end.
3. Make three horizontal slices through the garlic.
4. Finely slice the garlic crosswise.
5. To crush minced garlic to a paste, place it near the edge of the cutting board and crush it, a tiny bit at a time, with the side of the chef's knife. Lean firmly on the knife with the heel of your hand.
How to Cook Risotto, Pilaf, Fluffy Rice, and Paella
Some rice dishes, such as risotto, emphasize the natural starchiness of rice and are designed to help the rice grains cling together in a natural creamy sauce while other dishes, such as pilaf, keep the grains of rice separate and relatively fluffy. Each of the dishes here uses a different kind of rice and a different technique to underline the desired effect.
To make plain boiled rice so that none of the grains sticks together, use firm, long-grain rice, such as basmati, and boil it in a large pot of boiling water as though cooking pasta.
Rice pilaf is made by first cooking long-grain rice in a small amount of fat to cook the starch before the liquid is added. Flavorful ingredients, usually onions and sometimes garlic, are cooked in the fat along with the rice before the liquid is added.
Risotto is a creamy rice dish made with short-grain Italian rice. The rice, usually vialone nano, carnaroli, or arborio, is gently cooked in butter or olive oil. Liquid, usually broth, is then added a small amount at a time until the rice is cooked and bathed in creamy liquid. Risotto must be stirred almost constantly to release the starch from the rice so the starch thickens the broth, giving the dish its characteristic creamy (sometimes even soupy) consistency. The flavoring in a risotto may be very simple (as for a risotto alla Milanese) or relatively complex.
Paella is made by cooking Spanish medium-grain rice in a flavorful liquid and then nestling in ingredients such as chicken, sausages (chorizos), seafood, and, in some versions, snails. Traditionally, paella is cooked over an open fire, but it can also be cooked on the stove or in the oven.
Risotto alla Milanese
This classic risotto is flavored with chicken broth, saffron, butter, and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (true Italian Parmesan cheese)
1. Rinse short-grained rice in a strainer.
2. Gently stir the rice in butter over low to medium heat until the grains are all lightly coated with butter.
3. Sprinkle over a pinch of saffron threads and stir in a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of chicken broth, or enough to just barely cover the rice. Continue stirring until all the broth has been absorbed.
4. Keep adding broth, just enough to barely cover the rice each time, until the risotto has a creamy consistency and the rice grains are cooked through (bite into one to test) about 25 minutes.
5. Stir in freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Boiled Fluffy Rice
To make rice with no hint of gumminess, pour long-grain rice such as basmati or jasmine into a large pot of rapidly boiling water. When the rice is tenderbite into a grain to checkdrain in a colander and toss with butter.
1. Rinse long-grain rice in a strainer as shown on page 63. Gently cook chopped onions and/or garlic in a small amount of olive oil or butter. Stir in the rice and cook over medium heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add water or broth. Cover with a round of parchment paper or aluminum foil or partially cover with the pan lid.
2. Cook in a 350F oven or on top of the stove over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender.
1. Prepare a sofregit by gently cooking chopped onions and garlic in olive oil in a paella pan or wide pot, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Add peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes and continue cooking and stirring.
2. When the tomatoes have cooked down into a dry, stiff mixturethe sofregitadd broth. Here, I use broth made from shrimp shells and heads.
3. Sprinkle over a pinch of saffron threads and stir in well-rinsed Spanish medium-grain rice.
4. Simmer gently over medium heat (or over an open fire!) until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid. Nestle the seafood in the rice, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and continue cooking on the stove (or over the fire), or finish in the oven, until the seafood is done.
Excerpt from Essentials of Cooking, copyright © 1999 by James Peterson; photographs copyright © 1999 by James Peterson. All rights reserved.