Sure you do. I bet it was the first kitchen tool you learned to use. Simple, oddly shaped blade, plastic handle, no big deal, right? It's as straightforward and simple an instrument as you’ll find in your kitchen.
Turns out, it’s not so simple. There’s actually a right way and a wrong way, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold tongs, grasp a spoon and use a chef’s knife.
Susan Holt knows how to use a vegetable peeler. Holt is a former chef and graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine, where she’s taught for the past decade. Today, she’s teaching at CulinAerie, the District cooking school she opened with fellow L'Academie de Cuisine graduate Susan Watterson.
On an recent Saturday morning, Susan was using all those years of teaching and professional cooking to teach me and a couple dozen other amateur cooks how to use a vegetable peeler. The peeler was the first – and certainly least pointy – lesson of Susan’s Knife Know How class, but it wasn't the last.
“Use the steel every five minutes.”
“Dicing is uniform. Chopping is not.”
“Don’t scrape the blade of your knife across the cutting board. You’ll ruin the blade.”
“Go with the grain, not against the grain.”
“Utility knives are useless.”
“The worst thing you can do is use little motions. Be fearless.”
“Did you hear those bones crack?”
Yes, chef, we did.
And so it went for the four-hour course that began with a review of kitchen knives and ended with a glass of wine and meal. In between were lessons on holding a knife properly, julienning, trussing, supreming, breaking down a chicken and what do with all of it: make lunch.
Our class started early (well, early for some of us). Fortunately, Susan ran the class at an easy pace and she and her staff were hands-on, offering assistance, such as when Frenching a chicken wing proved to be more difficult than it looked.
The course is ideal for amateur cooks, regardless of how long you've been pursuing your hobby. The knife is the most basic of kitchen tools and certainly the most important. At the very least, the class will teach you how to work more efficiently. At most, you’ll be less likely to lose a digit.
I’ve cooked for years, so I’m pretty comfortable with my knives. I keep them sharp (Yes, chef, the steel, always the steel) and work at a pretty good clip. Not Hung fast, but not bad.
Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. I don’t hold my knife right. I don’t hold the product correctly. I rush when I should slow down. On occasion, I might even use little cutting motions.
In other words, I needed instruction.
Fair enough. I can swallow my pride and learn the right way to use a knife, particularly when I swallow it with sautéed chicken in cream sauce (see recipe below). After going over proper knife techniques, the class paired up and cooked what they cut up (Thank god biology class never ended this way). A cooking lesson thrown in with the knife class, and wine to boot.
And considering that I now have a better chance of keeping my fingers attached, the course was a rousing success.
1131 14th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
4 pieces chicken on the bone (breasts and/or legs and thigh
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs. vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 cup white wine, such as a Burgundy-style chardonnay
2 cups chicken stock or water
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 tbs. best-quality grainy Dijon mustard
2 tbs. fresh chopped tarragon leaves
Liberally season the chicken breasts with salt and fresh black pepper. Heat a large shallow sauté pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat, then add the oil. Add the chicken to the pan, skin-side down, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from pan to a plate.
Add onion and reduce heat to low, sweating the onion, but not allowing it to take any color. Add white wine and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring and scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock or water and cream, and bring to a simmer. Return the chicken breasts to the pan, cover the pan with a lid or piece of aluminum foil, and cook over low heat 30 to 35 minutes, turning the chicken a couple of times during the cooking process.
Return the chicken to a serving dish, cover and keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil on the stove and simmer until the sauce is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes, so that it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the mustard, tarragon, salt to taste and black pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately with rice pilaf or egg noodles.