A Cut Above

Mise en place: a fabulous French phrase that describes washing/chopping/measuring all your ingredients before you begin a recipe. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why should you prepare to cook when you can, you know, just start cooking? Solid prep work lets you settle into a well-timed rhythm, which is far more enjoyable than frantically hacking ingredients while the olive oil smokes in the skillet. In this Efficient Kitchen, we discuss how to prepare some of our most frequently used ingredients: fresh herbs and onions. Once you master these knife skills, you’ll be ahead of the game, instead of behind the unintended kitchen fire.

First, safety first. Never, ever (ahem, Husband Bob) hold your food in your hand while you slice it. Instead, use a clean, dry cutting board that won’t slip on your work surface. Select a sharp knife for precise cutting. And, repeat “flat-side down” like it’s a meditation chant. As in, cut your food in half and place it flat-side down on the cutting board for stability. No 6 p.m. trips to the emergency room for you.

Fresh herbs make your food taste brighter and more flavorful. But if plucking the leaves from the stems seems like too much work, I have fantastic news. Chopped stems can be included in recipes that call for delicate herbs like cilantro, parsley and dill – simply remove and discard the tough ends without any leaves.

For flat herbs like mint or basil, make a chiffonade, which is another Frenchie phrase that describes cutting the herbs into long, thin ribbons. Stack your leaves into a flat pile and either roll the stack from top to bottom, or lengthwise from side to side (like a football). Starting from one open end, slice the roll into petite strips. I prefer the top-to-bottom approach, which lets me isolate and discard the thicker middle vein in basil. Either way, your herbs will look as beautiful as they taste.

Stocking your refrigerator with pre-cut onion speeds up weeknight cooking. While you can buy diced onions in the produce section, it’s cheaper and fresher to do it yourself. To dice an onion, trim the top (leaving the root intact), remove the peel and cut in half from root to tip. Place the onion halves flat-side down and make parallel cuts from root to tip, never slicing through the root. Rotate the onion 90 degrees and repeat, removing the root with the last cut.

To make onion slices, for, say, French onion soup, cut a peeled, trimmed onion in half from root to tip, remove the core and place flat-side down. With your knife at a 5-degree angle (the blade should be almost parallel to the cutting board), slice low on the side of the onion to the center. Increase the angle of your knife with every slice until it reaches 90 degrees and you’re cutting down at the top of the onion. Then, so you don’t chop your fingers, place the recently cut side on the board and repeat with the remaining quarter. The technical term for all of this geometry is “radial cuts,” and it ensures that every slice is the same size.

If I’m being super efficient, I’ll spend a Sunday afternoon chopping up enough herbs, onions and other ingredients to carry me through Thursday night dinner. Not only does dinner get on the table faster, I feel like a fantastic French chef, even when I’m making Italian.

French Onion Soup Bring 6 cups beef or vegetable broth, 2 cups caramelized onions, ½ cup dry sherry and 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Thicken with a slurry (2 tablespoons cold water and 1 tablespoon flour or cornstarch, stirred) if desired. Allow flavors to blend at least 1 hour or refrigerate overnight. Reheat and serve with Gruyere toast.

Pasta Bring 1 cup caramelized onions, ½ cup vegetable broth and ¼ cup dry white wine to a boil over medium heat. Stir in 1 pound hot, cooked pasta. Sprinkle with ½ cup grated Parmesan and serve.

Brie Appetizer
Preheat the oven 350 degrees. Remove the top rind from a wheel of brie. Top with ¼ cup caramelized onions and bake until the cheese is gooey, about 30 minutes. Serve hot with apple and baguette slices.

Caramelized Onions

2 cups

3 lbs. yellow onions, trimmed and peeled
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp. kosher salt

• Cut 1 onion in half from root to tip. Remove the core. Place the flat side down on the cutting board, and make ¼-inch radial cuts. Repeat with the remaining onions.
• In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, warm the olive oil and butter.
• Add the onions, pepper and salt. Cook the onions, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, until the onions are wilted and the liquid is reduced.
• Reduce the heat to low and stir frequently, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure the onions don’t stick. Cook onions about 1½ hours, until brown, viscous and sweet.