Somebody Get That Girl a Knife – but could you show her how to use it first?

When I was in college I had this friend who couldn’t cook anything. I mean, she didn’t know how to make rice (and at the risk of exposing some sort of racial prejudice about culinary skills, she was Korean!) One time we threw a party together and the morning of the festivities she came over to my apartment and pulled an enormous Southern Living cookbook out of her dainty shoulder bag (she was also southern) and plopped it on my kitchen table . She had marked the pages with things she wanted to make: buttermilk battered okra, fried chicken, and some sort of side dishes I can’t remember now.

What I do remember is that not only were her recipes of choice rather complicated for someone whose kitchen repertoire included boiling water and making toast, but whatever we finally agreed to make took a lot of chopping. Why do I remember this? Because she took FOREVER. You would think she had never held a knife prior to that moment, and now that I think about it, she probably hadn’t.

She took every carrot, and every grape and every cucumber (or whatever) and cut them slowly and carefully into pieces. She was in no rush. She took her Southern-plantation, slow-talking, sweet-tea drinking, ever-loving time. After a couple of hours I think I was hyperventilating. I told you, already. I’m not all that patient.

Now I think I’m a pretty good cook. I like food. I use a wide variety of ingredients. I generally know what tastes good together. And while I’m no whiz with a knife, I figured I could hold my own. But then again, with my Southern-Korean friend as a basis for comparison, perhaps I was giving myself more credit than I was due.

On the very first day of Lifestyle 180, they teach you how to use a knife. Not a little knife, but a nice big, sharp French knife. The kind you would expect the contestants of Iron Chef to dice an onion with before they ever have time to cry.

Chef Jim Perko gave us each a piece of cantaloupe and showed us how to slice it. “Hold the fruit with one hand,” he demonstrated, “the knife in the other. With the blade of the knife tight against the index knuckle of the non-working hand and rock the blade back and forth so that it never leaves the cutting board.”

As usual, I was overly confident. Within seconds, our patient instructor was at my side. “No, no, like this,” he said, taking the knife from my hand and showing me once again.

I tried again, but my mangled attempts only managed only to convince him (and me) that I had zero coordination. I looked around the kitchen. Everyone else seemed to be doing it. What was wrong with me? I can thread needles, eat with chopsticks and french-braid my own hair. Why couldn't I do this? The movement seemed easy and natural, yet my hands resisted. Eventually he left me alone to practice on a pile of cantaloupe rinds.

As it would turn out, I have quite a lot to learn about kitchen technique aside from how to use a knife. For example, did you know that by scoring the broccoli stalks with your knife you can get them to cook evenly with the florets? Or that slicing a piece of fish at an angle allows you to get thin slices that cook faster and more evenly in the pan? That by using fine bread crumbs instead of course it will absorb less oil while cooking? Or how about the fact that you need to let food cool for a few minutes before you put it in a serving bowl so it won’t sweat and leave a soggy pool of water at the bottom? I think I have made that mistake with every dish I have ever made.

Some of this is so obvious it’s sort of embarrassing. Whenever I have breaded fish, meat or vegetables in the past I always made an enormous mess. I mean, how are you supposed to NOT make a mess with all the goopy egg and flour and bread crumbs coating your hands? Well it’s really quite simple. You use one hand for the wet stuff and the other for the dry. Now why didn’t I think of that?

The day we learned how to toss food in a pan, I provided yet another brilliant display of my culinary shortcomings. Have you ever seen a chef flip an egg in hot pan without a spatula, simply by giving the pan a sharp jerk? We tried to do that with cauliflower in an enormous (and heavy) cast-iron skillet. Jim Perko demonstrated. Bits of cauliflower effortlessly popped up and down with every effortless tug as he lectured us on the physics governing the motion that kept the food in the pan. Then it was our turn to try. I was the clear winner of that challenge. Assuming of course that the goal was to see who could get the most food on the floor.

The point of all this is apparently to make us better, more efficient cooks. The logic being that in your own home, you can control exactly what you eat. You know just how much sugar, and salt, and fat is in the food you cook – because you put it there. And that if you have skills with a knife and a frying pan, cooking healthy food in your own home will be faster, more of a pleasure, and you’ll be more likely to do it.

Apart from a few mishaps, I have managed to successfully make several lifestyle 180 compliant dishes on my own – though I’m still working on the knife skills.

I'll let you know when I can part with the spatulas - but I suspect I'm going to get pretty good at picking up food off the floor first. How many steps do I get for that?

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