Watching James Martin casually whip up a chopped salad amidst interviewing a Doctor Who starlet AND remembering which camera to look at had me entranced every Saturday. Until he sold out and pissed off to ITV, that is. Still, whichever channel he’s on, I’m sure his chopping skills are still taking a tomato from full to finely diced in under 60 seconds. Despite how many times I try to watch, learn and speedily prepare a tomato salad, I never quite manage to get the same uniform results from my (unnecessarily expensive) knife collection.
After just 15 minutes in the company of the Cactus Kitchen Chefs, I realised it was no wonder my cucumber salad looked like watery mush, seeing as I’d been I’d been holding the sodding knife wrong this entire time. In a few hours, protégés of Michel Roux himself (who didn’t make an appearance, much to my disappointment), walked us through the fundamentals of picking up a knife and chopping. Ugh – duh! – I hear you cry. But answer me this; have you ever wondered how all the veggies on the Crudité platter end up perfectly symmetrical? Ever tried to “finely chop” coriander and ended up with a bloody great mouthful of leaf, mid-bite? How on earth does Jamie Oliver do that smushy, garlic thing?! Well, prepare to have your mind blown, as I have kindly taken note of the basics to help you take the “urgh” out of cooking and most importantly – protect your fingers.
HOW TO HOLD A KNIFE
NOT with your fore-finger leading. Michel’s mates had to point this out to me on many occasion throughout the morning. Grip the handle with a fist and chop confidently (see below).
HOW TO CHOP LIKE A CHEF
Admittedly it takes years of practice to get to James Martin standard, but why not make a start now? Apparently, there’s this thing in chef-speak called “the roll and chop”. It took me a while – and a few sabotaged celery sticks – to get the hang of it, but once you know the basics, it’s pretty simple. When chopping anything, always work from the top of whatever you’re chopping down, push the knife forward and then start from the top again. It makes much more sense to phrase it like so; never move the knife backwards.
HOW TO FINELY CHOP HERBS
Grab your herbs in a little bunch and, using your “roll and chop” technique, chop the herbs as small as possible. Then, place your non-chopping hand on the top of the end of the blade and rock the blade across the herbs. Keep bringing the herbs back together and rock and chop in alternate directions. The trick is to press on the end of the top of the blade, not the middle.
HOW TO CHOP AN ONION
Chop the onion in half, from tip to root. Then, make slits into the onion lengthways, but stop the cut just before you get to the root. Next, make 3 or 4 small chops into both sides of the onion, towards the chopping board, Then, slice as normal and you should have perfect, little chopped pieces. Annoyingly, this method still won’t stop you welling up. If you’re feeling experimental (and you’re alone), bite down on a metal fork whilst chopping.
HOW TO CHOP GARLIC
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this gem has revolutionised my cooking experience beyond my wildest dreams. Join me in lobbing your garlic crusher out the window and instead, opting for the ease of an alternative, two-ingredient method. All you need is a knife and some salt.
First, use your the flat of your knife and palm of your hand to press the garlic into your chopping board. This should make the outer-skin peel off nice and easily. Next, chop into small pieces using a roll and chop method, followed by the herb-chopping method, creating really small pieces. Then, sprinkle a teaspoon of table salt on to the chopped garlic (don’t worry, you won’t taste it).
Using the flat of your knife, push the garlic into the chopping board and drag a little to mix the salt into the garlic. Keep smushing with the flat of your knife for about three-five minutes and voila; perfectly squished garlic without a garlic press in sight!
Cactus Kitchen Knife Skills class costs £149. Cactus Studios, 1 St Luke’s Avenue, London SW4 7LG, 020 7091 4800, www.cactuskitchens.co.uk