Tips & Tricks

A Better Way to Slice Zucchini

How to Slice Zucchini

Have you ever noticed how cutting the same vegetable in different ways has a significant effect on the flavor and overall eating experience?

I’ve written about grated carrots in this regard, and have recently adopted a new way of slicing zucchini that I wanted to share with you.

It all started with a plate of fish I had at Le Bal Café, one of my favorite lunch spots in Paris. This delicious dish came with thickish slices of zucchini, cut at a steep angle and roasted. I was instantly taken with this shape, which I thought was quite attractive, and very successful in terms of texture.

I played around with the idea in my own kitchen, and ended up with a slightly different technique, in which you work your way down the zucchini from side to side, as shown on this animated image:

How to Slice Zucchini

The slices are just as steeply angled, but have one skinless edge to them. Not only does it look lovely in the plate, but it makes for a great textural balance in every bite, from the firm, skin-side rim to the soft flesh in the middle.

It works particularly well if you’re going to roast the zucchini — my cooking method of choice these days, with a healthy glug of olive oil and a good coating of garam masala –, and it is quite fun to do, too, especially if your knife is well-sharpened.

So if you’re stuck in a rut with your same old zucchini half-moons, I hope you give it a try!

Join the conversation!

Do you share my interest in knife technique, and how different cutting styles produce different results? Do you have a favorite vegetable-slicing trick to share?

How to Slice Zucchini

Minimalist Kit for the Traveling Cook

Minimalist Kit for the Traveling Cook

I am going to be traveling these next few weeks, doing some simple cooking in a couple of rented kitchens, and I’ve had enough hair-pulling experiences with crappy, dull knives and flimsy plastic spatulas to be stashing a few key utensils in my luggage this time.

Because I am also traveling with a toddler and a baby who need their own minimalist traveling kit — including such essentials as toy diggers, special blankets, and stuffed monkeys — I really need to make my kit as trim as possible, and have elected to bring along:

~ My paring knife, freshly sharpened: rented kitchens are notoriously lacking in this regard, and since half of cooking is cutting, trimming, slicing, dicing, chopping, and paring, this qualifies as an absolute must-bring. I will be following this tip on how to wrap knives for traveling.

~ My vegetable peeler because, again, anything that’s supposed to be sharp is going to be dull in a rented house, and a dull vegetable peeler is worse than no vegetable peeler at all. Also, a good vegetable peeler allows you to cut vegetables into tagliatelle and papardelle to make all kinds of pretty summer salads such as this zucchini noodle salad.

~ A pair of locking tongs because it’s rare (especially in France) to find it in a home cook’s utensil drawer, yet I rely on it heavily for handling ingredients, for stovetop cooking, and for grilling. As a bonus, it doubles up as a toy for the toddler, who uses it to catch imaginary fish.

~ My Earlywood scraper made of bloodwood, sturdy and smooth with a thin and sharp edge, and a fantastic multipurpose tool that can be used for stirring, cutting, lifting, and scraping. I have written about Brad Bernhart’s handcrafted utensils before, and they’ve become cherished items in my kitchen that get used every single day (including his latest creation, the adorable coffee scoop, which I use daily to serve my paleo granola).

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How To Cut and Peel Hard Winter Squash

Sweet Dumpling Squash and Pattypan Squash.

Sweet Dumpling Squash and Pattypan Squash.

Winter squashes, with their wonderful range of shapes, colors, patterns and flavors, are definitely among the sweeter treats of the cold months. But the sweetness comes at a price: first, you have to roll up your sleeves and find some way to cut and peel the lovely beasts without losing a finger to the process.

Indeed, while some — especially in the early season — boast a thin rind easily peeled with a vegetable peeler, or even one that’s edible (cue love letter to the Hokkaido squash, potimarron in French), most secure their tender flesh underneath a tough outer shell that challenges even the sharpest chef’s knife. The task is made trickier by the shape of the squash, which is rarely stable enough that you can hack at it safely. And even if you do manage to cut your way through, working your paring knife along the grooves and ridges of the rind can be awkward and time-consuming.

Fortunately, there is an easier way, which I’ve recently adopted: it consists in par-cooking the squash for a very short time in a pan of simmering water to just soften the rind: after this treatment, only the very outside of the squash is cooked, which means you remain free to do with it as you please, whether you want to boil it, roast it, braise it, or stir-fry it (take your pick).

Here’s how to proceed:

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Five Baking Lessons from Huckleberry’s Zoe Nathan

Fresh Blueberry Brioche (photography by Matt Armendariz)

Fresh Blueberry Brioche (photography by Matt Armendariz)

Huckleberry is a bakery and café in Santa Monica that is run by baker Zoe Nathan and her husband Josh Loeb. Although I’ve never had a chance to visit myself, I understand it’s a wildly popular place that has successfully disproven the nay-sayers who told Zoe Nathan that, “nobody eats bread and pastries anymore,” least of all in LA.

Earlier in the fall Zoe Nathan released her first book, published by Chronicle Books and also called Huckleberry, and after hearing her on the Good Food podcast I was very curious to see it.

It did not disappoint: it is a gorgeous book, with a sunny polka-dotted pattern printed on the edges of the pages that makes you want to place it backwards on your bookshelf, and Matt Armendariz’s delectable photography. Although the book was co-written by Zoe Nathan, her husband, and their long-time associate Laurel Almerinda, they have chosen Zoe Nathan’s voice to guide the reader through the book, in a day in the life format that starts at 3:30am (oy!) with “Muffins” and ends at 10am with “Coffee and other beverages”.

Nathan’s is an opinionated voice, too, one that does not mince words — considering the tone of Gabrielle Hamilton’s new Prune cookbook, could this be a trend? — and is pretty honest about the hard work and emotional roller coaster involved in running a successful bakery.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the general baking advice that she shares at the front of the book, and thought I’d share the five baking lessons that have stuck with me the most.

1. Color is flavor

Most bakers, myself included, are so afraid of burning things they usually take their baked goods out of the oven before they have reached the apex of their flavor.

It’s perfectly understandable — who wants charred cake? — but the fact is, a tart crust is much crispier and tastier if it is allowed get to the brown side of golden; a crumble or cobbler (Nathan’s example) needs plenty of time for the fruit to completely collapse and soften; a naturally leavened baguette or sourdough loaf expresses its full complexity when it is darker than we think.

Zoe Nathan says we should “treat [color] as another ingredient to be measured” and encourages us to “flirt with disaster” and push the baking time just a little more than completely comfortable. And in truth, there is often a lot more time than we think between underbaked, just right, and overbaked.

Black and Blue Oat Bars (photography by Matt Armendariz)

Black and Blue Oat Bars (photography by Matt Armendariz)

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How To Open a Walnut Without a Nutcraker

Périgord Walnuts

This summer, Maxence and I took a little more time off than we usually do, and the three and a half weeks (three! and a half! weeks!) we afforded ourselves allowed us to embark on a mini-Tour de France to visit with friends and family: from Franche-Comté to the Vosges in the East of the country, then all sails South toward the Périgord, the Pyrenees, Toulouse, and finally Provence.

We ate like kings, as can be expected, and our luggage got heavier and heavier at every stop as we loaded up with various local treats.

The Périgord walnut wasn’t the least of them: about halfway through our trip, we happened upon La Maison de la noix, a shop entirely devoted to the brainy nut. In addition to all the walnut spreads and jams and terrines and cakes one could dream of, I loved that they sold four varieties of walnuts that you could sample — using their cool low-tech nutcracker — and compare.

“Oh, but you can just use any old knife,” she said, and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Most people think of the walnut as being a single thing — a walnut is a walnut is a walnut — but examining and tasting just these four side by side showed how wrong that is, as each displayed a different size and shape, and a different flavor profile, too. The one we liked best was the Lara, a jumbo walnut with a sweet, delicate flavor and very little bitterness. We filled up a big bag and went on our merry way, excited to share them with our friends at the mountain house we were renting together on the Ariège side of the Pyrenees.

But, as you might remember from my minimalist cooking kit, a nutcracker wasn’t part of my traveling arsenal, and the house kitchen — which was otherwise much better endowed than I’d feared — didn’t have one either.

When I shared my dismay with my friend Marie-Laure, she replied, “Oh, but you can just use any old knife!” and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Slip the tip of a knife at the seam

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