The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Proper Use of a Mandoline in Your Kitchen

I watched the season premiere of Top Chef Masters the other night and cringed as Chef Missy Robbins took off a big piece of her little finger while slicing zucchini on a mandoline. And we're not talking about a “hey, somebody get me a Band-Aid” injury. The poor woman is going to need a skin graft to repair the damage. Ouch!

According to Chef Hugh Acheson, “Mandolines are the takers of more skin in kitchens than any other device, knives included.” But they don't have to be.

Mandolines can be used safely in both the professional and home kitchens. Problems develop when people get in a hurry and bypass the safeguards. Or when they just get a little cocky and arrogant: “Hand guard? I'm a chef! I don't need no stinkin' hand guard!” Okay, fine. And I don't need no stinkin' fingertip in my salad.

On the chance that a reader or two might be picturing a musical instrument commonly employed by bluegrass performers and asking, “How can you get cut up on one of those?”, let me give a quick explanation of a mandoline. The rest of you can skip to the following paragraph.

A mandoline – sometimes spelled without the “e” – is a kitchen tool designed to quickly and uniformly slice a variety of foods. The device has been around for centuries and the name supposedly derives from the manner in which a cook “plays” the tool in the same rapid up-and-down manner as a musician plays his instrument. Mandolines are very popular in high-volume professional kitchens because you can turn, say, a potato into a pile of perfect, thinly sliced potato chips in a matter of about ten seconds as opposed to trying to uniformly produce the same results with a knife over the course of a minute or more. And you can use a mandoline to make julienne cuts – a tremendous time saver. There are a couple of design varieties. You can get a flat mandoline that only does one cut. You can obtain a platform mandoline that has interchangeable blades for different cuts. Or you can do as most pros do and use an adjustable mandoline that allows you to switch from thick cuts to thin cuts to julienne cuts all at the turn of a knob.

Whichever mandoline you select, you should be keenly aware that any and all of the blades are razor sharp. Any and all of the blades will make short work of hard vegetables like potatoes and carrots and zucchini. Those same ultra-sharp, ultra-efficient blades will make even shorter work of your soft, fleshy fingers. Just ask Missy.

Fortunately, most mandolines come equipped with a hand guard. This essential piece of equipment is usually designed to be as wide or slightly wider than the platform of the slicer. It has little spikes on the underside that firmly hold the food item in place and a wide protective edge on top that absolutely prevents your fingers from ever coming anywhere near the cutting blade. Unfortunately, many people – especially “experienced” cooks and chefs – have great disdain for this safety feature. It somehow makes them look or feel less “cheffy.” So they ignore it and wind up joining Missy Robbins in the local emergency room.

And before you ask, yes, I am somewhat guilty of this behavior myself. But only to a point. I may make the first few cuts barehanded with my fingers curled securely and “claw”-like around the potato or whatever, but I promise you, the closer my hand gets to that blade as the food item pares down, the quicker I am to pick up the guard to finish the job. I am knocking furiously on my wooden desk as I tell you I have never gotten cut on a mandoline. And after seeing Missy almost lose a finger, I can assure you that I will from now on be giving that guard a close second look even for the first cuts.

If you have somehow acquired a mandoline that does not have a guard, my first piece of advice is to not use it. But if you're going to be stubborn about it, you must use good technique when slicing barehanded. If you are cutting rounds, hold the food item much as you would if using a knife. That is to say you should grip the piece at the top and keep your fingers curled under – the “claw” method. And don't be tempted to get that very last slice out of the potato or carrot or whatever. Go ahead and waste an inch or two. Those last couple of slices are the ones that will most likely take your fingertips with them. Same thing applies if you are making long slices. Flatten your hand and keep you fingers raised up as high as possible as you bear down with the heel of your palm. Again, quit while you still have an intact palm.

But, you know, even good techniques sometimes fail and those admittedly cumbersome hand guards can slip. That's why the kitchen gods invented Kevlar. You have to be trying to cut yourself while wearing a Kevlar glove. Kevlar gloves – sometimes referred to as “cut-proof” or “cut-resistant” gloves – are available online, at retailers like Sur Le Table and Bed, Bath & Beyond, at restaurant supply stores, and at most culinary or cooking shops. They are a little pricey – the cheapest I've found locally costs between $15 and $20 for a single glove. And use your common sense – you only need one. Wearing a pair of cut-proof gloves looks silly and exhibits an extreme lack of self-confidence. But weigh the cost between a $20 glove and a trip to the hospital for surgery that includes skin grafts and months of recovery. “Ding, ding, ding! The winner by a knockout – the glove!”

Mandolines themselves are pretty inexpensive; mine ran me about $30. I've seen them as low as $20 and as high as $Ridiculou$. You don't need a hundred-dollar mandoline. You just don't. I saw a “deluxe dicing mandoline” online for $250. What, does it play Italian operas as you use it? C'mon.

But whether you opt for cheap, mid-price, or expensive, use a mandoline properly and safely. Employ good technique, religiously use the guard, and maybe slip on a glove for good measure. You may not look cool or “chef-like,” but nobody will be calling you “Stubby-Fingers” either.

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