Technique: Chopping Summer Vegetables

It's summer. You'll be making salads, grilling vegetables, and maybe even harvesting some homegrown ingredients from your backyard garden. The farmer's markets are beginning to go really wild.

In short, you'll be chopping some vegetables sometime soon.

There's ONE thing you really need to know - it's all about the knife.

Eventually, if you chop enough vegetables you'll get faster and more precise. Given enough different vegetable related dishes, you'll learn different ways of tackling the same vegetable, depending on how it is to be used (think sliced vs. chopped tomatoes). But no matter what, if you don't have a good, sharpened knife, it will be more laborious and potentially painful in more ways than one.

For what it's worth, I recommend an inexpensive but durable chef's knife - the Victorinox 8" Chef's Knife.  Even if you splurge on or already own an expensive knife, all that's really going to matter after the first 6-12 months is how sharp you keep the blade. In fact, in some professional kitchens, knife sharpness is more than a matter of pride - it becomes a competition among chefs.

Except for cutting bread and boning meats/fish, I use my large chef's knife for 98% of my chopping. Maybe 99%. Literally. And I even know what that word means.

Enough already - here are some handy tips for summer vegetable chopping (with a large chef's knife):

  • Cut fresh corn in half, then stand the cut ends on your cutting board like a tower. Run your knife from top to bottom to cut off the kernels. You'll need exactly FIVE vertical cuts to remove all the kernels - no more, no less. 
  • The fastest way to chop tomatoes is to cut them in half end to end, then again into quarters. At this point it's easy to push the seeds/juices out of each quarter. You may need to trim the whitish core and the stem pit (or whatever that dark thing is called that holds the tomato to the vine). After seeding the quarter, cut big chunks, or more vertical, thin slices, which can be chopped crosswise into little 1/4" cubes. 
  • Cucumbers - trim each end, cut in half, place the fat middle end on the cutting board, like suggested for the corn. With just a little practice you can trim the peel off from top to bottom, not taking off much, if any flesh. So - no need for a peeler. After trimming, slices or quarters are easily obtained. 
  • Snozzcumbers - you're on your own. I can't recommend a viable approach. Hopefully the BFG is not reading this note. 
Toss cucumbers, zucchini or squashes into a colander with a generous sprinkling of kosher or sea salt. Let them sit for about 20 minutes - and they'll lose a lot of the water that would otherwise end up watering down your dish. 

  • Chop the stem portion of a bell pepper, as if beheading it (the stem is the head). After slicing this top open, you can trim vertically, four times around the core and seeds, to create big flat pieces of pepper.  When you trim this way, run the knife edge right along the inside of the white spines - you don 't want that part - it's bitter. 
  • A similar technique works well horizontally for small peppers, usually needing just three cuts.  
  • After cutting large heads in half or quarters, I like to cut broccoli and cauliflower from the stem end toward the "leaves", making small cuts that allow the "trees" to fall apart. The bigger trees get more of the same treatment. 
When chopping anything into tiny pieces, keep the tip of your knife anchored on the cutting board rock/press the broad end (nearest the handle) down to chop through. Steady the food with your non-cutting hand. Yes, you can and should tuck your fingertips "under" (curl them back a bit) for safety. Also, pretend in your mind that you're a professional chef (you already have a very sharp knife, right) and your in chopping competition with the dude/dudette next to you. It doesn't take too long to get fast, faster and fastest. But do watch those fingertips. 

  • Last, for now, smash garlic with the flat knife blade and the skin will fall off. Lay the knife blade over one clove, holding the handle, and with your other fist, pound once down against the blade. It is SO easy. 
Grilled Vegetables
Don't overgrill - you'd eat most any of these veggies raw anyway.
Add some oil, S&P and balsamic vinegar. 

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