One of the first things you learn at catering college is knife skills: you won't get very far in a professional kitchen unless you can finely chop shallots and onions at a great speed. I have an enduring memory when I first moved to London and started working as a commis chef and I had two sacks of small shallots dumped on the bench in front of me which I had to peel and very finely chop.
Banana or chef shallots weren't around 25 years ago, and if you didn't chop the shallots finely enough, they would end up in the stockpot and you would find two more bags on your bench to deal with.
Once you grasp these skills, you don't really ever forget them; and of course sharp knives are crucial. It's always worth investing in a really good-quality knife, paying anything from 30 quid upwards for a general-purpose chopping knife and up to a couple of hundred quid for a really fantastic Japanese steel blade.
Sadly, learning how to slice and chop vegetables really well doesn't seem to feature high on the list of priorities at colleges these days, which is a real pity. You can't even begin to make a French onion soup or a minestrone without a good knowledge of knife cutting skills and a sharp knife.
This week I thought I would devote my column to some basics on slicing and cutting techniques – with accompanying recipes for you to try.
Julienne of carrots, celeriac and other root vegetables
This technique – in which the vegetables are cut into long, thin strips rather like matchsticks – can be done by hand with a very sharp knife or with the help of a mandolin, the handy rectangular and razor-sharp slicing gadget.
First, peel your vegetables, then slice them as thinly as you can. If you're using larger vegetables such as turnips and celeriac you will need to cut them in halves or quarters to fit them on the mandolin.
Once sliced, they can be cut into 4-6cm lengths, then stacked together in 3 or 4 slices and shredded with a knife. Some mandolins have attachment blades that do this all in one but I find that in general, they are not as effective as a good knife. Leeks obviously won't need the initial slicing – cut them into lengths, halve down the middle and then into shreds.
You see this dish all over France and you can even buy the specially-cut julienne of celeriac in bags in supermarkets which is ready to mix with dressing.
If you are able to get heads of celeriac with the leaves on, then save and shred them for the rémoulade.
1 small head of celeriac, peeled and shredded (leaves reserved)
5-6tbsp good-quality or homemade mayonnaise
1-2tbsp Dijon mustard to taste
1tbsp crème fraîche (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Shred the celeriac leaves if using, then mix with the celeriac, mustard and enough mayonnaise and crème fraîche, if using to bind.
Season with salt and pepper and serve within an hour.
Macédoine of carrots, root vegetables, celery and leeks
This cut refers to vegetables that are cut or diced into cubes of about half- to three-quarters of an inch. Peel your vegetables then cut them into slices which are a half- to three-quarters of an inch, then cut them into batons of the same measurement and finally into neat dice. This technique is great for soups, stews and even blanched and tossed into a salad.
Slow-cooked mutton neck chops with root vegetables and wild garlic
Ask your butcher to cut your chops through the neck of mutton from the centre so that you end up with a rounded cut with the bone in the centre. Make sure the chops aren't too fatty.
4 x 200g mutton neck chops
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little vegetable or corn oil for frying
1 onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
30g flour, plus a little extra for dusting
400-500ml chicken stock
A few sprigs of thyme
1 large carrot peeled and cut into cm dice
3 sticks of celery, peeled if necessary and cut into cm dice
1 medium turnip, peeled and cut into cm dice
A handful or two of wild garlic leaves, washed
Season and lightly flour the chops, heat some of the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan and lightly brown them on both sides, then put to one side. Melt the butter in a pan large enough to hold the chops. Gently cook the onion for 2-3 minutes until soft, then stir in the flour and cook for a minute on a low heat; gradually whisk in the stock and thyme, season, cover with a lid and cook on a low heat for about one to one-and-a-half hours or until the chops are tender; top up with more stock if it's getting dry. It's difficult to put an exact time on mutton so you will need to check it during cooking.
Add the vegetables and simmer for 6-7 minutes or so, until they are tender. The sauce shouldn't be too thick; if it is, then just add a little water or stock. Meanwhile, melt a knob of butter in a frying pan, add the wild garlic and cook it for a minute on a medium heat until the leaves have just wilted. Spoon some of the wild garlic leaves on to the plates, place the chops on top, spoon the sauce and vegetables over and scatter the rest of the leaves on top.
First, peel your onions and cut them in half lengthways, ie through the root. Then remove the root by cutting it out with your knife on an angle. This will allow the slices to separate once it has been cut. Slice the onion as thinly as possible, turning it around when you get to the end bit to make slicing easy.
Onion, spinach and goat's cheese tarts
500g butter puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
600g peeled onions, halved, thinly sliced
2tbsp vegetable oil
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
Two handfuls of baby spinach leaves
100g goat's cheese
Roll the puff pastry to one-third of a cm thick, leave it to rest for 15 minutes then cut 4 circles about 8cm in diameter. With a slightly smaller cutter (about seven to seven and a half cms) mark it inside the edge without cutting through the pastry. Prick the centre all over with a fork to prevent the pastry rising too much, then put them on a baking tray, brush the edges with beaten egg and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
While the pastry is resting, gently cook the onions and thyme in the vegetable oil on a low heat with the lid on for 4-5 minutes until they begin to soften, stirring every so often. Season with salt and pepper, add the butter and continue cooking the onions for another 4-5 minutes with the lid on until they begin to get really soft. If they are beginning to burn, just add a little water. Remove the lid, turn the heat up a little, add the spinach and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake the tarts for 10 minutes or until lightly coloured then remove from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes. With the point of a sharp knife, carefully cut around the inner edge of the pastry and push the centre down. Spoon the onion and spinach mixture into the centres of the pastry. Arrange the goat's cheese on top and cook for another 6-7 minutes until the cheese begins to melt. Serve hot or warm.
Finely chopped shallots and onions
Peel your onions or shallots, ensuring that you don't remove the root, as this keeps the onion together while you are chopping. Halve the onion lengthways, and with the root away from you make slices from the half onion towards the root and as close together as you can, but stopping just short of the root so it stays together. Make a cut vertically through the centre of the onion to about two-thirds of the way back. Now hold the onion together with your four fingers and thumb and cut as closely together as you can back to the root, a technique which will hopefully leave you with finely chopped onions.
Minute steak with shallot and mustard sauce
While the steak is cooking the sauce can be made and finished – simple.
4 sirloin steaks, weighing 200-250g
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for brushing
For the sauce
6 small shallots, peeled, finely chopped
A good knob of butter
1tbsp Dijon mustard
4tbsp crème fraîche
Preheat a ribbed griddle until almost smoking, season your steaks, lightly oil the griddle and cook the steaks for 3-4 minutes on each side for medium rare if they are thick. While they're cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the shallots on a low heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring often, until soft. Add the mustard and cognac and the stock and simmer until you have a couple of tablespoons left, then add the crème fraîche and simmer gently until the sauce thickens.
Season and serve with the steak.