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Kitchen Boot Camp Culinary 101

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Attention Home Cooks: This is for you 

I went to help a friend make Roasted Butternut Squash Soup last week.

She is always saying how much she loves the soup but cannot seem to make it without all sorts of battle wounds and horror stories.

I walked into her gorgeous industrial quality kitchen and found an enormous pile of butternut squash. I asked for some sheet pans, cutting boards and a knife. She produced the sheet pans and cutting board and then this pathetic little knife. It was, maybe, 4 inches long, serrated and with a chipped-cheaply riveted handle. OY VEY!

How can anyone cut these rock hard vegetables with this cheap little knife? She mentioned her fear of cutting her hand off (a reasonable fear) and how the little knife was easier. She also mentioned how she really hated cutting vegetables and usually just bought them pre-cut. OY VEY—again.

I launched into my speech about proper knives and how to use them, then I ran to my car and grabbed my own knives (most chefs carry knives around with them) and a short time later had the squash under control and soup on the way.

Here is the abridged version of the knife lecture.

  • Most people hate cutting/cooking because they do not like to struggle with food. Usually their knives are the culprit. A good knife will make cutting easier, safer and faster.
  • A good knife will last a lifetime-I always say that your children will fight over the knives after you are long gone.
  • A good knife is not cheap. A cheap knife is not a good knife.
  • You do not need to buy a “Knife Set.” Most sets are priced attractively and include one or two great knives and then a bunch of knives that are odd sized and not very useful (thus the attractive price).
  • Most homes only need a Chef’s Knife and a paring knife. With kosher kitchens that makes 2 chef’s knives and 2 paring knives. If you are a die-hard home cook then you can add boning knives, cleavers etc…PS-a well constructed knife can be kashered for Passover.
  • Do not buy knives from cute college kids selling them during the summer. They are not good knives. Instead, buy a good knife and buy the scissors or steak knives that the cute college kid is selling. The scissors are OK.
  • Learn to hold your knife properly.

Grip the kitchen knife with the last three fingers of your dominant hand. Slide your hand upwards towards the blade.

Grasp the bolster of the blade with your thumb and forefinger. The bolster is the balance point and finger guard on the actual blade. Your thumb should rest on the bolster on one side, while your index finger holds it firm on the other side.

Rest your last three fingers comfortably on the kitchen knife handle. Let your index finger and thumb control the knife.

Hold the item to be cut in your other hand, curling your fingers under themselves and advancing the item with your thumb.

Rest the blade against your fingers and chop.

  • Take good care of your knife and keep it sharp.

The basic rule on which knife to use is: If you are cutting a large item, use a large knife and vice versa.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

People get rhapsodic about this soup with its beautiful golden-orange color and decadent creamy consistency. But I know very few people who actually will make it for themselves at home. Have no fear. With the right tools for the job this soup and most other heavy duty knife work recipes are a snap.

Frozen squash is fine for some soups and recipes but will not work this soup. Roasting the squash gives the vegetables a deep nutty-sweet flavor and caramelization that cannot be achieved with frozen pieces. Some grocery stores offer pre-cut squash and that is a fine alternative to cutting your own. You still need to buy a decent knife though; you can thank me later.

Preheat oven to 350

2 medium whole butternut squash cut in half and seeded *

1 large Spanish onion, cut into small dice

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 ribs of celery, stringed and diced

3 cloves of garlic, minced

2 pears, peeled and diced

Bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, parsley stems, 1 bay leaf

½ cup sherry

5 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock if making this soup dairy

½ cup cream (if making this soup dairy)

Salt and Pepper

  1. Rub the cut side of the squash with olive oil and salt and pepper. Place the squash cut side down on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes or until the squash is easily pieced with a paring knife. Allow to cool.
  2. Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil. Sweat the onion, carrots, celery, and pears until they are soft and very fragrant. Scoop the squash from the skin and add it to the pot with the vegetables and pears. Add the bouquet garni.
  3. Add the sherry and stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the bouquet garni and puree the soup with an immersion blender.
  5. Adjust the seasoning and garnish with toasted pumpkin or squash seeds, drizzled pumpkin seed oil, crème fraiche for dairy, curried shredded chicken, roasted pears or apples etc…. HAVE FUN WITH IT!

*Cutting vegetables that are odd shaped and roly-poly presents a culinary challenge. Unless, of course, you have a good knife.

To cut butternut squash safely:

Cut off a thick slice about ½ inch thick from each end of the top and bottom of the squash. This will make it easier for the squash to stand up without chasing it around the cutting board while it rolls away. It will also make it easier to cut straight down to the bulbous end by making the top more level and flat.

Laura Frankel is an Executive Chef at Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering and author of numerous kosher cookbooks including Jewish Cooking for All Seasons and Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes. To purchase her books, click here. For more articles by Laura, click here.
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