Introduction

Welcome to How to Chop a Carrot!

I was lucky enough to grow up with a mum who, while not a great chef, is a very good cook. She knows how to put together a good meal quickly, and she taught me to cook too.

Cooking is really hard to learn without a teacher! If you look at even a ‘simple’ recipe, each step in the method contains three different things to do, half the ingredients are pre-prepared, and they all seem to think you know what terms like ‘finely diced’ mean. This blog is different.

Each month I want to introduce to you a handful of new cooking techniques, as simple as “How to Chop a Carrot”, and then bring them all together in a yummy dish at the end. I’m going to share with you some of my favourite dishes that I grew up with, and some of my newest inventions. Hopefully there’ll be something for everyone.

Before we get cooking though, I’ve taken the first four posts to cover some kitchen essentials – basic kitchen equipment (here) and a little health and safety (knife, heat, and food safety). Please take the time to read them – it’s not nearly as exciting as yummy food, but it is important.

I’m really looking forward to continuing this kitchen adventure with you all; I hope you love it as much as I do!

(Updated 5/1/2019)

How to Chop Lettuce

Sorry to keep you waiting everyone! Let’s get back to cooking some refreshing summer dishes!

Lettuce is an ingredient that it took me a while to learn to love. I used to only like lettuce in one specific sandwich, but now I enjoy it in a range of dishes.

Hand drawing of two heads of lettuce

I say ‘lettuce’, but there are actually a whole range of lettuces – my favourites are iceberg and little gem. Different varieties of lettuce can look quite different, but they all share the same basic structure: larger leaves on the outside, getting smaller and smaller until you reach the stem in the middle. This means you can use the same technique to cut them all!

If you’re using a whole lettuce, the easiest way to cut most of them is to just cut slices about 1cm thick.  Start from the top, and work your way down to the stem. Because of all the layers, you’ll get beautifully shredded lettuce. (If you’ve got a big, round lettuce like iceberg, first chop it in half from top to bottom, then place it on its cut side to slice.)

Hand drawing of a little gem lettuce with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

However, once you’ve cut a lettuce like this, it won’t keep for long. So if you only want a little lettuce, start by peeling off the leaves you want by hand. To make slicing easier, pile them up, and then slice as before.

Hand drawing of a pile of lettuce leaves with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

For some dishes, you don’t even need to chop your lettuce! I like whole lettuce leaves in sandwiches because they fall out less easily.

And finally, there’s nothing worse than a limp lettuce leaf, so let me share with you a secret technique! If you chop a thin layer off the bottom of the stalk, and place it in a glass or bowl with a little water, it will suck up the water and crisp back up again!

Hand drawing of a carrot in a chef's hat, with dizzy spiral eyes and a sad mouth

This month we’ve been working up to my recipe for Quinoa Salad, which I’ve been really excited to share with you all!

Unfortunately, I seem to have caught a rather nasty summer bug, so I’ll be taking a little break from cooking (and blogging) while I recover. Please forgive the break from regular posting; I hope to be able to share more yummy food with you soon!

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa is a small, round seed that can be eaten like rice or couscous. It’s full of protein and fiber, and it even comes in a range of different colours!

Being packed with protein and fiber makes quinoa very filling, so a small cupful (200-250ml) of dry quinoa makes easily enough for four people. And if you’re already familiar with cooking rice (link), cooking quinoa is pretty straightforward.

Start by washing the quinoa.  You can add equal amounts of quinoa and water to your saucepan, mix, and drain off the water or, my preferred method, put the quinoa in a metal sieve, and rinse it under running water.

Put the quinoa in a saucepan and add water. Quinoa needs a lot of water – three times as much water as quinoa! Use a measuring jug, or just the same cup you used to measure your quinoa. However, for really good quinoa, I would recommend cooking it in stock rather than plain water – it makes a huge different to both the texture and flavour!

Put the lid on your saucepan and bring to the boil. Once it’s reached boiling point, you can turn the pan down so that it’s just gently boiling. It then needs to be boiled for about twenty minutes, or until it’s soft and has absorbed all the water. Remember to turn the pan off once the water’s all gone!

 

Quinoa isn’t nearly as common as rice or pasta, but it’s a great way to add variety to your mealtimes!

How to Chop a Cherry Tomato

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

While I love tinned tomatoes for cooking with, my favourite tomatoes for salads or finger food are sweet little cherry tomatoes.

Hand drawing of three red cherry tomatoes with green leaves still attached

Like onions, tomatoes have smooth, slippery skin that can make them a little tricky to chop. So it’s important to use a good, sharp knife, preferably with a serrated blade. If you’re using a smooth knife I would start each cut by piercing the tomato with the tip of your blade – a great place to do this is the little green spot at the top of the tomato, where it would connect to the vine.

You can eat cherry tomatoes whole (minus the vine), but I find most of them are just a tiny bit big for my mouth. So for finger food, I like to halve my cherry tomatoes.

To halve cherry tomatoes, hold your tomato steady with a thumb and finger, and cut straight down between them.

Hand drawing of a red cherry tomato with cutting guideline (grey dotted line)

For mixed salads, though, I like to dice my tomatoes so all the flavours mix together. The easiest way to do this with cherry tomatoes is to cut them into eighths. Start by cutting them into halves just as above. Then, place each half on its cut face to cut into quarters.

Hand drawing of half a red cherry tomato with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Tomatoes are a great way to add pops of colour and flavour to plates of salad. And these sweet cherries are often popular with kids too!

How to Chop a Cucumber

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

Although it’s mostly been hidden behind rain clouds today, the summer sun has arrived here in England! With hotter weather comes the desire for more refreshing foods like salads and sandwiches. One of my favourite ingredients for both is cucumber.

Hand drawing of a dark green cucumber

Cucumber has dark green skin, paler green flesh and translucent seeds in the middle. You can basically eat the whole thing but the end parts of the cucumber, which don’t have any seeds in, are often a bit bitter. (I usually chop off the ends and feed them to my guinea pigs!)

Depending on what you want to use your cucumber for, you may want to cut it into slices, sticks, or cubes.

Slices of cucumber are best for sandwiches, and they’re very straightforward to cut. Simply work from one end of the cucumber, cutting off slices as thin or as thick as you like! Although, if you are going to use them in sandwiches, I’d recommend slices thinner than ½ cm (¼ inch).

Hand drawing of a dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Sticks of cucumber are perfect for finger food. I especially like them with some fresh hummus. To cut a cucumber into sticks, start by chopping off a chunk of cucumber the same length as you want your sticks. (You may remember this method from my post on carrot sticks here.) Then just keep halving until your cucumber sticks are as thin as you like.

Hand drawing of a chunk of dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Cubes of cucumber are perfect for mixing into salads. You can also use slices, but I personally think cubes let you mix all the ingredients together better. You can cut cubes of cucumber from either slices or sticks, but my favourite is using a sort of grid pattern like we did for diced carrot (link). This is the fastest way of cutting cubes I’ve found.

Start with a chunk of cucumber like for sticks, and cut it into long, thick slices as in the picture below.

Hand drawing of a chunk of dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Cut each thick slice into sticks, then into cubes about 1cm (½ inch) square. Try and hold the sticks together for faster cutting.

27.6 cucumber diced 6

And there you have it! How to chop a cucumber, for all your summer dishes!

How to Make Chicken & Mushroom Gratin

I’ve been wanting to make a gratin since reading sweetness & lightning… Gratin is pretty much all about the cheesy topping and, after a little experimenting, this is what I came up with. It looks quite fancy, but once you break it down it’s really quite simple!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • two pans
  • an oven-proof dish

and the ingredients (for 4 people):

  • 4 chicken (or Quorn) fillets
  • 8 medium, or 16 small, mushrooms
  • 300-350ml milk
  • roughly 1tsp cornflour
  • 1/2 chicken stock cube
  • 1 onion
  • hard cheese such as cheddar
  • crackers or oatcakes, the kind you like with cheese

 

Start by putting your chicken on to fry. (We’re using the same technique I wrote about earlier this month, so if there’s anything you’re not sure about, see my earlier post here.)

Hand drawing of a frying pan containing four pink chicken fillets

Chop your mushrooms into cubes, or slices if you prefer (you can find instructions for both here). Then, add them to the frying pan.

Hand drawing of a frying pan containing chicken fillets and chopped mushrooms

Let the chicken and mushrooms cook while you work on your sauce. (This is a white sauce, so if there’s anything unclear, check out my post on white sauces here.) You can also turn on the oven to Gas Mark 6, 200°C (180°C fan), so it has time to preheat.

Place your saucepan on a gentle heat, and dice your onion. (You can find more detailed instructions here: onions). Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), followed by your diced onion.

Hand drawing of a saucepan with a thin layer of onion on the bottom

Give your onions a few minutes to gently fry, and soak up the oil, then add the milk. (If you want to save on washing up, you can use your serving dish to measure – you want about half as much milk as you’re going to have filling.)

Hand drawing of a saucepan filled with white sauce

Crumble half a stock cube into the milk, and add the cornflour to thicken the sauce. (Remember to mix the cornflour into a little cold liquid first to avoid lumps!) Let it gently simmer (you should see small bubbles, but no large ones) for 5-10 minutes.

During this time, crush your oatcakes or crackers. My favourite way to do this is to put them in a plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and smash them with a rolling pin. Or you could use a food processor. Grate your cheese, then mix it with the crushed biscuits.

 

Taste the sauce (this is why I like to cook it separately from the chicken). If it tastes like it’s lacking something, you could try adding a little salt, pepper, or grated cheese.

Make sure the chicken is cooked and chopped into chunks. Mix together the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce, then add to the oven-proof dish. (I like to use individual dishes for serving – to make them easy to take in and out of the oven, pop them all on a baking tray.) Try and flatten the chicken mixture roughly level.

Hand drawing of a small oven-proof dish filled with chicken and sauce

Top with the mixture of cheese and crumbs. To crisp up the top, place them in the preheated oven for 5-10 minutes. If you’ve forgotten to preheat the oven, you can do this under a hot grill instead.

26.6 Topping

And it’s done! This is quite a rich dish, so a simple side of steamed or boiled vegetables or even a salad is perfect. And if you’re looking for more variations, there are plenty! You could add blue cheese to the sauce, swap the mushrooms for bacon, or simply add a little parsley to the sauce.

If you make chicken and mushroom gratin with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

Also, what did you think of the different style of pictures for this recipe?

How to Chop a Mushroom – into chunks or slices

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

We have a bit of a love/hate relationships with mushrooms in our house. By which I mean, two of us love them, one is indifferent, and one of us hates them.

Hand drawing of a pair of chestnut mushrooms, with the stalk and cap labelled

 

 

Mushrooms are a type of fungus, and there are actually a lot of different varieties. However, the ones you’ll see most often in supermarkets are closed-cup, chestnut, or button mushrooms.

These mushrooms have already had some of the prep done for you. All that’s left are the stalk and cap, so you can eat the whole thing!

 

 

 

You don’t even need to wash mushrooms; in fact it’s best to avoid getting them wet. Not only will it make them feel kind of slimy, it makes it very easy for mould to grow on mushrooms. (Mould growing on mushrooms has always amused me, a little fungus growing on a big fungus, but I digress.)

Hand drawing of the cap of a chestnut mushroom, showing the inside

 

 

 

If your mushrooms are getting a little old, however, you may want to peel them. It’s actually easiest to do this with your fingers! Start by pulling the stalk off the mushroom. You can then reach into the middle of the mushroom and get hold of the edge of the skin, close to where the stalk was. Then, gently pull it off.

 

 

 

To chop your mushrooms, it’s easiest to start with them lying on their caps. For chunks, you can just quarter them.

Hand drawing of a chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

If you’d rather have sliced mushrooms, start by chopping them in half. Then place the mushroom on its cut side as you slice it. I like slices about half a centimetre (1/4 inch) thick.

Hand drawing of a halved chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked, but an overcooked mushroom is rubbery and chewy. To fry mushrooms, simply heat them in a frying pan for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes! It really depends on how well-done you like your mushroom.