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I Want to Learn to Cook. How Do I Begin?

by Elaine Corn

Beginner cooks come in all ages, ranges of intellect, motivations, and genders.

The decision to learn to cook is important. Once you acquire control over what you eat, you'll reap multiple benefits: eating food you make yourself costs less and if you learn well, your dishes will taste great and sport a good nutritional profile.

Yet for all the sound reasons to learn, the excuses and imagined pitfalls of cooking come fraught with anxiety. What if it burns? What if the courses aren't timed right? You're positive you're not a "natural" at cooking. Knives seem big and dangerous. You hate chopping onions. You prefer life when it has no dirty dishes.

If you've tried cooking before and gave up, you may have started in the middle. Rather than attempt a TV chef's beurre blanc over duck breast with fruit coulis, better start with first things first -- with the Eight Immortal Chores.

These eight tasks are the underbelly of cooking. They've very unglamorous and make cooking seem like a lot of chopping. Well, cooking is a lot of chopping. But if you chop an onion like a pro, then chopping onions won't faze you in the slightest ever again.

The Eight Immortal Chores Are...
1. Chopping onions
2. Mincing garlic
3. Slicing mushrooms
4. Seeding and chopping tomatoes
5. Peeling potatoes
6. Washing lettuce for salad
7. Preparing carrots and/or celery
8. Mincing parsley
Over the next couple of months, we'll get to all of them. This month, we're starting with -- gads -- the onion.

To chop an onion, you'll need a cutting board and a chef's knife about 6 to 8 inches long. Do not be afraid of big knives. A large knife is safer than a small knife. When the blade of a knife is longer than the diameter of an onion, it will be able to cut the onion completely in half. Why cut an onion in half? Because it is round and rolls all over the place -- and this isn't safe.

Halve the onion by cutting it through its "poles," meaning from the root (the hairy end) through the opposite end. (The onion also has an "equator" around the fullest part of its middle.)

Place one of the halves on your cutting board, flat side down. Notice that this piece will not roll.

Peel off the papery skin down to the first white layer. You are now ready to slice.

With your dominant hand holding the knife, use your other hand to steady the onion. Situate this hand (let's say it's your left hand) so your left pinkie rests near the root. Curl the fingertips under just enough to allow the naturally-formed flat section of fingers -- between the first and second knuckles -- to literally touch flush with the knife's blade. Holding a piece of onion with your fingertips will seem awkward, but you'll fall in love with the idea that it's a lot less awkward than cutting off a finger. Spend five minutes moving the knife up and down as it rests on this flat section of the fingers.

Now, position the blade so the point is aimed at the onion's root as it rests between the knuckles of your other hand. Slice down, going to, but not through, the hairy end. Keeping the root intact helps the slippery layers of onion stay intact, too. Continue making cuts all the way across the onion piece.

Next, turn over the knife blade so it's parallel with your countertop. Place your left palm on the onion, wrist over the root, and hold the onion steady, keeping fingertips up. Draw the knife through the onion in horizontal cuts. About three cross-cuts work well. You'll be able to see that your knifework has formed a grid.

Finally, return the knife to its original slicing position and go back to the top of the onion. Slice down, through the grid -- and look! -- chopped onions will be falling on the cutting board on the other side of the knife.

When you get down to the root and the piece is too small to hold steady, stop. It's OK when you first begin to chop onions to toss this little piece down the disposal. Take the second half, and repeat the process.

The better you get at chopping onions, the quicker you'll get it over with, and move along to more delicious ends. Even very pungent onions will have little effect on you, because you'll be finished chopping before the first teardrop falls.

Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking

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