A little departure today from our usual discussion of cooking methods and techniques. Instead, we’ll talk about a piece of equipment that is underutilized in most kitchens: the mandoline.
Why you need to learn this
Mandolines make quick work of many tasks that normally are performed with a chef’s knife, including french fries, veggie chips, potato casseroles (see accompanying recipe) and all sorts of other goodies. Using one gives you wonderfully consistent pieces of whatever you’re cutting quicker than you can shout, “WATCH YOUR FINGERS!!!”
The steps you take
First of all, some of you may not have heard of the mandoline, or you’re confusing it with the similarly named musical instrument, the mandolin. Note that our device includes an extra letter “e” at the end, like those creepy cats that Hemingway had with the extra toes.
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Though mandolines come in several designs, they share their main feature: a flat surface at the end of which sits a stationary blade. By running a potato (for example) across that flat surface into the blade, it produces evenly sized slices.
Now, before I go on, I want to remind you of something I tell my students all the time: Mandolines are very, very, very, very, very, very sharp. (Note: However many “very”s my editor left in that last sentence, you can be sure there were about 37 more that he took out. Those things are all-caps SHARP! Like Pierce Brosnan as Bond. Like Darlene Edwards singing I Love Paris. Sharp, I tell you.)
Full disclosure: OK, I admit it. I cut myself on my mandoline just this past Christmas. I was rushing (of course) to get 5 pounds of potatoes sliced in 5 minutes. Unfortunately, I was moving too fast to notice the slices piling up under the mandoline until they up and blocked the blade, stopping my potato in its tracks. The forward momentum sent my thumb careening off the potato and into the waiting blade like a wayward dove into the window of a gleaming glass skyscraper.
The good news is, your mandoline probably comes with a safety guard that comes between the food and your tender, tender digits. Personally and ironically, I don’t use it because I feel that that extra layer of protection reduces, somewhat, the control I feel over the whole process. On the other hand, eschewing that extra layer of protection comes with the price of possibly removing a portion of yourself with mohel-like precision. That’s your call.
Another protective device you could get would be a glove made out of chain mail, like something Lancelot might have worn if he’d worked in a deli. Once again, I’d rather just practice slowly until I get to where I can work quickly and safely.
Here are three common blades that come with most mandolines:
1. Main blade. It usually runs straight across the flat plate, though some are V-shaped. The thickness of the cut is varied by the distance between the blade and the flat plate. Depending on the mandoline, that distance is adjusted via the blade itself or the flat plate.
2. Corrugated blade. This is for waffle fries. When I demo these in my classes at Kendall College, inevitably, some student gasps, “Cuuuuuuuute!!!” as if I’ve just birthed a baby lemur. True enough, waffle fries are cute and easy to make: Adjust the height of the corrugated blade to produce one very thin chip, like a potato chip with one ruffled side. Rotate the potato 90-degrees, and make another pass over the blade to produce the waffle chips which the French call gaufrettes.
3. Stick blades. Some mandolines have another set of blades that either can be attached or moved into place. They are used for cutting sticks such as french fries or juliennes.
Along with chips and fries, here are some other great ideas for your mandoline:
1. Cucumbers, tomatoes or onions for sandwiches or salads.
2. Lengthwise slices of zucchini or carrot. Blanch them in boiling water, and shock in an ice path for flexibility, then line them on the inside of a biscuit cutter, fill with cooked rice, quinoa or other starch, and remove biscuit cutter. Your starch stays in place, held in a tight and fancy, schmancy circle by the colorful vegetable.
3. Cabbage shredded on flat blade for cole slaw.
4. Zucchini pasta (use flat blade or julienne blade).
5. Root vegetable slices for baked chips: Toss with olive oil, season with salt and whatever other spices you like, then bake in a single layer on greased parchment at 325 for 20 to 30 minutes.
Pommes Dauphinoise (aka Au Gratin Potatoes)
Prep: 20 minutes. Cook: 40 to 60 minutes. Servings: 10-12. Because we want the starch from the potatoes to thicken our sauce, do not store them in water after peeling and slicing.
2 cups heavy cream
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, sliced into 1/8-inch thick rounds
Salt as needed
Freshly ground black pepper as needed
Small pinch nutmeg
1 pound Gruyere cheese, shredded
Parmesan cheese as needed
1. Heat cream and garlic to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
2. Layer half the potatoes in the bottom of a greased baking dish large enough to hold them all, and season with salt, pepper and a very small dusting of nutmeg.
3. Sprinkle half the Gruyere over the potatoes.
4. Construct a second layer with remaining potatoes and Gruyere, being sure to season potatoes. Pour in the heated cream, discarding garlic.
5. Bake, covered, in a 350-degree oven until potatoes are tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
6. When potatoes are tender, uncover, sprinkle with Parmesan, increase oven temperature to 450 degrees and bake until top browns, 5 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately, or cool and refrigerate up to 5 days. To reheat, cut into squares and bake in a 425-degree oven on a parchment-covered sheet pan until warmed through, about 10 minutes