Recently I listened to cookbook author Maricel Presilla, an authority on the cuisines of Latin America, talking on NPR. She was making yucca fries with the host of “Morning Edition” and was apparently sitting down while she cut up the yucca. Presilla mentioned the fact that she does many of the kitchen tasks in her book, “Latin American Cuisine,” while sitting down.
“Women all over Latin America sit together in the kitchen to accomplish tasks like making tamales and empanadas,” she said. This evoked visions of women sitting together and gossiping in home kitchens all over the world — Greeks making dolmades, North Africans preparing couscous, Lebanese skinning mountains of fava beans or chickpeas. I thought of my son’s French godmother, Christine Picasso, a terrific cook who now at age 84 almost always sits on a stool at her pink marble counter in Provence to prepare food for the wonderful meals she makes for us.
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Amra gave me a bowl with 10 peeled potatoes and showed me how she cut them into very small dice, about ¼-inch square. She used the exact same method that her mother was using for the apples and that Christine uses when she cuts cucumbers into tiny dice for her cucumber and fromage blanc salad. It’s a knife task that is as easy to do sitting down as it is standing up. As for the knife you use, a paring knife will do (it will help if it’s sharp).
Knife technique improves dice
What you do is cut a grid down the length of the produce and slice off the grid so that it falls in neat little squares into a bowl. You hold the potato (or cucumber, or zucchini or cored apple) in one hand and make thin slices in one direction down the length. Then you turn it a quarter turn and do the same, and finally, holding the whole potato over a bowl, you slice across the vertical cuts. The slices can go almost the entire length, leaving the potato intact at the other end, or you can work sections, an inch or two at a time (that’s the way I like to do it). It’s not fancy knife work; it’s slow and methodical, and it results in fine, even dice that can be as tiny as you need them to be.
Most restaurant chefs don’t have the luxury of sitting down; they’re working too fast in cramped kitchens. But in a home kitchen it’s worth thinking about, especially if you cook a lot. I for one often forget that certain kitchen tasks are as easily done seated. If my feet, legs and back could talk, surely they would remind me. They’re always grateful for the rest.
Christine’s Fromage Blanc aux Concombres
Makes about 3½ cups, serving 6
We can’t get the same kind of fromage blanc that the French eat as commonly as yogurt in the States, so use a blend of cottage cheese and yogurt. Christine seasons this with lots of black pepper; we eat it all summer long in Provence.
1 long European cucumber or 3 or 4 Persian cucumbers (equivalent weight)
Salt to taste
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese
1 cup low-fat plain Greek style yogurt
Lots of freshly ground pepper
1. There’s no need to peel the cucumbers if they aren’t waxed. Rinse and dry. Ideally, the weather will be warm and you can find a beautiful, shady spot to sit outside. Using the method described above, cut the cucumber into very small dice. Optional: sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 15 minutes in a colander (Christine doesn’t do this but it will prevent the dish from becoming watery later).
2. In a bowl, using a fork, or in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, blend together the cottage cheese and yogurt. It can be smooth or lumpy, to your taste. Transfer to a bowl if you used a food processor.
3. Stir in the cucumber, season to taste with salt and lots of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
4. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with toasted bread, or as a salad.
Top photo: Fromage blanc with diced cucumbers. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman