Do you ever wonder how chefs get their food sliced so thinly and perfect? Well, Although I’m sure many of them can do it by hand, it may shock some of you to know that a machine is the culprit. It’s called, confusingly, a mandolin. Its not the kind you strum…side note: do NOT strum the mandolin! Ok, just had to say that for safety sake. A mandolin is a device with a flat surface and a blade inset horizontally that can be adjusted or down. The point is to move the fruit or vegetable back and forth along the device thus creating perfect slices.
It is an incredibly useful tool and I would recommend that every kitchen have a mandolin. They are fairly simple devices, but there are a variety of styles. The most expensive is the French mandolin. This style is nice because it can not only slice, but julienne (strips), and even do waffle cuts ( or as the French say, gaufrette). They are usually, but not always, made of metal. The downside, is the price, as they can easily run $400. Luckily, You can find an alternative which happens to just as effective. The Japanese mandolin is very affordable. They come in two sizes, and can usually be found for well under $100. They are made of durable plastic, and come with a straight blade for slices, and two blades for making different sizes of julienne. I really never use the blades, as I find it easier to just use a knife. Both of these styles also come with a hand guard, which can be a little cumbersome, but gets easier once you get the hang of it. There are also smaller handheld versions, but I don’t really like these as they are almost always made with really cheap plastic and have terrible blades that require a lot of force. Remember, when cutting anything, never force it. Thats how fingers end up in the lost and found. Mandolins are easy to clean, but never put them in the dishwasher, and never submerge them in soapy or cloudy water. When you or someone else sticks their hand into the water there’s no telling if you will grab the sharp side. And these tools are RAZOR sharp…take it from me! If you show this sharp tool the respect it deserves, it will pay you back ten fold with delicious food. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
There are a ton of things a mandolin can do too, beyond the obvious making slices. For instance, one of my favorite salads doesn’t have any lettuce in it at all. Take a bulb of fennel, two carrots, four or five radishes, and a cucumber and shave them thinly on your mandolin, and put them in a container of cold water, and put the container into the fridge for an hour or two. When you drain the water, the vegetables will be perky and crisp. Dry them thoroughly and toss with salt, pepper, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and a glug or two of olive oil and enjoy…or if you really want to get wild, toss in some fresh herbs like parsley, thyme, and oregano. Enjoying your vegetables is way easier when they are shaved thin!
Another trick that I like to do with my mandolin is make fresh potato chips, which are ridiculously easy with this tool. Take a potato and slice it on the mandolin about the thickness of five or six sheets of paper. While slicing, have a container with enough water to keep the slices covered as you are slicing. repeat until you have a full container. Now, you can start frying right away, or run hot water over the container for a few minutes and refrigerate until cold again. The hot water leeches some of the starch and sugar out of the potatoes which keeps them a light golden color. Personally I think the flavor is better and more satisfying without the hot water wash, but try both ways and see what you like better. Now, if you have a countertop deep fryer at home, this will be a piece of cake. Simply drain your potatoes well and set the fryer to 325 degrees F and when the oil is hot, fry your potatoes a handful at a time until golden brown. Have two bowls or containers ready. The first is to toss with salt, or whatever seasoning you like (get creative), and the second should be lined with a few paper towels to wick away excess oil. Let cool for a few minutes, and enjoy. Now if you don’t have a deep fryer, don’t worry, it will mean a little more work, but not much. Get a large pot, and fill a little more than a third of the way up with peanut, safflower, rice bran, or any other high heat oil. It should say on the oil container if it is ok to fry with. Attach a fry thermometer to the side of the pot and turn on the heat to medium high. When it reached about 325 degrees F, you can start frying. Don’t have a thermometer?? well…you should really get one, but in the meantime do everything the same. When you are ready to fry, turn on your heat and toss small piece of bread into the oil. When it’s golden brown, you know you are ready to fry…but don’t eat the bread. Be careful to monitor how hot the oil is. if chips are starting to get TOO golden brown, turn the heat down accordingly.
Well, these are just a few tricks that you can take advantage of with the a mandolin. I will be posting many more in the future. But for now, check out some restaurant supply or kitchen supply stores (or even the world wide web) and see if you find a mandolin you like. They are a little intimidating at first, but with a little practice, you are going to be saving a ton of time in the kitchen and be able to do things like a pro!