I’ve started working “the onion trick” into virtually every curriculum I teach. At the end of every class, I ask people to tell us what they know now that they didn’t know before. Several years ago, when I had first started giving one-day classes, at the end of an autumn day of soups and stews, a gentleman exclaimed, “It was worth the price of the class to learn to chop an onion!”
An onion has two ends: the stem and the root. In working with any round object, the first objective is to create a flat side. We’re going to take the stem end off, then stand the onion on the flat end. We’re not going to peel it yet.
Cut straight down through the center of the root end, cutting the onion in half. Now you can peel each half. Pull off anything that looks like skin by peeling from the cut ends towards the root ends. Leave the root ends intact. The clean peels can go into your stock bag. This onion has some dark spots on it, as you can see, so these peels are going into the compost bucket.
Set one half of your onion on the board, with the ribs parallel to you. The ribs of an onion grow vertically. With a sharp knife, begin making cuts about 1/4″ apart, following the lines of the ribs, and not cutting through the root end. That root is what is going to hold the onion together so that you’re not chasing random-sized pieces of it all over your board.
Now turn the onion to a 45 degree angle to yourself. Again make slices about 1/4″ apart across the vertical slices you made. Get as close to the root end as you can, then discard it. Congratulations. You have just fine-diced an onion. You’ll use this size dice to begin soups, spaghetti sauce, risotto.
Let’s dice the other half a bit larger so you can see what a medium dice looks like. Again set the onion parallel to yourself on the board. Again make cuts beginning at the root end, but this time they’ll be more like 1/2″ apart. Turn the onion to a 45 degree angle to yourself, and cut across, also 1/2″ apart. There. That’s a medium-diced onion. You’ll use this cut for quick vegetable sautées or stir-fries, and for Spaghetti Squash with Grilled Vegetables.
And now for garlic. The easiest way to peel garlic is to use the smash and peel method. I mean literally smash it. Lynne Rosetto Kasper, in her wonderful book How to Eat Supper, describes her garlic rock. It’s a flat-bottomed rock that she uses to smash her garlic cloves, then either washes it or runs it through the dishwasher. I collect rocks shaped like footprints (long story), and keep one on my work table for stepping on garlic. You’ve seen any number of chefs on television use the flat side of a knife. If pounding on a knife is a little more than you want to do, use a bench scraper.
Lay the clove on your board. Give it a good pound with a rock, or smash the palm of your hand down on a knife or bench scraper. The skin (into your stock bag) will slip right off, and the clove is also ready for you to mince. Place one hand on top of the spine of the knife (the opposite side from the blade), and as Rachel Ray says, run your knife through the garlic. Gather it back, run the knife through it, repeating as needed until garlic is minced.