My skill with a kitchen knife is like that of a hobbled Bill Walton with a basketball…
Fundamentally sound, yet incredibly slow.
Yes, I can chop, dice, and slice with the best of them–I’m just chopping, dicing, and slicing at a much slower pace. I’d say it takes me the better part of an afternoon to julienne a couple of carrots.
And when it comes to dishes that require quite a bit of knifework, I’m often at a disadvantage because of the turtle-like pace of my knife-wielding hand and arm (depending on what is being wielded, my hand/arm speed varies. Kitchen knife=slow, typing unfunny jokes=fast).
So thanks to my dawdling and deliberate knife proficiency, I have more than enough reason to use a completely scary and potentially hazardous kitchen gadget: the Mandoline.
Culinarily speaking, a mandoline has less to do with a crappy Nick Cage movie and more to do with razor-sharp, blood-thirsty blades. A mandoline is designed to make short work in the slicing of fruits and veggies, but in the wrong hands, it’s pretty much a hand-held guillotine for the fingers. Yes, it be a serious contraption.
And if I’m ever pushed far enough, I’d probably use my mandoline to de-digitize my enemies. In fact, if I were a crazy old culinary teacher, and one of my best students were killed by a rival culinary teacher, I’d probably attach my mandoline to a chain so that I could fling it about and seek vengeance! Bloody, finger-chopping vengeance! It’s the most gruesome weapon ever conceived!
Ah, Master of the Flying Guillotine. It’s a classic.
Anyhayhay (you’re tiring of me using “anyhoo” as a contrived and weak segue, I know it), one dish in particular that benefits from the precise cuts of a mandoline is Atchara.
Atchara (also spelled Atsara) is a pickled Filipino dish comprised mainly of shredded green papaya and carrots. It’s usually served as a side dish, or as a condiment even. For those that have never had Atchara, it’s a bit similar in flavor to the pickled ginger you get at sushi joints. As such, Atchara makes for a great palate cleanser between bites and goes well with just about anything, I think.
A mandoline is not mandatory when it comes to preparing Atchara. If you’ve got some legit hardcore knife skillzzz, you can julienne the produce by hand. A box grater also works fine for shredding carrots and green papaya–but my box grater does more smooshing than shredding. So I just personally prefer my mandoline because I think Atchara looks much nicer on the plate when the green papaya and carrots are cut into nice uniform little noodles. You could also find pre-shredded green papaya at the Asian market, often right next to where you’ll find pre-shredded carrots (the Asian market is perhaps pandering to their pickle-loving Pinoy patrons). In fact, Wandering Chopsticks has a great recipe for a Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad using the pre-shredded papaya.
Although I’ve enjoyed Atchara at my grandparent’s dinner table on many occassions, I’ve never attempted to make it myself (I guess that’s become my MO, hasn’t it?). So I got on the direct line to the family compound and rang my grandmother to glean some Atchara-making kung-fu. Turns out that my grandmother’s sister (my dad’s auntie=my great auntie) is the Atchara maker of that household, resulting in quite the phone conversation:
Me: Grandma, how do you make Atchara?
Grandmother: I don’t know, your auntie actually makes it. Here, talk to her.
Grandmother yelling in the background: He wants to make Atchara! Tell him how to make Atchara!
Me: Uh, yeah. Hi Auntie. How do you make your Atchara?
Auntie: Well, you first cut the green papaya…
Grandmother yelling in the background: Julienne! Tell him to julienne it, hah! He knows that better! Julienne!
Auntie: And then you put it in boiling water…
Grandmother still yelling: Blanch! Tell him to blanch it! Not so long though! Just blanch it fast, hah!
Grandfather suddenly appearing on the line: Marvin, when you go home to the Philippines, tell them to make this for you over there. They have good papayas!
Me: Uh, ok. Thanks Grandpa. Go Lakers!
Grandfather, et al. yelling in the background: Go Lakers! Click.
As you can see, my grandmother is quite adept at her usage of the culinary lexicon, and at screaming.
My family. Masters of communication we are.
Despite that helter-skelter conversation, I was still able to cobble together a wonderful recipe from my great-auntie. Her tip on quickly blanching the papaya is something I haven’t seen in any other recipes, but the blanching does help to tenderize the green papaya. I also learned from her that using brown sugar, rather than white, in the pickling solution adds a deeper sweetness to the end product. And although I don’t usually like raw carrots in anything, the carrots in this Atchara recipe add a nice snap and a sweetness of their own. Finally, the addition of red pepper flakes are of my own doing since I wanted a bit more color, and a bit more heat, in my Atchara.
Atchara: Pickled Green Papaya Salad
2 cups cane vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tablespoon salt
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and julienned
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 firm, medium-sized green papaya (about 1.5 to 2 lbs.), peeled, seeded, and julienned
2 small carrots, peeled and julienned
1 small onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, ginger, and garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring to ensure sugar and salt have dissolved. Remove from heat and allow mixture to come to room temperature.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then drop the green papaya into the pot for 1 minute. Remove papaya from the boiling water and place them into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Drain the papaya and place in cheesecloth or paper towels, squeeze to remove any excess water.
In a large bowl, combine the papaya, carrots, and onion. Pour the room temperature vinegar mixture over the vegetables and season with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes. Mix well, cover and refrigerate over night.
Serve Atchara as a side dish or condiment. The Atchara will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.