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Make magic with a mandoline

  • CHICAGO TRIBUNE PHOTOS

    Mandolines can shred, make ultrathin slices, cut vegetables into sticks and do fancy things like waffle cuts.

Mandolines make quick work of many tasks normally performed with a chef’s knife, including french fries, veggie chips, potato casseroles and all sorts of other sliced foods. Using one gives you wonderfully consistent pieces of whatever you’re cutting quicker than you can shout, “Watch your fingers!”

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 “e” at the end.

Though mandolines come in several designs, they share a 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, evenly sized slices are produced.

Now, before I go on: 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 about 37 more were taken 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. 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 blade like a wayward dove into the window of a gleaming glass skyscraper.

Fortunately, though my poor thumb was no match for the accursed contraption, the jammed potato stopped its forward trajectory so that the blade did not completely remove a thumby slice. Instead, it created a flap, like a fleshy trapdoor that I was able to slam closed and seal with a bandage.

Here’s the takeaway: Sure, I cut myself. But, I’ve cut myself a dozen times with a regular knife. It’s part of working with knives.

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 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. It’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.

My advice: You’re better off practicing slowly until you get to where you can work quickly and safely.

Mandoline blades

Three blades that come with most mandolines:

>> Main blade: 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.

>> Corrugated blade: For waffle fries, which 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 the French call gaufrettes.

>> Stick blade: 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.

Many uses

Along with chips and fries, here are some other great ideas for your mandoline:

>> Slice cucumbers, tomatoes or onions for sandwiches or salads.

>> Cut zucchini or carrots lengthwise. Blanch, then shock in an ice bath. Use them to line 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.

>> Shred cabbage for coleslaw.

>> Make zucchini pasta (use flat or julienne blade).

>> Slice root vegetables for chips: Toss with olive oil, season with salt and your choice of spices, then bake in a single layer on greased parchment at 325 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Pommes Dauphinoise

(Au Gratin Potatoes)

Because we want the starch from the potatoes to thicken our sauce, do not soak 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 pepper, as needed
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 1 pound Gruyere cheese, shredded
  • Parmesan cheese, as needed

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat cream and garlic to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Layer half the potatoes in a greased baking dish large enough to hold them all, and season with salt, pepper and a tiny bit of nutmeg.

Sprinkle half the Gruyere over the potatoes.

Construct a second layer with remaining potatoes and Gruyere, being sure to season potatoes. Pour in heated cream, discarding garlic.

Bake, covered, until potatoes are tender, 30 to 45 minutes.

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. Serves 10 to 12.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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