FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 24, 2005
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
Numerous fruits and vegetables are peeled for a variety of reasons. Some must be peeled in order to be palatable, such as celery root or pineapple. Others have edible skins but are peeled either for personal taste or because of the nature of the recipe. Potatoes, eggplant, green and yellow squash and cucumbers are good examples. Some foods have outer skins that are removed and used as flavoring agents, citrus fruits being the quintessential example. The outer peel or “zest” of citrus fruits has the highest concentration of the fruit’s natural oils and thus more intense flavor. Finally, sometimes peeling is done for aesthetic or decorative purposes. Some chefs will peel the caps of their mushrooms to give them a uniform and pristinely white color. You can semi-peel a cucumber by removing a few equally spaced strips to create an eye-catching design for a salad.
Although a chef’s knife and/or a paring knife could tackle most peeling jobs, peelers are more efficient. You can work faster, shed larger strips, and not remove too much of the edible flesh with a peeler. They also require less dexterity than a knife.
Peelers come in one of two styles. The straight peeler has a blade that is parallel to or aligned along the same horizontal axis as the handle. Y-shaped peelers have a blade that runs perpendicular to the handle. Some peelers have stationary blades and some have blades that swivel. A swivel blade is preferable since it can work its way around the contour of curved foods with greater ease. Choose peelers with stainless steel blades for durability, corrosion resistance, and easy cleaning. Some even have serrated blades. I’ve found these to have more cutting power and work best for tougher skinned items.
Most cooks have at least one of each peeler since they each excel with different kinds of foods. For example, I think a straight peeler is fastest for elongated vegetables like asparagus and carrots. Hold the vegetable at the tip with your left hand, (if you are right handed), and turn it as you run the peeler down the side. For round foods like a turnip or an apple I prefer the Y-shaped peeler. I spin the orb in my left hand as I move the peeler vertically down its revolving sides.
Let’s peruse some common foods and discuss their peelability.
Carrots do not have to be peeled. Aesthetically they look better peeled because they will sport a more uniform appearance and deeper orange color. If you are not going to peel them, scrub them very well.
Potatoes also do not have to be peeled. If you do, use the tip of a straight peeler to remove the eyes. Store peeled potatoes in water to prevent them from browning if you are not going to cook them right away.
Large green asparagus usually need to be peeled. The skins of mature specimens tend to be tougher than their thinner, younger counterparts. Use a peeler that is not too aggressive. You only need to remove the outermost layer. White asparagus, regardless of the size, is very fibrous and always needs to be peeled.
A must-peel vegetable, it has a tough, gnarly surface. You can use a strong peeler but sometimes it is easier to employ the base of your chef’s knife. Make one slice off the bottom to create a flat platform so you can rest it on the cutting board in a stable manner. Then work your knife in a curving fashion from the top toward the bottom. A chef’s knife is also the best tool for pineapples.
No need for a peeler here. Take a slice off the root end, lay your chef’s knife over the clove horizontally and give it a whack with your hand. The skin will come right off.
The best tool for zesting citrus fruit is a microplane grater. Just don’t remove more than the outermost peel. The underlying white pith is bitter.
Then there are the foods that are peeled not by a specific tool, but by a cooking technique. As the old adage states, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
To peel tomatoes, cut a small X in their south pole and drop them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Then submerge them in ice water to stop the cooking and peel them with your hands.
Simply boil them for one minute to loosen the skins.
You can peel peppers by dropping them in hot oil until the skins burst, broiling them, placing them on the flame of your gas stove, or grilling them. For bell peppers, you can cut them down the shoulders to create four fairly flat pieces or leave them whole. Obviously, if left whole you’ll need to rotate them as each side chars. When the skin turns black, you’re done. Then place them in an enclosed container for a few minutes to steep. This facilitates the removal of tie skin.