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Rock steady

(article, Ashley Griffin Gartland)

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The mezzaluna looks like what it is: a simple, old-fashioned cooking tool. (And the Italian name says it all, as the blade curves in a “half moon” shape.) Like the pastry blender, the mezzaluna is an easy-to-use, straightforward piece of equipment. But many home chefs these days have never picked one up, preferring a chef’s knife or a food processor to do the dicing job of a mezzaluna. 

A typical mezzaluna — also known as a crescent cutter — boasts a curved steel blade with vertical wooden handles at each end. To use one, you place your hands on both handles and move it in a rocking motion on a cutting board or in a curved wooden bowl. And lo, the dicing is practically completed before you’ve begun.

The mezzaluna design isn’t confined to Italy; in Alaska and northern Canada, the Inuit version serves as an all-purpose knife, useful for skinning animals as well as chopping food. The Inuit call it the ulu. In France, the mezzaluna is known, pragmatically, as “the chopper,” or le hachoir.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/massman" caption="A mezzaluna makes short work of chopping and dicing."]

Professional kitchens have kept the mezzaluna in circulation. In July, in Food & Wine’s annual best-chefs issue, New York City chef April Bloomfield declared that her favorite kitchen tool was the mezzaluna. “I use it for everything — to mince garlic, chop herbs, anchovies, capers,” she told the magazine. “But it’s got to be sharp, or you’re going to mush your ingredients to death.” And at Seattle’s Troiani restaurant, executive chef Peter Levine uses mezzalunas so often that he keeps one at home and two in his restaurant kitchen. 

Buy a quality mezzaluna instead of a cheap edition, and you, too, might find yourself collecting more than one. “I look for a stainless steel blade that is properly sharpened with a slight bevel,” says Levine. “The blade should be sharp from tip to tip, free of nicks or cracks, and the handles should be stout and sturdy and fit easily into the center of your palms.” 

Mezzaluna handles can be made from a variety of materials — wood, plastic, antler — and the blades can be either single or double (the latter is said to speed up the chopping process).  But whatever style and material you choose, the tool should feel comfortable in your hands.

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h1. Staying sharp

To sharpen single-blade mezzalunas, you can get away with using a wet stone or even an electric sharpener. Double-bladed mezzalunas, however, make home sharpening tricky, so take yours to a professional sharpener.

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Traditionally, chefs have used the mezzaluna for chopping and mincing. The tool is particularly adept at chopping smaller amounts of ingredients, such as onions, nuts, parsley, and chocolate, because it emulates the rocking motion and speedy precision of a traditional knife. Bonus: it keeps both hands safely wrapped around the handles during fast-paced chopping.

Some chefs use the mezzaluna because they feel it yields more authentic flavors in finished foods like pesto. Others might only use their mezzalunas to cut pizza or focaccia with ease. The mezzaluna’s few limits? Most chefs don’t recommend using it for cutting things like sushi rolls because the tool’s design doesn’t make the clean, precise cuts needed to slice through the delicate wraps. Nor do they use it for classic knife cuts, such as the brunoise, that require precise cutting techniques.

Chef ambition or no, the mezzaluna is a satisfyingly simple tool to use in the kitchen, combining convenience, practicality, and efficiency with a meditative motion. Rock on.

p(bio). Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance.


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