Plastic clatters over porcelain, eyes shut tight and a stubby, sausage finger is plunged into my mouth. I wait for the flow of copper to envelope my taste buds, wait to cough and spit. But nothing comes. Instead, I feel the rough edge of a fingernail scratch my tongue so I pull my digit out and examine the damage. Shorn off at a jaunty angle and down to the quick on one side, the nail looks odd but I am grateful that on this occasion, only keratin was sacrificed and not flesh. I glance at a small piece of carrot on the floor and then into the sink. A wicked blade, set against black, winks and flashes it's straight, steely, menacing smile, as if to say, "got you again." I grimace back with narrow, vengeful eyes and consider fetching a hammer from the shed. But then soon enough, this rarely used Christmas present, this instrument of torture is packed away, consigned to the dark place under the stairs. And it is only then, that I sit down and sadly think to myself, 'why do I ever bother with that poxy mandoline?'
If there is ever a piece of kitchen equipment that is exacting, vicious and cruel, it would have to be the mandoline. I appreciate the benefits of clean, uniform slices of vegetable which look very pretty and everything but seriously, what benefit is there to be gained by running your fingertips so perilously close to a guillotine. Health and safety bureaucrats will point out here that these devices often come with guards, which are supposed to clamp onto your vegetable and protect your hands from danger. You only have to try this once to realise that the endeavour is quite useless. Many an ungainly potato has rolled away and onto the floor in the past, escaping it's dauphinoise destiny. So it comes down to the bare knuckles, or bare bones even. To use a mandoline efficiently, really you have to use your hands and maybe a tea-towel to maintain a grip, which is hardly a concession to safety (although I have heard of chefs doning kevlar gloves, a good idea). As a result, I rarely use my mandoline.
Why am I wittering on about mandolines anyway? Well yesterday, I made some Autumn coleslaw as featured in Skye Gyngell's first book, A Year In My Kitchen and had just cause to fetch the beast out of it's hiding place. Skye's recipe takes a whole batch of vibrant, crunchy, seasonal fruits and vegetables such as apples, red cabbage, beetroot, carrot and fennel and guides the reader to finely slice each one. Now she makes no mention of using a mandoline to do this but feeling adventurous, I felt it was high time that I showed the damn thing just who was boss.
With fingers hesitant and trembling, I adjusted the setting on the dial and picked up a carrot and slowly but surely, dragged it over the blade length ways to create fine silky ribbons. I trimmed and relieved the fennel of it's tough outer leaves and repeated the process again. Next came the yellow beetroot and I soon began to get into the swing of things, upping the tempo, actually beginning to enjoy myself. By the time I started on the red cabbage, Vivaldi began to fill the kitchen, well my mind at least, resonating through my soul, the imaginary orchestra guiding me, goading me to slice faster and faster. The apples were blitzed in an almost orgasmic frenzy, each sliver was sent flying up into the air before floating back down, landing like feathers. And then, I was done.
I looked down at my work, all layered upon a wooden board and over the counter top and then at my steady, straight hands. No nicks or cuts were to be seen. I won. I tamed the mandoline.
Later that evening, enjoying this wonderfully piquant, sweet salad with some herbed chipolatas and a jacket potato, my wife noticed that there was something different about me. Had she detected my new found confidence maybe? An exuberant force of nature? A boastful vim, the kind that erupts when one smites their own enemy?
"You've got a cut on your nose", she said.
And just then, from under the stairs arose a deep, cackling, hollow laugh............
Autumn Coleslaw - serves 4 (based on Skye Gyngell's recipe and what we had in the house)
Quarter red cabbage, finely sliced
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
1 large yellow raw beetroot, washed and finely sliced (any kind of beetroot will do, we've got loads of yellow growing down the allotment)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced in ribbons
2 Cox apples, quartered, cored and finely sliced
Half a pomegranate, seeded
Handful of cobnuts, toasted in the oven for a few minutes and roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Juice from half a lemon
A splash of extra-virgin olive oil
2 free-range egg yolks
1 tbs runny honey
1 and half tbs Dijon mustard
1 tbs cream
1 tbs cider vinegar
200ml mild olive oil
good pinch of dried tarragon (we didn't have any fresh)
Place the sliced cabbage, fennel, carrot, beetroot and apple into a large bowl and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Mix all together with your hands and then set to one side.
Tip the egg yolks into another bowl and add the honey, mustard, cream, cider vinegar and tarragon and whisk until nicely blended together. And then, whilst continually whisking, pour the olive oil into the bowl in a nice steady stream so that it emuslifies into a very loose mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Stack the sliced slaw into the middle of the plate (or to the side if eating with chipolatas, or anything else) and drizzle the dressing all over. Scatter over pomegranate seeds and chopped cobnuts and serve.