The great English cook Prue Leith once famously remarked "life's too short to stuff a mushroom". I feel pretty much the same way about peeling a grape. However there may come a time when you want to do such a thing and it's handy to have a simple method standing by.
Not that peeling a grape is all that difficult, just tedious. You simply do it. The same cannot be said of such things as peaches, apricots and even small pickling onions. The trick in each case is to use hot water. With just about all thin skinned fruit, including tomatoes, you simply make a cross shaped nick in the skin, put them in a bowl and cover them with a very hot water for about 30 seconds.
This cooks the skin and makes it very easy to remove. You can do the same thing with baby onions, but you may need to leave them in the water a bit longer. That's not a problem because there is no real danger of cooking the onion owing to the toughness of the skin. That's not the case with most soft fruit so be careful not to leave them in the water for too long. Melons, pineapples, grapefruit etc These require a different technique and one that involves using a knife.
It follows, therefore, that the knife needs to be very sharp. The technique in itself is very simple but does require a little practice. Start by cutting the top and bottom off the fruit. Then the place it on a flat surface so that it is standing upright and using your favorite knife cut vertical slices of skin away, keeping the blade as close to the contour of the fruit as possible. Using this method you will find it very easy, for example, to remove the segments from peeled fruit such as oranges and grapefruit. You simply slip a small bladed knife between the pieces of flesh and the membranes that separate them.
In this way you can quickly and easily prepare a fruit salad for example, a salsa or your favorite tomato sauce. In fact the possibilities are endless. Speaking of tomatoes, once you have peeled them, you might as well go the whole hog and remove the seeds as well. Why would you do this? Because the seeds are inedible anyway and the pulp they are in introduces a lot of water into anything they are added to. Anyway, who wants to get a tomato seed stuck in their teeth? Did you know, by the way that tomato seeds are not only inedible, they are virtually indestructible? So much so that a number of coastal currents have been traced by tracking the progress of these little wonders once they escaped from the water treatment plant. So why bother to eat something that neither you, the sewage plant, nor the sea can digest? Vegetables in general Why bother to peel them at all? The main reason, I suppose, is for the sake of appearance.
There is a tendency to believe that vegetables without their skins look better than those with their clothes on. In the case of carrots, I would have to agree. The skin, especially in older carrots, tends to go a gray color when cooked.
It also shrinks and distorts the shape of the vegetable. But in most cases I can see no really good reason for going to all that trouble. Simply wash the vegetables thoroughly, using a small nail brush you keep for that purpose, and then cook them in any way you wish.
One added bonus for doing this is that you retain more of the nutrients of the vegetable, a large proportion of which are in the skin. Of course, if you prefer to add the vegetable skins to your compost heap, you will get nice fat, juicy, healthy worms instead! No doubt the magpies (or whatever carnivorous birds you have in your area) will be very grateful. Garlic If you intend to eat the cloves either whole or as a paste, there is no need to peel them at all until after they are cooked, when the pulp will easily squeeze out of the skins like toothpaste from a tube.
Peeling a raw clove is just as easy, once you know how. I learnt this trick from a kitchen hand, by the way, whose main job was to clean cooking pots, scrub mussels and peel garlic! Simply put the clove of garlic on to a flat surface and press down on it with your thumb. It will 'give' slightly and the paper-like skin will fall away in your hand.
Prawns If you are an American (or Paul Hogan) you call these mighty wonders 'shrimp'. If you are British, 'shrimp' will mean a tiny crustacean of the same species. There is no greater bond than the language which divides us. Have you ever wondered how a restaurant manages to serve peeled prawns with the head still on? Like this, of course: Hold the head in one hand and the tail in the other. Straighten the prawn out as much as you are able, push the head and tail firmly towards each other so that you are compressing the fish a bit like a concertina.
Pull apart and the shell should separate from the rest. Learn to laugh at your failures :) Wash your fruit and vegetables This is so important that I'm going to say it again: wash your fruit and vegetables. Do this, even if you intend to peel them. If there is any contamination, either through chemicals or soil dwelling bacteria, now is the time to get rid of it. You really do not want to get it either on your hands or your chopping board. And while I am on this subject, a favorite hobby horse of mine, be careful not to chop up your peeled fruit or vegetables on a surface where unwashed items have been kept.
You risk cross contamination if you do and I promise you that your family and guests will not thank you for it. You will find a lot more details about cross contamination and how to avoid it in the companion volume to this book, "Hygiene In The Kitchen". Remember that chemical contamination has a cumulative effect which may take some time to reveal itself as the toxins build up. Why take the chance? Wash your fruit and vegetables before use. And at least rinse your hands between handling unwashed veggies and any other kind of food. You'll make a lot of enemies that way, but they'll all be bacteria who never really thought that much of you in the first place! Copyright © Tingira Publishing 2004 All Rights Reserved .
Michael Sheridan was formerly head chef of the Pierre Victoire restaurant in London's West End, specializing in French cuisine. An Australian, he is a published author on cooking matters and runs a free membership club and cooking course for busy home cooks at http://thecoolcook.com