Last night's recipe called for mincing shallot and ginger, deveining shrimp and squeezing tangerine juice. These are the kinds of tasks that home and commercial cooks perform routinely. They become second nature, old habits that don't require much thought.
A few days ago, however, a thick but compact cooking manual landed on my desk, which I took home to consult to see if I could learn any new moves, even for such everyday chores as mincing ginger. Sure enough, I did. I'd never before skinned a knob of ginger with a spoon. I'd heard of the technique but dismissed it on the grounds that if a knife worked fine why not just continue to use it? As I quickly discovered, the edge of a teaspoon not only is faster, less of the ginger flesh gets discarded. By following the book's three steps to mince ginger I also learned this chore could go much faster: 1) Slice the peeled knob of ginger into thin rounds; 2) Fan the rounds out and cut them into thin matchstick-like strips; 3) Chop the matchsticks crosswise into a fine mince. By following this advice and a few other time-saving manuevers from the book I was ready to start searing the shrimp in nothing flat.
The book, which would be a dandy holiday gift, especially for college students just out on their own and starting to learn to cook, is "834 Kitchen Quick Tips: Techniques and Shortcuts for the Curious Cook" by the editors of the magazine Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, $16.95, 585 pages). Each tip is accompanied by John Burgoyne's helpful fine-line drawings.
You can pop open the book to virtually any page and find something enlightening: To protect your fingers from getting burned while grabbing a hot lid, wedge a wine cork under the handle before you start to cook; the cork will stay cool. To prevent dribbles from a pitcher containing a cold beverage, smear a small dab of butter on the inside and outside edges of the spout. Concerned that the filling of the grinder you are building will spill out? Before you start, scoop out some of the interior crumb from the top and bottom halves of the roll.
If there's a shortcoming to the book it's that not one of its 834 tips tells you how to prop it open on the kitchen counter for quick and easy reference. Maybe that will be in the next edition.