Chop Your Way to Enlightenment: An Illustrated Guide To Mindful Vegetable Cutting

Meditation and Mindful Vegetables (Lila Volkas)

It’s 5:30am and my eyes spring open. I can tell I won’t be able to go back to sleep because my wakeful mind is already playing my “to do list,” “what ifs…” and “why didn’t I” stories on repeat. I roll out of bed and head past the darkened pre-dawn window to my kitchen.

From the refrigerator I pull out some carrots, cauliflower, zucchini and kale. From my drawer, I grab a few yams, ginger, garlic and an onion. With my favorite knife in hand, I start chopping the colorful medley of vegetables. As I rhythmically use the blade to transform the yams from whole beings into medium diced cubes, my tangled mind starts to relax. Cutting vegetables is one form of meditation that I practice. The focus, precision and repetition gives my mind the structure it needs to ground into the present moment. The slight element of danger wielding a sharp tool prevents me from getting sucked back into the looping stories that disturbed my sleep.

Untangled Mind
Untangled Mind (Lila Volkas)

I allow my chopping mediation to unfold until all of the vegetables are perfectly cubed and nestled in bowls and containers along my countertop. I emerge from my veggie-trance and feel calmer, although a bit disoriented.

“Well, now what should I do with all of this food?” I glance at the overflowing bowl of carrots and one orange cube seems to whisper, “Soup.”

Carrot Cube whispering
Carrot Cube whispering "Soup." (Lila Volkas)

Of course! I start making Sleepless Soup (recipe below), my favorite comforting, cold weather dish, by sautéing the diced onion with olive oil in my trusty silver soup pot. After adding the minced ginger, garlic, assorted vegetables and broth, I turn down the heat and listen to my Sleepless Soup bubble in deep low tones. I take a deep breath as the sky starts to glow with the morning’s light.

Sleepless Soup
Sleepless Soup (Lila Volkas)

It wasn’t until I left home after high school and moved to Vancouver to go to college, that I really started cooking. As a longtime vegetable lover, I naturally wanted to make dishes that were rich in these earthly goods. When I began delving into cookbooks, I felt overwhelmed with the strange words that described what I was supposed to do to vegetables. I would call my mother and ask, “Mom, what does chiffonade mean?” After a handful of phone calls and Google searches, I felt more veggie-chopping literate. Fast forward six years: as a food writer and illustrator, food plays a major role in my life. I thought there might be other folks who’d like an introduction or a little refresher to the many ways you can cut up vegetables.

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A few preliminary notes: With the first four cuts and dices below you need to square off your vegetables to allow for uniformity. You will end up with a fair amount of waste, but you can put that aside to make soup stock. Make sure you are cutting with a sharp knife.

Julienne or Matchsticks
Julienne or Matchsticks (Lila Volkas)
    Julienne or Matchsticks
  • The vegetable is cut into long slices that resemble matchsticks. Julienned veggies are often found as a garnish or in stir fries. The size of the matchsticks are 1/16in x 1/16in x 2in. Sometimes “larger julienne” is referred to as allumette with a measurement of 1/8in x 1/8in x 2in.
  • Batonnet

  • This cut means “little stick” in French and measures 1/4in x 1/4in x 2in.
The Brunoise Dice
The Brunoise Dice (Lila Volkas)
    The Brunoise Dice
  • This cut is just one more step to your julienne. Take your matchsticks and gather them in a bundle, now cut them into equally shaped dice. These are the smallest dices you can have before your veggies turn into a mince. These small dices are used as a garnish or in soups. The size of the brunoise dice is 1/16in x 1/16in x 1/16in.
Small, Medium and Large Dice
Small, Medium and Large Dice (Lila Volkas)
    Small, Medium and Large Dice
  • The small dice is similar to the brunoise, but slightly larger 1/8in x 1/8in x 1/8in.
  • The medium dice is created by slicing your batonnet into cubes 1/4in x 1/4in x 1/4in.
  • The large dice, also known as macedoine, is great for stews and slow-cooked dishes. It can also be used for slicing large fruit like melon 1/2in x 1/2in x 1/2in.
Rondelle or “rounds”
Rondelle or “rounds” (Lila Volkas)
    Rondelle or “rounds”
  • This cut is made by slicing your vegetable into coins. It is used with vegetables such as cucumbers, parsnips, carrots and zucchinis. These can be used as garnish or in soups and stews.
Chiffonade
Chiffonade (Lila Volkas)
    Chiffonade
  • “Chiffon” means rag in French. The chiffonade cut is used for fresh herbs and leafy vegetables. You first scrunch the leaves together and roll them into a tube. Then take your knife and slice them thinly into fine ribbons.
Mince
Mince (Lila Volkas)
    Mince
  • To mince your vegetable, first cut it into thin strips and dice the strips. Now place one hand at the handle of your knife and the other at the top of the blunt edge of the blade. Continue to chop your ingredient smaller and smaller by using the tip of the blade as a pivot point and move the knife from side to side. Repeatedly gather the vegetable together in the middle of your cutting board to allow for consistent minces.

My impatient college sophomore self wondered “Why do recipes instruct me to chop vegetables in a range of specific forms? Can’t I just chop them any old way?” Experience has taught me the benefit of chopping vegetables to a uniform size promotes an even and reliable cooking time, especially for soups, stews and stir-fries. Though chopping vegetables in a precise manner creates more waste, the odds and ends are perfect for soup stock. I always keep a bag in the freezer with veggie scraps.

As a cook and an artist, aesthetics are important to me. Cutting vegetables in intentional ways visually enhances the appearance of a dish.

And ultimately, chopping vegetables mindfully brings meditation into the kitchen. Yes, these ways of cutting may be more time-intensive, however, I see it as time to untangle my mind and focus on the moment. And who knows, maybe my time spent dicing carrots is actually bringing me closer to enlightenment.

Vegetable awakening under the Bodhi Tree

Recipe for Sleepless Soup

Adapted from a recipe by my lovely friend, Sarah Kagan

    Ingredients:
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, medium dice
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1/4- 1/2 head cauliflower chopped in florets
  • 3 sweet potatoes, medium dice
  • 2 zucchini in roulettes
  • 4 carrots in roulettes
  • 1 bunch kale chiffonade
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 8 cups veggie broth
  • 2 Tablespoons cumin
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons turmeric
  • 1 Tablespoon curry powder
  • 1/2 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • salt to taste
    Instructions:
  1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in olive oil on medium heat until translucent (about 4-5 min).
  2. Add ginger and garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add all the remaining vegetables except the kale, and sauté for 5 minutes stirring frequently.
  3. Add the broth and spices, bring to a brief boil, turn heat to low, cover and simmer everything until veggies are tender about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add the chickpeas halfway through.
  5. Taste broth and add salt to taste.
  6. Just before you're ready to serve, sprinkle in the chopped kale and cook 2 minutes until tender.

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Sleepless Soup is very forgiving and can be used with any veggies on hand like broccoli, potatoes, squash, spinach, green beans -- be creative!

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