Consider the shallot.
This small, unobtrusive, sometimes hard-to-find aromatic may well be the Pluto of the culinary solar system. We know it's there, yet we accord it little respect, often ignoring it completely. We prefer the bigger, stronger Jupiter-like onion. Or, we're drawn to the shrouded mystery of the leek: Like Venus, we surmise, something amazing must lurk beneath all that layering.
Yet it is the shallot that provides a sweet balance to a sauté, a delicate flavor to a sauce, a quiet complement to a simmering soup. Just as Pluto provides a delicate balance to the solar system, complementing rather than competing with the bigger orbs. It is small but significant, celestially speaking.
A shallot brought me to a small but significant moment of awareness Thursday as I completed my culinary school competency exam on vegetables and starches. Behind schedule, I was rushing to get green beans and red peppers into a sauté. The bacon fat was rendered, and next came the shallot. But in my haste, I had neglected to dice a shallot.
When I began culinary school just 10 weeks ago, dicing a shallot would have been a show stopper. I would have wrestled with cutting it open, removing the papery skin and figuring out a way to slice into the small object without slicing into a digit. The entire operation might take five minutes.
But now, in a seemingly magical transformation, I do it with ease. On Thursday, without pausing, I grabbed a shallot, sliced it open, peeled off the skin and fine diced the 2-inch beauty with a 9-inch chef's knife, all in 30 seconds. Into the sauté went the diced shallot, and I completed my dish with minutes to spare.
The episode was an emblem of my culinary progress, a small but significant moment with a small but significant shallot. Kind of like that small rock way out there in the solar system -- Pluto. Small, yes. Yet it has its significance.