By Victor S. Sierpina
Do you remember “Leave it to Beaver,” the 1950s-60s show with the quintessential suburban American family
Beaver was an 8-year-old with more existential crises than any 8-year-old deserves. His punk older brother, Wally, was always in trouble, and neither his mother, June, nor his dad, Ward, would ever, despite their surname, at least on TV, wield a cleaver.
The cleaver is a large, flat-bladed cutting instrument and, as I grew up, my exposure to cleavers was limited to butchers holding a big one threateningly to cut up a dead animal or maniacs using cleavers to dismember their victims, sometimes their own family members. None of that for the wholesome Beaver and his Cleaver family.
None of these images left me with a great feeling about cleavers. Nor did my folks even own one. We killed our chickens with a regular hand hatchet. So when I got one as part of a knife set, I slid it into the back of my drawer not to be seen again for five years.
Then, not long back, I discovered the surprising and easy-to-use aspects of the cleaver for preparation of healthy food.
Allow me to digress. A couple of years ago, we attended the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. This was a course to teach physicians and other health providers how to cook in an easy, healthy way and teach their patients to do so.
Hosted by the Harvard School of Public Health, the program was both scientifically sound and gastronomically and behaviorally motivational, not to mention delicious.
The organizers offered a popular course on the use of knives in culinary art. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend it because it was full. But it got me thinking about knives and food preparation.
Knives are to cooking as guns are to a Marine, as scalpels are to a surgeon, as a spade and rake are to a gardener. In other words, essential to the art and practice.
With a proper knife and knife technique, it is easy to slice, dice, cut, mince, mash, filet, chop and otherwise prepare any food for cooking be it animal, fish, vegetable, or fruit.
So back to the cleaver. My friend and colleague Harvard professor Dr. David Eisenberg, who hosts the Healthy Kitchen, Healthy Lives course, showed me how all you really need in the kitchen is two knives — a cleaver and a small knife. Oh, and remember to have a sharpening tool as well, as any well-used blade needs to be whet from time to time.
The small knife thing, I had down. Paring, shaving, cutting, slicing, dicing and so on are all done easily and well with a well-honed, easy to handle, small knife. Until Transportation Security Administration confiscated about a half dozen of my Swiss Army knives, I always kept one on me and could do everything, including minor emergency surgery, with a well-honed small knife blade. The other tools on the Swiss Army are cool, too.
What I didn’t previously understand was the immense utility of the cleaver. During a sojourn in China as a medical student, Dr. Eisenberg lived in a dorm where he pitched in with the cooking. He learned how the Chinese cooked and how they use a cleaver.
The cleaver is a heavy instrument, perfect for chopping everything from kale to meats. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, this is the knife for you as it is front-heavy and almost cuts things by itself. Drop and chop. Lift it up and let it fall. Job done.
One of the nicest things about a cleaver is that it also serves as a scoop. Chop up whatever you want then use it as platform to transport the food to the stove, bowl or pan. Easy, efficient and highly utilitarian.
It is particularly fun and effective on vegetables. One evening last weekend, I used my cleaver to chop celery, carrots and onions for dal and later for a kale salad. It is a really sweet tool.
Be sure your spouse is involved in the purchase, otherwise he or she may get some paranoia about this big chopping thing with a bloody reputation coming into the house.
Once you get one, though, when you are cutting up in the kitchen, leave it to cleaver. You’ll enjoy it.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.