Some people get so scared when they see " 1/4 cup chopped parsley" in a list of recipe ingredients that they immediately call for technological overkill and plug in the food processor. The food processor, of course, can make mincemeat of a bunch of parsley in seconds.
Or, and this is only whispered about in food circles, they get out a jar of parsley dust and use that.
But it makes no sense to bring in the big guns for such a little skirmish as a few tablespoons of parsley or a handful of chopped, fresh herbs. And this is the time of year to take advantage of all kinds of little bursts of green flavor straight from the garden, so it makes even less sense to reach for the bottled dust.
Some cooks would say that the only way to chop a handful of fresh herbs is with a large chef's knife and a little physical energy. Without getting into a whole lot of cranky religious or metaphysical arguments, there has got to be a reason people are born with hands. And, as an added bonus, wrists!
In most cases, especially where small amounts are involved, it is literally faster to chop with a good sharp chef's knife than it is with the food processor or any other mechanical instrument. The control you have with the knife is unparalleled. Technique is crucial, however, and involves repeatedly lifting the knife by its handle and rocking it back and forth over the herbs, keeping its tip firmly anchored to the cutting board.
"Mezzaluna" is a much more romantic-sounding word than "knife," and, some would claim, a more highly evolved method of achieving the same thing as with the chef's knife. Mezzaluna is Italian for half-moon, and that's how this instrument is shaped. It has two handles, one on each end, and the idea is to grasp it by its handles and rock its curved edge back and forth over the things to be chopped.
Italian food authority Giuliano Bugialli, ever watchful for evidence of the superiority of his country's cuisine over that of, say, France, notes that the Italians started out using knives, too, but quickly moved to the more efficient mezzaluna. The French, needless to say, are still struggling along with their knives.
About nine inches long, the single-bladed mezzaluna will handle tiny amounts as well as more robust amounts, and once you get used to it, it's a lot of fun to operate. If you are often faced with chopping large amounts, there are double- and triple-bladed mezzalune that do a more efficient job than the food processor on certain foods. Try to chop cooked spinach in your food processor, for example, and you'll get lumpy goo. The mezzaluna also seems right, somehow, for large quantities of basil.
A lot of cooks also swear by a sort of miniature mezzaluna called a rolling mincer, which is a series of narrowly spaced circular blades on a single axle. You just hold onto a handle and roll the thing back and forth and it chops everything in its path. It's a bit tricky to clean, however, and the blades have a tendency to get dull after a while.
The next most complicated implement for chopping is a little crank-turned chopper made by the chopping-grating kings, Mouli. It is stainless steel, and the part with the handle is removable so that it's easier to clean, and so that it can be used either right- or left-handed. It works by making one set of tiny blades turn against a set of stationary blades.
To a knife purist, this device has some definite disadvantages, but it will chop a small handful of fresh herbs, garlic or scallions in no time. The disadvantages are that it's harder to wash than a knife or a mezzaluna, and that it doesn't like stringy things like chives or parsley stems and will either spit them out in inch-long lengths or refuse to process them altogether.
To go nearly full circle and return to electricity, there is a wonderful little solution for people who need electrical help because of arthritis or another infirmity, or who just feel more secure that way. It is a small electric mincer made by Mouli but called the Varco mincer.
It does a fine, fast job on small amounts of soft things like herbs, but it has the advantage of being tough enough to work on hard cheeses, stringy things like fresh ginger root, and even on cooked meat. It's also the most sensible electric mincer to use, since the entire work bowl lifts off for washing, thus eliminating the possibility of water seeping down into the works.