Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | July 30, 2009

Creamy butternut squash soup

Picked this one up from Day 2 of my servitude to the current CT101 class. Definitely not the most seasonally appropriate dish, but I guess it’s a classic, even if this variation has some unexpected spices that take this one in a different, but tasty, direction. Note, all measurements are guestimates. This was a live demo!

Ingredients

  • 2 cups butternut squash: peeled, lg dice
  • 1/2 cup carrot: peeled, lg dice
  • 1/2 cup celery: lg dice
  • 1/2 cup leeks: greens ok, rough chop
  • 1/2 Granny Smith apple: peeled, lg dice
  • ~2 tablespoons fresh ginger: chopped or grated
  • ~4 cloves of garlic: peeled, smashed, “cores”/germ removed
  • 1 cup potatoes: peeled, lg dice
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 cup + 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cream cheese
  • 3-4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon chives: fine chop
  • Bouquet garni

Preparation

Frying pan, low heat. Sweat the leeks in some butter & a pinch of salt. As they begin to soften (~5 mins), add celery. Sweat for another 5 mins, add carrots & squash. Continue to sweat 5 mins, then add apple., garlic, ginger.

Add chicken stock to barely cover the vegetables.

Add spices, potatoes, pinch salt, pepper to taste.

Cover till cooked through, ~15 mins.

Uncover, reduce about 20-30 mins. Remember, this is still low heat.

While this is going, prep the topping. Add 1/4 cup of cream to 1/2 cup of cream cheese — blend thoroughly. Consistency should be mayonnaise-like. Season, if necessary — if you add pepper, keep it white pepper. Add to squeeze bottle (if you have one) and leave in fridge till serving.

Remove from heat — remove the bouquet and add the rest to your high-powered blender. Got Vita Mix? Add cream, and blend on high — blitz the crap out of it. In fact, keep going about 15 seconds after you think it’s “done”.

“Pass through” a fine mess strainer. You’re going to need a spatula or ladle. Scrape outsides of strainer into the soup, mix well, adjust seasoning.

Serve. Ladle into bowls, squirt topping into fun zig-zag shape, top with chives.

Notes

Cardamom, ginger & cinnamon in butternut squash soup? Well, yes. Add a bit of Africa to your southern French flair. It’s delicious.

The apple is also an odd-ball, IMO. Chef Patrice said he wanted to add some acidity to the dish, but I’m worried that the overall balance is now a bit too sweet, so I halved the amount of carrots to 1/2 cup (from the 1 cup used in the demo). So, if you’re inclined to follow the recipe as I’ve tried to create it, make sure you don’t use “any old apple” — go super tart or skip it altogether. The juice of a lemon might work as a substitute. It probably won’t curdle the cream. 😉

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Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | July 22, 2009

Day 1 of Culinary Techniques 101

I was in class the other day, in my role as volunteer/gofer for a Chef Instructor at L’Academie, when he started talking about knives and knife maintenance. Given my recent obsession with all things pointy, I was poised to take some notes, and perhaps ask a salient question or two. I mean, surely, a chef with 30 years of professional cooking under his belt could be relied upon for some deep insights.

Let’s just say I was, perhaps, over generous in my expectations, and that there is a rather large gulf between using something for the 30 years and knowing how to care for it or even know what it is that you’re using.

Some rather egregious examples:

  1. An “edge” is not a “bevel”. A bevel in a knife is where the angle of the blade deviates away from the flat of the blade and the march toward the edge begins. Some knives have two bevels. In those cases, the back, or secondary bevel, is the the part of the blade between the flat of the blade and the cutting, or primary, bevel. The back bevel is set at an angle more acute than the cutting bevel, and in many cases, the difference in angle is profound. Most manufacturers, citing the fact that most users will not maintain their knives at all, also note that more obtuse angles are more wear resistant, and are less likely to roll, indent, or chip. Hence, they cut really fat bevels into their knives. Like 50* or more. Of course, this is akin to being told that you’re too stupid, uneducated or untrustworthy to drive a nice car, hence, we’ll only sell clunkers — and charge a premium while we do so, because those clunkers last. I think this is why Honda and Toyota are doing well, and bringing the analogy home, why Shun, Mac & Global are kicking so much ass in the home knife market. That aside, a cutting bevel really ought to to be closer to the back bevel — just a couple of degrees difference provides very satisfactory results.
  2. The burr is an artifact of the sharpening process, and yes, it’s something you want to generate when sharpening. However, you want to take it off through good technique, a progression through finer grit abrasives, and some manual techniques if that isn’t sufficient. In no circumstance do you want to leave the burr on the knife — the knife isn’t finished until the burr is gone. A burr is a really thin, fine, and terrifically sharp sliver of metal on the very extremity of the edge and will flip back and forth with lateral pressure. Direct, perpendicular pressure (ie, using it to cut a carrot) will cause that burr to fold right over the second you bury it into a cutting board. And there goes your “sharp” edge.
  3. Sharpening and steeling are not the same thing. The honing steel that comes in your kit is for aligning the micro-serrations in the edge and straightening that edge into a single line. It is not for removing the burr. Or straightening the burr. Or making it sit straight up. You use a steel before you cut, kind of like stretching before a run. You use an abrasive sharpening system when your edge no longer cuts well, and with proper technique, care, use, and good steeling, you’ll only need to sharpen every couple of months, if that.
  4. Sharpening stones really ought to be flat in order to maximize blade-to-stone contact when grinding a blade against the stone. Demoing sharpening techniques on bowls (stones that are so worn they have edges a full inch higher than the centers) is just bad form.
  5. Diamond steels are incredibly abrasive and will remove steel from your knife with a quickness and if you’re not careful, your edge along with those steel filings. They have grit ratings all over the place, from 300 (insanely coarse, and usually reserved for using on badly chipped knives) up to 2000 grit, which is where most sharpening professionals think you should start if you’re about to start a sit-down sharpening session using waterstones. If you’ve already done this, and moved up a progression from 1000 or 2000 grit all the way 5000, 8000 or even 12000 grit, then beating on that edge with a 2000 grit rod simply undoes all that work at a swipe. If you need to “bring your edge up”, use a sharpening system, like a waterstone, not a rod. If you need to align your edge, use a smooth steel or borosilicate rod. No steel removal and will align your edge just fine, thank you.
  6. Never use your chef knife as a cleaver. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought to. Respect your tools and your tools will last you. Beat them like rented mules and they’ll kick you in the head. You need to break down some chicken backs for stock and want to work out some anger management issues while you do it? Use a cleaver.
  7. Japanese knives are not favored by the Japanese because they’re Japanese.
  8. Japanese knives are different from Western knives in many obvious and superficial ways. More strongly, it is an easy argument to make that Japanese knives are actually better than their Western competitors. The reasons for believing that this is so are pretty straightforward: their steels are of higher quality which means they are tougher and wear better, the blade geometries are more efficient which means they’re sharper and therefore cut better, and they’re tempered to a higher degree of hardness which means they stay sharp longer.  And yes, Japanese manufacturers do make knives for the Western market leveraging their superior skill, steel, metallurgical techniques and knife geometries to create fantastic offerings without needing any special skills or maintenance. All this adds up to the conclusion that Japanese knives are actually easier to use than traditional Western knives, and when results are all that counts, that means they’re better. Sorry. It isn’t just marketing.

Anyway, aside my internal diatribe on knives and maintenance, class was pretty fun. Got to wander the tables and demo the pinch & claw, how to skim, and bust some chops on basic food hygiene & sanitation. Too funny.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | July 22, 2009

How to sharpen your knife

For those of you looking for a guided tutorial on how to sharpen your knife, well, I have yet to deliver on that. My apologies.

In the meantime, Chad Ward, the author of An Edge in the Kitchen, has an excellent tutorial on eGullet: Knife Maintenance & Sharpening, which I highly recommend reading through. He covers all your basics in a rather easy to read and use format. I like it a lot ….

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | July 17, 2009

L’Academie de Cuisine

I live in Frederick, MD, about 20 miles up the road from one of the nation’s best culinary schools, L’Academie de Cuisine. As you can tell from the name, it specializes in French cookery. To date, I’ve taken about 10 classes there, and just completed a 20-week part-time program, which is probably a stripped-down skills cohort at a full time program.

I’ve learned a lot, which isn’t all that surprising given the investment I’ve made so far. One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t have the patience to start a line job at 40, tempting as it sometimes seems. Honestly, I don’t think I have the interest or ability to stay on my feet 10 hours a day, 15 days in a row. The fact that, starting off, those hours are going to be either unpaid or ludicrously underpaid is just adding insult to injury.

Another thing I’ve learned is that recipes suck. If the skills, techniques, tips and tricks that you pick up in a formal education (and this is where I think OTJ training is less helpful than going to school) do nothing else, they cast a brilliant light on all the things that recipes fail to mention. I have to assume that that is the fault of the editor and publisher, but no matter. I know better now.

One more interesting thing — there’s a ton more interesting things. Cooking is a skill, but there’s just tons of directions that that can take you, from playing with immersion circulators and liquid nitrogen to inventing/discovering unheard of flavor combos to becoming adept at any one of the literally hundreds of ethnic traditions. There’s a lot in there. That’s pretty cool.

So, having finished my 20 week curriculum, I was left wondering what to do next. There’s another class in the progression I’ll sign up for in the fall, a “201” class focusing on flavor I have to assume, but in the meantime … what to do?

Volunteer! I got a note from an instructor in my skills class saying they needed warm bodies to help fetch, fix, and chop for the next iteration of the skills class. So, I’m off. Another 20 weeks, but this time, I’m on the other side of the counter. Different instructor too, which should really help round out my basics.

Add that to my 201 class and who knows? Maybe I’ll finally lose enough weight to man up and go actually work for a living.

Or not.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 25, 2009

Kitchen gear: Necessaries & Sundries, Part 1

Cooks Illustrated

First things first. If you don’t have a subscription to Cooks Illustrated yet, get one. Why? Because recipes suck. There, I said it. Put all your cookbooks down, right now, and back away … slowly … lest they catch on.

The problem is that almost none of them will teach you how to cook. They give you a set of steps and a promise — if you do these 8 things, great food will happen! Yeah. It’s more like — if you do these 8 things, you will approximate great food, maybe. Personally, I think that’s kinda crappy.

What’s going on is what’s being left out. Any recipe that has only 8 steps is sure to leave out 10 “for the sake of simplicity”. That is, an editor has decided that you’re too stupid to actually do it right, so they’ve removed all the tricky bits for you. And if you’re now tempted to say, “Oh, how bad can it be? It’s close enough, right?” I have reply: “How will you ever know?”

Cookbooks = bad. End of story.

What you really want is all the steps, all the techniques, everything — and not some dumbed down version. I have no idea why this is so hard to deliver, but apparently it is. In addition, you (should) want the reasoning, not the wrote performance. Didn’t know that was on offer, did you? Well, yes, it turns out it is.

When learning a new recipe, you’re going to have to make choices. Which pan? Which knife? Which ingredient? Is this one too big? Too little? What if I have to use x instead of y because that’s what they grocery had — am I screwed? Do I really have to separate the egg whites? In sum, you need to know what happens when you follow the recipe, but perhaps even more critically, what happens when you don’t. Said another way, how can I screw this recipe up, how do I know if I did, and what can I do next time to avoid that? Priceless stuff.

Enter Cooks Illustrated. Every recipe is backed up by testing. And they’ll explain it all to you in plain English. What to do. Why. What happens when you don’t. And that last bit all by itself is, I find, the fastest and best way to learn. Trial and error — at someone else’s expense! Oh, and all those product and prep tips — can’t beat those with a stick.

Once on the path of edu-ma-cated cooking, I highly recommend Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. Think of it as Alton Brown’s textbook when he was learning to become a walking food encyclopedia. This is not a cookbook, but rather more of a chemistry & physics book — as the subtitle says, it’s all about the “Science and Lore of Cooking”. It’s dense. It’ll take you a bit of time to get through it, but it’s worth it. Leave it in the john for a year or two and make a plan to get through it in sections. What happens to an omelet when you add milk? Don’t know? McGee does.

Cutting Boards

After all this talk about knives, I think the first “gadget” to add to the mix is something to cut on. I’ve talked (briefly) before about the virtues of end-grain soft-woods (maple, cherry, mahogany — but steer clear of bamboo, it’s too hard) and how kind they are to keenly ground knife edges. For that reason alone, I heartily recommend them to any and all, for any and all uses. Even poultry!

There’s been some recent research done to show what happens to bacteria on a board after use and cleaning, and the results seem conclusive — wood boards are better, so long as you let them fully and completely dry. All those plastic cutting boards that are marked up, gouged and not-quite-white anymore? Send them to a landfill, pronto. Or to someone you don’t like very much. That comment I made a couple posts back about the “24 flu” apply directly here. Eww.

At this point, I should probably launch into an extended discussion on wood-hardness and why bamboo is generally too hard for your knives. In lieu of that, let’s just pretend that I’ve researched and referenced all of that, with the upshot being that you want a board that is tough enough to withstand the abuse but soft enough to keep the edges on your knives (where they belong). Just an FYI, then, but most cutting board makers tend to err on one side of the hardness spectrum — the side that has to do with longevity. This is unfortunate, because most of the boards you get from K-Mart, Walmart, or Target are going to be on this “too hard” end of the spectrum. Many retailers opting to provide “high-end” boards, typically select those made from bamboo, which you should probably avoid for prep — cheese looks great on them, however. Which leaves you in something of a quandry.

So, where to get a nice, big, end-grain, soft-wood, cutting board that will look like a million bucks and make you the envy of all who enter your kitchen? The BoardSmith. Dave makes very nice boards and pays attention to detail to make sure the boards are as high-quality as they can be. Yes, they’re pricey, but they’re hand-made. Oh, and did I mention the fact that they’re gorgeous?

Ok, so, still squeamish about wood-and-poultry? Yeah, well, me too. For all my meats, I use a pair of boards from Sani-Tuff. They’re recycled rubber, not plastic, so when you cut into them, they seal themselves a bit — and better still, you can sand them smooth again. They’re heavy (read: stable), gentle on your knives, sanitary — what’s not to like? Go ahead and toss those plastic boards. Want to take it a step farther? Mark a board for poultry and one for all your other meats and never use those two for anything else. Or you could just get a honkin’ big maple board and be done with it.

Thermometer

I think the single best tool I’ve bought in recent years is my Thermapen. Why Thermapen? Well, because food thermometers are a fickle lot. Analog thermometers with their bright red eye are notoriously slow — leave that oven door open for 2 minutes while we get a good temp, and watch that nice hot oven lose 100 degrees in the process. Nice! Digital thermometers are brittle, the leads separate, the wire guides get bent, and next thing you know, you’re buying another one. My little Thermapen is easy to use, dead-accurate, fast, & waterproof, what’s not to like? Ok, it’s hideously expensive. Aside from that (start saving!), I can’t think of a single thing I’d change. And the best thing about having & using one is that I never have to guess what the temp of my food is. Pink chicken thigh? Nope. Leathery duck breast? Nope. Soggy egg custard ? Nope. Red-hot digital thermometer wire snaking out of my oven? Nope! Ta-freakin’-da!

Yes, I’m sticking holes into all my food. No, that’s not the best or most aesthetic approach in the world. Is it keeping me from “learning” when food is done? Whatever. What I do know is this — I now don’t have to guess what temp my food is, and I don’t have to put my fingers all over everthing when finding out. All in all, my food is better because of it. Get one.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Knife skills: Chicken, beef & fish

Meat: it’s what’s for dinner.

Without getting too much into interesting facts about animals or what dishes their various parts best lend themselves to, let’s take a second and talk about how your knife is going to be used on them.

There are three primary “proteins” you’re likely to use, chicken, beef and fish. Yes, pork and lamb (and many others) are also important — and in the case of pork, critically important — but not necessarily from the view of your knife.

First up, chicken. I love chicken. Roasted chicken, friend chicken, braised chicken … yum. Anyway, chicken ain’t cheap (cheep!) anymore. Last time I checked Whole Foods, a boneless, skinless (organic, free-range) chicken breast is somewhere north of $9 per pound. Whole chicken, with all it’s beautiful tasty bones and skin intact, is less. Sometimes significantly less, about $4. Again, not cheap, but cheap-er. All you need to do is a) be flexible with your menu, and b) have a sharp knife.

Breaking down a whole chicken into its constituent, tasty parts is pretty easy. Never done it? Okay, so it’s totally intimidating. I think the most important thing to do when fabricating chicken (cutting it up into it’s main, or primal, cuts) is to keep clean. Modern mainstream growing and processing include many nasty places for bugs to live and grow — and get all over your food. Sally-from-Manilla is the main one to worry about with chicken, so don’t skimp, that one is nasty.

Hey — total aside — have you ever had a 24-hour flu? You know, aches, fever, barfing, diarrhea — all gone somewhere between 12-36 hours, from first symptoms to final “I think I’m not going to die” sigh? No. You haven’t. Why? Because the flu — all of them — take about 3-5 days or more to “get through” the system. Ditto “the common cold”. So … what is that 24 hour thingie? FOOD POISONING. Yes. Don’t believe me? Google that sucker, you dirty bird. But wash your hands first!

This is a great video showing you all the steps, and prep, you need to take apart your own chickens.

“Fabricating” Chicken

When you’ve done it a couple of hundred times, you can get quite quick at it. But no matter how strong your kung fu, Martin Yan is going to crush you.

Trimming beef (or lamb, goat, or game) is pretty much all the same. Wherever you got your cut of beef, from Whole Foods (shockingly priced) or Costco (cheap and shockingly produced) or your local butcher (if you can find such a thing), the process is pretty much the same. You want to take off the larger hunks of connective tissue, silver skin, sinew, tendon, and of course, the fat. This is called, “trimming”.

Taking this a natural step farther, you can get or order larger cuts of meat, like a whole leg of lamb, a large beef roast like a “picnic roast”, or even a side of beef, and simply cut it down to what you want and freeze the rest. Given that non-aged prime beef, say, for steaks, can easily be $20/lb (aged, while dramatically better, also costs 20-40% more), while a side of beef can put that cost down to about $3-4/lb. Of course, now you have 800lbs of beef, but hey, you like food, right? The point is, the larger and less processed — that is, the fewer people that need to touch it or do things to it, like cut it — the cheaper. And, generally, the better to boot. Get a group of foodie friends together and go buy a cow, a pig or a couple of lambs. But chicken you can do all by your lonesome.

Fish is a whole different beast, if you’ll pardon the obvious, but a lot of what we’ve just covered applies pretty equally, but most especially this: buy whole, save money. Fish is really “good for you”, or it can be, but whatever, it’s tasty. And fresh fish is the tastiest! How do you know it’s fresh? Because you prepped it!

Processed fish, that is, fish that’s been frozen, skinned, and/or filleted, isn’t necessarily bad. Many fish can take this pretty well — your lean fish, like tilapia for example, seems to stand up to this pretty well. Salmon? Not so much. And shellfish? A definite no go.

Oh, by the way, that shrimp you just bought? If it doesn’t have the head on it, it was frozen. Standard procedure for bulk shrimpers — catch it, wash it in a disinfectant/preservative (sodium metabisulfite, the same stuff you use to sterilize beer bottles if you’re a home brewer — mix it with water, and you get sulfur dioxide, a respiratory allergen that also happens to stink), freeze it, keep fishing. Fresh shrimp are terrifically hard to find for the average home cook. There is one place I know of that farms them local to the DC area, called Marvesta, which will drop ship their fresh, head-on, never-frozen shrimp to wherever.

Ok, back to fish.

When buying fish, look for the following. Fresh fish have bright, clear eyes. Dull eyes on a fish can either mean it was frozen or that its been sitting in the case too long — either way, it’s no longer fresh. Avoid it. What does it smell like? Fishy? If so, it’s not fresh. This doesn’t mean its spoiled — far from it — but as it is exposed to air, it’ll start oxidizing, which will free up some rather odiferous volatile chemicals. Luckily, the majority of this is all on the surface and can be washed away. But still, this isn’t what you want in a fish when you’re standing at the counter. A fresh fish should smell like … nothing. Or the sea. And that’s about it.

A quick note about fish. Round fish have an up/down spine & ribs with very little in the way of horizontal bones and have two primary fillets. Tuna, bass, wahoo are all round fish.

Now, time to cut that sucker up. Grab your hacksaw!

Okay, so, maybe not. A filleting knife would probably be a better bet. Or a deba. Or even a paring knife! Whatever, as long as it’s sharp, you’re good to go.

Prepping salmon (or other large round fish)? Pulled the pin bones yet? Pin bones?!? Yes, pin bones.

Flat fish are weird. They are just like round fish, turned on their sides. Sort of. The main difference is that they have four fillets. It may be just easier to show you:

I think it’s always interesting to see pros doing it too, just for comparison.

Tuna at a fish market in Okinawa:

Last topic: bones! If, after all this butchering, you have a pile of bones left over — don’t toss ’em! Save them for stock! Especially chicken and fish bones. Beef bones, unless it’s veal, not so much — they’re way too “beefy” flavored and are likely to crush your resulting sauce or dish as all that flavor gets reduced. Ditto for your oily fishes, like salmon, trout or mackerel. Skip those in favor of halibut, cod and flounder. And yes, even if you’re making salmon, do not use salmon bones for a matching sauce — it’ll be nasty, as too much flavor, concentrated, is just revolting. Ok, enough said.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Knife skills: Leafy greens & herbs

Leafy greens are a bit different than your root vegetables & fruits. They seem unmanageable with their irregular size and shapes. While that’s true, getting them ready for your dish is pretty simple. The secret is a chiffonade cut. Chiffonade makes little ribbons out of whatever it is you’re cutting. Wanna take it a step farther? Line up the chiffonade in a neat row and chop it into a mince.

Essentially, you take your greens, stack them as best you can, roll them together — again, as best you can, then chop. This works equally well for basil, which is fairly regular, to parsley, which isn’t. Spinach, kale, lettuce, as well as rosemary, marjoram, chervil — all fall to the chiffonade!

One tip — your knife needs to be scary-sharp. The goal is to break the vegetables down into small pieces and not just crush the food into paste on the cutting board. Want to know when you’ve made a good cut with a sharp knife? Look at the board after you scoop up the cuttings — is it covered in wet, green goo? All that goo is flavor and aroma — none of which is going into your food but which is all ready to be washed down the drain. Whoops.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Knife skills: Cutting Vegetables

So now you know how to hold your knife and how to use it (a bit). Here’s a review of some of the basic cuts you’re likely to make. The trickiest of these is the onion, so we take that on a couple of times. Relax, you’ll like it!

Basic vegetable cuts

Basic cuts: dice

Julienne & Brunoise

Batonnet & Small Dice

Paysanne

Cutting an onion

Dealing with tomato

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Basic Knife Skills: Pinch & Claw

I like to think of cooking as 50% preparation, 30% timing, and 20% technique. These things are interrelated, but what I’m driving at is that actual cooking techniques are probably the first thing most folks start with when learning to cook. Pick up a cookbook at random, say Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It starts with soups — very classic. Or how about Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking? It starts off with an extended discussion of diet — very modern. Neither of them mention knives. In fact, I challenge you. Go through your cabinet of cookbooks. Look for all your “basic skills” books that your Mom loaded up on you when you went off to college or after you moved into your first apartment. My bet: not a one talks about knives.

There’s a reason for this, I’m sure, but for the life of me I can’t think of what it might be. A traditional French cooking school like L’Academie de Cuisine (Gaithersburg, Md), follows the Julia Child method. Not surprising since Child herself was a Le Cordon Bleu grad. So, first lesson? Stocks & soups. Knife skills were simply understood as a pre-requisite for entry.

I find this baffling. Knives are dangerous. Most of the accidents in a kitchen are knife-related. Yes, there are burns too, but the cuts outnumber the burns 100:1 (or more, but I’m totally guessing here).

You use your knife almost all the time. They can be big or small, flexible or stiff, serrated, curved or straight as an arrow — but all of them are sharp. And kitchens are messy, wet, hot, and stressful. Throw in a handful of razor sharp, pointy implements and I can’t help but think you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Lucky for me, my skills instructor was also the knife skills instructor for the school — that is, he actually taught two-day, 12 hour class focused on using knives. So getting him to stop and take a few minutes to remind us how to hold and use our tools was fairly simple. One question, and 30 minutes later, we had a basic understanding of the primary tenets.

The first is grip. How you hold your knife is going be critical to your success with it — and will also dictate your speed and efficiency. The proper way to hold a knife is to not grip the handle. What you’re actually going to hold is the bolster/ferrule — this is the part right in the middle, between the blade and the handle proper. That part will be pretty much dead-center of your palm. Your index finger will actually be on the blade itself, curled a bit to keep the tip of your finger off of the edge of the knife. Do not lay your index finger along the spine*, but curled around the heel and flat against the blade. The middle finger will be partially on the blade but will primarily be bracing up against the choil/bolster of the knife, again, with the tip of your finger tucked away, preferrably into your palm. Your thumb will be opposite your index finger. The remaining fingers will be wrapped around the handle, loosely but securely.

This three-finger grip — index, middle and thumb — along the blade itself will keep the blade stable and prevent it from tilting side-to-side as you cut. This is where all your control comes from. It feels a bit unnatural at first, but tough it out. You’ll get used to it! Many classically trained chefs built rather impressive “chef’s callouses” along that last knuckle on the index finger where it rests against the spine. This is supposed to be the mark of a line cook who is actually still cooking. Macho silliness, because all you needed to do was round that spine out a bit with a file, sandpaper or a waterstone and there’d be nothing to abrade your finger against. Of course, they could have bought a finer knife and simply have had that done during manufacture, but what do I know.

Okay, now we’re holding our knife correctly. Fantastic. Next, how we hold the food.

The goal with the claw grip is twofold. First, keep your fingertips away from the knife edge. This is important, regardless of how much of yourself you really want to put into your food. Keep your fingers in one piece, so you’re going to tuck them under your knuckles. The knuckles will stick out past the food, past your fingertips, and present a cutting guide for the knife blade to rest against as you cut.

Food goes down on the board, left hand covers it. Curl the fingers under till the tips and nails are what is holding the food motionless and secure. Curl further until your knuckles stick out past your fingertips. Viola! The claw.

Knife in pinch grip. Bring the flat side of the blade of the knife carefully over to the knuckles. Viola, pinch & claw.

Another tip — plant the knife tip. This goes back to the whole “is your knife big enough for the food” question, so hopefully you’ve listened and gotten as “big a knife as you can handle” that is over 8″ in length. So, plant that tip past your food. With the side of the blade resting gently against your knuckles, bring the heel of the blade down and push it forward slightly as you cut down and through the food in smooth, short strokes, all the way through to the board. Viola, you’re cutting!

Final tip — do not feed the blade. Your hand holding the food is there to help guide the knife, not scoot food foward under the blade edge. Doing that will bring your fingertips out from under cover and one second later, you’ve flavored your ingredients in a rather painful way. Instead, scoot the claw backwards over the food, exposing more, and bring your pinch-gripped knife to the newly exposed food.

Here’s a video of Chad Ward showing off the pinch & claw:

Norman Weinstein shows us how to use the knife:

By the way, both these guys wrote very nice books, both of which I highly recommend. Remember, all cooking starts with a knife — so get that right first, and you’ll not only be faster and safer, but you can sound off like a total know-it-all, which is endlessly entertaining.

Putting it together with Chef Michael Jordan. Note the care he takes in the setup and moving through the basic technique. Nice video:

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 19, 2009

Advanced topics in knife sharpening

When sharpening, there is an issue of bevels. Your fancy knife has an edge that consists of one or more of these guys, so some questions: how do I create them and what should they look like?

For single beveled knives, the typical approach is to flatten the secondary bevel and cut a primary “micro” bevel into it. The micro bevel is what you actually cut food with, that secondary bevel is pretty large and goes up about halfway up the blade. When you sharpen a knife like this, you grind down the secondary to flat and grind out the primary bevel in the process. When finished, you re-cut the primary.

Western or double-beveled knives (sharpened on both sides) are generally much thinner spines than single-beveled knives. As such, there isn’t a lot of knife to cut two bevels into — so most forgo the secondary and simply cut the primary directly into the blade.

I lifted these images off of the Knifeforums. Click through for the blowups ….

Single beveled knife with a micro bevel

Single beveled knife with a micro bevel

Another wrinkle — hamagurabi edges!

“WTF is that?!?” I hear you ask. Excellent question.

In English, hamagurabi, means “clam shell”. In this context, we really mean convex. So, no sharp bevel transitions — smooth those out a bit. If you’re sharpening freehand, the slop in your strokes will probably do this for you “for free”, but if you’re using a device like a Spyderco, Apex, or Gizmo, the bevels are going to come out a whole lot more precise, with abrubt transitions. Is this bad? No, not really, but some argue that a clamshell bevel will be stronger, will wear better, and will cut better.

Single beveled edge with hamaguriba sharpening

Single beveled edge with hamaguriba sharpening

Here’s the diagram with the “rounding” made a bit more obvious:

Thanks to Thomas/Throw3636 for posting the original diagrams online for us all.

Some videos (in Engrish) for those interested in following along:

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 18, 2009

Fun with a cleaver

Chinese cleavers are not like your average meat cleaver. The latter a heavy, thick, with a big chisel edge designed to whack through meant and smash through bones. The Chinese cleaver, is a actually a precision tool for cutting up vegatables. Think of it as a variation on the chef knife.

The height of the blade gives you an advantage when knuckle-pinching your food — you’re more unlikely to slice your fingers off. And yeah, you can use these things for slicing. Chopping. Julienning. Whatever you want!

I don’t think he’s on the air anymore, but I remember watching Yan Can Cook a million years ago. Never did notice that all he used was a cleaver for his demos. Now I’m watching, and frankly, I’m amazed.

That’s some skill right there, folks. I don’t care who you are. Yan Can Cook.

Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 18, 2009

Knife Edge Finishing

So you have your fancy knife. You’ve been using it to great effect. Vegetables fear you. You steel your knives regularly so you can be prepared to do battle in Kitchen Stadium at any moment. But … something has changed. You steel, you’re careful, you have great cutting boards … but things just are not the way they used to be. What has happened? Your knives are beginning to dull. What to do?

Strop it!

I’ve already posted a set of videos on knife sharpening with my hero, Dave. He progresses through a nice set of Japanese water stones to get to a keen edge. But to finish, he uses a strop.

Why?

Well, think of it this way. When you use a hone of any kind, it will dig into the metal to remove some (even if it’s a tiny, tiny amount) to create or recreate the edge. That digging will look like grooves or scratches in the metal. Those grooves will generate friction as food passes across them, friction increases drag, drag will increase the amount of force required to move the knife through something, which makes it feel dull. Got that? Okay, well, if we reduce drag, we reduce the amount of force required, right? Right. Hence, we use a progression of grits in our abrasives.

Generally, we start off pretty rough. On average, and depending on the amount of damage that needs to be addressed, you’ll start somewhere in the middle of the road to touch up your edge, say, with a 1,000 grit stone. If the damage is severe, or you just want to limit the amount of time you’re planning to spend doing this (a 1,000 grit stone may take a while to get you where you want, like, say, an hour — this is steel, remember), you might want to start with a rougher stone, say a 500 or even lower. Anyway, wherever you start, you’re scratching that knife with that size grit. To remove those scratches, you need a finer grit. So, a 2,000 grit stone will follow a 1,000 grit stone, essentially halving the size of the scratches on the blade. Likewise a 4,000 grit will follow a 2,000. After 4,000 you’re really no longer sharpening your knife, you’re polishing it. Yes, you’re removing steel, but unless you’re able to hold that angle precisely over every stroke (this is completely beyond my ability, apparently, but YMMV), you’re probably not adding much to the edge. Anyway, moving to an 8,000 grit stone will put a really nice polish on that blade and make the scratches on it pretty much invisible. Done, right?

Yes, if you’re like most folks, you are finished at this point. An 8,000 grit stone isn’t called a “finishing stone” for nothing. But … you don’t have to stop there. Remember that bit about grooves and friction? An 8k stone has grit elements that are a couple microns across. Too small to see without a loup, but there nonetheless. And far short of the ideal — frictionless — or at least something approaching it, that is, a polish “like glass”.

To get that, you need a finer grit. Manufacturers make stones with 10k, 12k, 16k, and 30k grits — these stones are pretty much smooth to the touch. The actual grit size of an 16k stone is about a micron — a 30k, therefore, is about half of that. And polishing with either will (or, really, anything over 8k) will create a mirror finished edge. The downside is that these stones are not cheap, and the very highest grit stones can be two to five times more expensive than the step below them. A very popular 10k stone, made by Naniwa, is over $250.

Enter strops.

A strop is just a strip of leather. Nothing scary there. Barbers have been using strops to “fine tune” straight edge razors for decades before Gillette & Schick started selling safety and cartridge razors to us, the public happy to spend way more money for inferior (but easier!) products. Using a strop on a kitchen knife works pretty much the same way. Things get interesting when you add an abrasive to the strop.

By “charging” a strop (loading it with an abrasive), you can create a setup that can polish your edges quite nicely. Chromium oxide is an inexpensive but very popular abrasive and creates a beautiful edge. It’s abrasives are about .5 microns, which makes it equivalent to a 30,000 grit stone! Even more extreme is a diamond spray with particles half that size, which in effect creates a 60,000 grit surface for polishing.

Ok, so no. No one needs that level of polish on their knives. And no, that edge cannot remain that sharp for long. But its still pretty cool, no? 🙂

There are some great times to strop. After you’ve run your knives across the stones, you strop to finish. You can also strop instead of sharpening — assuming the edge is in reasonable shape — just a quick couple of passes on a charged strop may be all you need to get that fearsome edge back in shape. In this case, it’s like steeling, but way better for your edge. In fact, the delicate but wickedly sharp single-beveled Japanese sushi knives should never touch a steel (or ceramic or glass) hone at all — you should strop instead. Treat your traditional kitchen knives the same way. Steel before use, strop once or twice a week, and you should be able to put off trips to the stones even longer.

The way this works is you lay your knife onto the strop spine-first, then rotate your blade down till it “just bites” the leather. Then, pull it backwards away from the edge while maintaining that angle and sweeping the blade to the side to catch the entire length in a single stroke.

Yeah, I know, easier said than done! Luckily, Dave Martell has an explanation and some photos on his site.

Looking for strops and abrasives? Well, Dave has some nice stones on his store. He used to resell Hand American strops and abrasives, but that relationship seems to have been discontinued. Some alternatives can be found on JWW.

For those video junkies, here’s one on stropping. Personally, I recommend Dave’s techniques — maintain angle, use little or no pressure, &c, but anyway, it’s something. More interestingly, it’s something not to do:

Last note about strops (for now, anyway): thinner is better. You want that strop to give as little “give” to your stropping as possible. What that dude in the video is doing is dulling his carefully honed edge.

Why? Well, thick, soft leather — like belt leather — will deform to the edge of the steel. That is, the steel is harder than the leather and with pressure (making it “sing”) will actually make the leather wrap around the edge a bit. Which is putting pressure on the edge. Which dulls it. It will realign an edge, yes, but the more the leather wraps around the edge, the more of the edge it takes away at the same time. What you want is a mounted strop — that is, not a straight razor “hanging” strop. Leather mounted on a wooden paddle strop is a much better solution. Better still, try a strop magnetically mounted to a steel plate.

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