Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Choose Your Weapons

Over the next couple of months, I will be writing about tools and equipment that are most essential in your kitchen. We have all given in to temptation and purchased very task-specific gadgets and/or small appliances for our kitchens; they were used once or twice and then the novelty wore off and they are now relegated to that hard-to-reach cabinet high over the refrigerator. Whether you are starting out in your first kitchen or revamping your old one, there are just a few key items that are critical in cooking, things that no home cook can live without, and today I am going to talk about the first of these items: knives.

Every kitchen should be stocked with a few very sharp, high quality knives. They should be easily accessible, such as in a knife storage block kept on the counter where you most often tackle your chopping, mincing, slicing and dicing. Hardly a meal gets prepared without some act of cutting involved. Most chefs consider their knives their most valued possession and care for them meticulously. A friend of mine had a son who was enrolled in one of the culinary arts institutes. Soon after beginning his education, he purchased his very-prized cutlery set. My friend would come home from work to find her son sitting in the kitchen, conscientiously sharpening his knives; a habit she found only mildly disturbing at first, until it became as familiar a site as coming home to her pouncing pooch who welcomed her at the door.

Starting with a little personal knife anecdote, my paternal grandfather was a professional chef. A few years ago I inherited a couple of his knives. They are impressive in appearance; one in particular looks like something you could pose with if you wish to be Jack Sparrow from 'Pirates of the Caribbean' this Halloween. It's very long and has a nice curve to the blade. It's huge. I only recently felt brave enough to play with it, on a night when I was not in any hurry to have dinner completed in a timely manner. I sharpened it, and it cuts incredibly well. Perhaps too well. I'm sure with practice I could grow to love it and make it my go-to weapon of choice when sparring with a butternut squash; but at this time it still feels very unwieldy. In the meantime, it's a nice sentimental piece that somehow makes me feel connected to my grandfather when I embark in our common interest of cooking. I only wish that he had lived long enough to taste some of my dishes and know that I inherited his talent and passion.

When selecting your purchase, buy something that you will actually feel comfortable using on a very regular basis, and buy quality. When Brian and I were engaged and I was stockpiling new things for our future home together, the budget was tight. I also hadn't yet embraced gourmet cooking and had very little knowledge about the different choices of knives and pots and such. I bought a cheap set of knives from one of the discount stores. I thought that they were adequate for my needs at the time, having never pulled a very sharp blade of a top-quality knife through a vegetable's flesh before. After four years or so, the knives were dull and they fell apart a year or two after that. Those were replaced with a set of J.A. Henckle knives, one of the most prominent names in cutlery. That is when I saw firsthand how much better they were. I would strongly recommend that if you can possibly make the investment, consider either Henckle or Wusthof. Both are respected brands of excellence; they will last for many, many years to come. Shun knives are also very respected in the world of slicing and mincing.

When you begin your field study of knives in the stores and chef catalogs, you will be faced with many choices even within the one or two above-mentioned brands. Which ones do you really need? There are sets containing as many as 8 to 10 different knives; and knives which are sold individually seem to offer up even more options. If you happen to be a career chef in a five star restaurant, perhaps there is the need for such a plethora of different blades. As an avid home cook foodie, you can relax in the knowledge that your budget and your storage space need not be compromised. One reason you can splurge on the more expensive, better quality brand of knives is that you need only purchase five to six of them. The critical must-have pieces of cutlery that I would recommend for all of your cutting needs are an unserrated 6-inch utility knife, a serrated bread knife, a paring knife, a chef's knife, a 7-inch hollow-edge Santoku knife, and a meat-slicing knife. The bread knife and the meat slicing knife are self-explanatory, used most commonly at the dinner table when serving the meal; the paring knife is used primarily for peeling and the chef's knife assists in tackling big jobs such as cutting up a whole chicken into pieces. The Santoku knife and utility knife are the ones that will be used the most in prepping ingredients for the pots, pans and salad bowls. A Santoku knife has a blade with circular indents along the side. It makes cutting even the toughest vegetable, such as a butternut squash, very easy; the blade slices right through its victim as though slicing through butter. These knives will also cut a very ripe tomato in half with ease, rather than merely squashing it into a mess on your cutting board. Those are the essential knives. If you see a set which includes all of these, plus a set of kitchen scissors, you will be all set to unleash your chopping and slicing urges. If the set also contains a set of steak knives, that will be something which you will benefit from at the table as well. Additional tools labeled as sandwich knife and tomato knife are really unnecessary. Same goes for the cleaver unless you're an avid hunter and bring home whole carcasses to butcher. Unless you perform the tasks of boning and filleting on a very routine basis, I would skip those as well. Many of the basic cutlery sets come with a wooden block which keeps your knives close at hand and safely tucked away. There are also magnetic strips which can be installed on the wall, and the blades of your cutlery magnically adhere to it. I would not recommend this option for households with younger children or pets.

When purchasing your knives, add a knife sharpener to your shopping list. It is important to keep your cutlery in sharp working order; and when you have had a tough day, the very act of sharpening your knives can be a satisfying stress reliever, provided that the intended victim afterwards is your onion or carrot and not your boss or your ex! There are sharpening stones, with which you sharpen your knife by repeatedly striking the blade along this tool. There are also electric sharpeners and there are manual counter top devices with a slot through which you simple pull the blade of your knife through a couple of times to sharpen and hone the blade. Whichever method you choose, be sure to use it correctly and keep your knives sharp at all times. As counter intuitive as this may sound, a dull blade is more dangerous than a sharp one. A sharpened blade means cutting with ease and precision; a dull blade means a struggle to get that hard vegetable cut through, resulting in a chopped finger or sliced thumb in the process. Been there myself, done that; save yourself a trip to the emergency room, nobody likes blood in their potato salad! Always keep your fingers bent out of the way nonetheless and use the proper knife for the specific job at hand.

One more item to cross off of your shopping list while you are purchasing cutlery: a surface on which to cut your veggies and meats. Unless you have a butcher block table already, I would recommend purchasing two cutting boards. The safety police have toggled back and forth between which is more sanitary, wood or polypropylene. Personal choice, I like wooden ones; Boos is a reputable brand. Be sure to buy two, preferably two of differing size or appearance so that they don't get mixed up. Designate one which will be strictly for meat alone. The second one can be used for all other ingredients. The idea is to avoid cross-contamination of bacteria from the meats to your produce. I have a wood butcher block table as well as two wooden boards for produce and a polypropylene board for meats. Be sure to thoroughly hand wash your boards after each use, as well as your knives. Do not place your prize Wusthofs in the dishwasher.

On your way home, you might want to stop at the supermarket for some meat and vegetables; you will want a good excuse to play with your new "toys" and the result can be a fabulous stew for your family's dinner. In summary, buy the best quality and if cared for properly your cutlery will last for years of family feasts. Only buy the basic pieces you really need and you can splurge on that better brand. The knives in your kitchen are perhaps the most critically important of all kitchen purchases, as you will use them in the preparation of almost every meal you cook. I'm feeling inspired now, I think I'll go take Grandpa's big knife out for a go on the butcher block.

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