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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 11:47 pm

Finding your cutting edge is crucial for cooking

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Q. My wife wants a really good knife. I'd like to get her one for her birthday, and am willing to spend some fairly serious money. What type of knife and what brands would you recommend? Larry

A. There's nothing more crucial to good cooking than good knives. As the Culinary Institute of America's comprehensive student manual, The New Professional Chef, says: "The only piece of equipment more basic to cooking is the human hand." True, really good knives don't come cheap, but take care of them, and they'll last a lifetime (or even longer) and are a worthy investment.

If the knife isn't going to be a surprise, you might consider taking your wife on a knife-shopping trip. A far as I know, the best selection available locally is at Macy's. Specialty cooking stores in larger cities, such as Sur La Table (a personal favorite) and Williams-Sonoma have a wider variety, and have the advantage of staff who can help with tips and knowledge. They even have chopping blocks where you and your wife could experiment with various knives before buying. There are also numerous cooking equipment Web sites (from Amazon to Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma) that offer large selections.

There's no one best knife for everyone. My husband and I have different favorite knives. Probably the biggest reason is different hand sizes. Other factors in finding ideal knives are whether the user is right- or left-handed and even — when choosing large knives or cleavers — arm strength. The length of the knife, its weight, and the shape of the handle all come into play in determining individual preference.

As the CIA manual says: "Assembling a personal collection of knives is one of the first elements in becoming a professional. Just as an artist or craftsman gathers together the pieces necessary for painting, sculpting, or drawing, you will need to begin a lifetime of selecting knives...." That's also true for home cooks. Knives are so personal that professionals from head chefs to lowly prep cooks chopping vegetables for the stockpot jealously guard their own. On the reality TV show, Top Chef, the eliminated contestant at the end of each episode is dismissed with: "Please pack your knives, and go." The screen then changes to a shot of the loser sadly slipping knives into that essential piece of culinary baggage, the knife kit.

While it's true that chefs and cooking enthusiasts collect and utilize many knives, for all practical purposes, just two can handle virtually all cutting jobs and are absolutely essential: a big knife and a little knife — a.k.a a chef's knife, and a paring knife.

If you can only have one really good knife, the best choice is a chef's knife. Chef's knives are relatively long and come to a sharp point at the end. From the blade's heel to the tip, they're angled or curved, the better to rock back and forth while chopping. Chef's knives vary in length, width (the distance between the blade's top and the cutting edge), and the type and shape of handle — both the material from which it's made and the contours. They easily handle the bulk of chopping, dicing, and slicing.

Paring knives are good for, well, paring. Their usefulness lies in such things as cutting or peeling smaller items — for example, removing outer layers of garlic and onions or slicing strawberries or apples. I often use both knives for a single object, for example, when cutting tomatillos and onions for the recipe below, I use a paring knife to remove the stem ends and papery outsides, then switch to the chef's knife for chopping.

As for brands, among the most widely available and best regarded are Wüsthoff, Henkel, and Shun. A relative newcomer, and one I like a lot, is Global. Like Shun, it's Japanese. Global knives — handle to blade — are forged from a single piece of metal, giving them a different and lighter feel in the hand. Again, it really is all about personal preference. Some of these knives not only function beautifully, they're also beautiful to look at, with different wood for the handles and/or they're made with Damascus steel — an ancient process that forges the metal in extra-strong and decorative patterned layers.

That said, the crucial thing to look for and ask about — the thing that makes a great knife — is a combination of high carbon and high stainless steel. Until recently, chefs preferred carbon steel knives because they maintained sharp edges better. But they discolored (weren't stainless) and pitted more easily. Advanced technology combined the two and created the best of both worlds. That technology is also a big part of why great knives aren't usually found in bargain basements.

If you're buying a really good knife, you also might want to look into buying a steel or other sharpening tool (maybe for Christmas?). Conventional wisdom says that you're far less likely to cut yourself with sharp knives than with dull ones. It makes sense, but, truthfully, anyone who uses knives will sometimes cut themselves, sharp knife or not. It's an occupational hazard, as even the most accomplished chefs will attest. Preparing for my first course at the CIA's Napa campus, I packed my knife kit with my favorite knives, but also with other tools I thought I needed — a whisk, a specially angled spoon, etc. Standing in the registration line, my over-filled kit busted open, and one of those well-sharpened knives fell out, neatly slashing my fingertip as I caught it. I was already nervous, and looked frantically around, but none of my fellow classmates seemed to notice. Then I looked down, and my relief turned to horror: drops of blood — my blood — were splattering onto the floor. I'd packed obsessively, worrying over every possible contingency, but had forgotten the most essential: Band-Aids. Fortunately, I got through registration, tightly clutching my injured finger as I signed the forms (thankfully, no one checked my signature) and found a bandage and glove before class started. Still, I sometimes wonder what the maintenance staff thought when they saw those bloody spatters on the floor.

Your knives will get a real workout chopping, slicing and dicing the different ingredients for this recipe.

This isn't really chili — not least because it doesn't contain any chilies. But it's somewhat similar and since these days the "chili" moniker has been extended to concoctions containing things ranging from white beans to chicken to pumpkin(??!!), it seems as good a category for this dish as any. The tomatillos, orange juice and the use of both cooked and fresh cilantro add bright notes not usually found in traditional chilis that make this soup/stew/chili especially delectable. I usually multiply this recipe so that I have extras to freeze for a quick midweek meal.

Tomatillos look like green tomatoes on the outside and even somewhat when sliced, but the resemblance is superficial. The first clue that they're something else entirely are their papery husks. In fact, the tomatillo is a much closer relative to wild growing North American ground cherries — sweet yellow fruits also enclosed in a papery husk. Both belong to the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes and eggplant. Tomatillos are too tart — raw or cooked — to eat them solo, as most do tomatoes. But tomatillos' wonderful flavor and acidity help make green salsas and any dishes that include them — Mexican or otherwise — a dominant voice in a jubilant chorus.

TOMATILLO AND BLACK BEAN "CHILI"

(Adapted from a recipe in Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.)

1/4 c. bacon fat, unhydrogenated lard, or vegetable oil
2 lb. pork, from butt or shoulder, trimmed of all visible fat or boneless skinless chicken or turkey, preferably dark meat, cut into approximately one-inch cubes — or see note below for a vegetarian version
2. c. chopped onions, not super-sweet
8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
12 oz. dark beer, preferably Mexican such as Negro Modelo
1 1/2 c. orange juice
1 lb. tomatillos, husked, washed, and quartered
2 c. peeled chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned, drained
1 bunch cilantro, stems finely chopped, leaves coarsely chopped separately and reserved
30 oz. can black beans, undrained
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Optional garnishes
Cooked rice
1 c. sour cream mixed with the juice of 1 lime

In a heavy-bottomed large pot, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the meat and brown. You will probably need to do this in batches so as to not overcrowd. Remove the meat as it is browned and reserve.

Pour off any excess fat and add the onions and garlic to the pan. Sauté until softened and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the beer, orange juice, tomatillos, chopped tomatoes, the liquid from the black beans, and the cilantro stems. Bring to a boil and add the pork. Reduce the heat so that the mixture just simmers. Cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced and thickened somewhat.

Add the beans, and half the cilantro leaves. Simmer an additional 15 minutes. Let stand for about 15 minutes before serving, or chill rapidly, then refrigerate, and reheat before serving. Like many soups and stews, this is even better the next day.

To serve: Place a small mound of cooked rice in a soup bowl, and ladle the "chili" over it. Garnish with the remaining cilantro. Pass the sour cream/lime juice at the table.

NOTE: A delicious vegetarian version can be made by substituting an additional 30 oz. can of black beans (drain the second can) for the meat. Begin by sautéing the garlic and onions in vegetable oil, and continue as above, adding the two cans of beans — having added the liquid from one as described above — at the same time.

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