Monday, April 21, 2008

Blades of Glory (Part I)

Our topic du jour in this installment of How's it Taste is knives. Ask any cook, professional or otherwise, and they'll tell you that the single most important item in the kitchen is a good quality knife. Ok, I just made that up. I actually have no idea what they'd tell you. I certainly wouldn't tell you that. I mean, a good knife is important, to be sure, but what good is the best knife in the world without a cutting board to go with it? Your "blade of glory" would get dull in no time flat, and then where would you be, Mr. Smartypants? And what about some good pots and pans to put the food in once it's ready to cook? Or a stove to cook it on? Or, or, or...? Uh, anyway, I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that while there really is no MVP in the kitchen, a really good knife is important. Very important. You really don't want to skimp on quality here. But have you checked out the knife section of your local Bed Bath & Beyond lately? The choices are almost overwhelming. How are you supposed to know what to buy? You could do a little online research. But be careful- there's a ton of information out there; some good, some bad, a lot of it conflicting. So I've done my own bit of research and I'm going to offer my-2-cents-worth here, and hopefully clear some things up a bit. More likely, I'll just add to the confusion, but whatever. Going to give it a shot anyway.

The first thing I want to look at is the ever-popular Knife Block Set.

Don't get one.

Seriously, do not waste your time or money on buying one of these things. They're popular because they're relatively cheap- if you were to buy each item individually it would cost a lot more than the entire set at once. So it seems like you're getting a good deal. In reality, though, it's like that old Andy Griffith episode where Aunt Bee went out and bought a freezer's worth of food that neither she nor anyone else would eat, just because it was so cheap. The key selling point here is "if you were to buy each item individually..." But you wouldn't buy each item individually because most of them you really don't need. And even if you did buy each one separately, you wouldn't need to get all of them from the same brand name. Let's take the
OXO Good Grips Professional 14-Piece Knife Block Set for example, found on Amazon for about $80.


8-inch chef knife
8-inch slicer
3-1/2-inch parer
5-inch utility
4-inch Santoku
8-inch bread
sharpening tool
6 steak knives
wood block

For starters, you should avoid those wooden knife storage blocks anyway because, while convenient, they're very unsanitary. Sure, you clean the knife before you put it in the block, but that doesn't mean dust and dirt and germs can't get in those little slots anyway. Just how are you supposed to clean inside of them? There are better, cleaner ways to store your knives- magnetic knife racks, knife sheaths, or even just in a large plastic container (like an open silverware tray) in a separate drawer, away from curious kids' hands.

Now let's look at the knives. Man, where do I start? In this set you have six distinct knives, plus six steak knives. Would you seriously need to buy all of these, separate or otherwise? Let's set aside the steak knives for a minute; I've worked in commercial kitchens for 7 or 8 years now, and 99% of the time the only two knives we've ever needed were a chef knife and a bread knife. Granted, commercial and home kitchens have different needs, so let's look a little more closely, starting with the top of the list.

8-inch chef knife. You do need one of these. For some people, like me, this is probably the only knife we'll ever need. Count this one in.

8-inch slicer. What exactly are you going to be slicing that you can't slice with an 8-inch chef knife? Count this one out.

3-1/2-inch parer. Do you make a lot of apple pies? If so, do you peel the apples? If you answered "yes" to both you can probably say "yes" to this knife, but- do you really need to pay more for an Oxo Good Grips 3-1/2-inch parer? Probably not. You can probably find something decent at the dollar store.

5-inch utility. What, exactly, are you going to be cutting, chopping, dicing, de-boning, etc., that you can't cut, chop, dice, de-bone, etc., with an 8-inch chef knife? Unnecessary. You can safely count this one out.

4-inch Santoku. This one is doubly useless. I honestly don't see why Santoku knives are so darn popular. I tried one once- hated it. The only good reason I can think of for their popularity is the hollow-ground edge, but guess what? They make hollow-ground chef knives too. You need a good curve on the edge to be able to rock the blade. Generally, the edge of a Santoku blade is too flat to do any real dicing or chopping (Oxo's isn't bad, but 4-inches? That's a toy, not a knife). Santokus are better for top-to-bottom slicing. But I don't want to slice. I want to rock. Can you imagine if Dee and the boys had sung "I wanna slice", instead of "I wanna rock"? I can't either. Y'know why? Because it's unimaginable, that's why. And so is using a 4-inch Santoku.

8-inch bread knife. Surely you need one of these, right? I mean, didn't I say myself we use them in commercial kitchens too? I guess I did say that. But- the main reason commercial kitchens use bread knives at all is because they generally use the absolute cheapest quality knives they can find- you can easily cut bread, even the crusty baguette kind, with a good, sharp chef knife. But restaurants don't often use good, sharp chef knives, so they need bread knives to help out. But do you, in your home kitchen, really need a bread knife? Do they even make bread that's not pre-sliced anymore? I'm pretty sure it comes that way, straight out of the oven, nowadays. Ok, so maybe you go for the good stuff, the artisan kind. Or maybe you're a rebel and make your own. Again, do you really need a bread knife? Wouldn't you rather get all primal and just tear it apart with your teeth?


Or you could do like Jesus and the disciples and break that shit.
Ok, so the bread knife is a possibility. But even if you do decide to "buy it separately", you probably don't need to go for same quality as for your chef knife. Again, dollar store to the rescue.

Sharpening tool. Ok, just to clarify, it's actually a honing steel. Or honing tool, if you get the ceramic kind. They don't actually sharpen knives, they just realign the edge. You do need one of these. But not one from the dollar store. Mainly, though, because those are too short. You want one that's at least 12 inches long. (12 inches referring to the length of the steel, not the total length.) Oxo has one on Amazon for $15. It says the overall length is 18 inches, so I'm guessing the steel is actually 12, with 6 for the handle. Check out this 5 1/2 minute youtube clip with Alton Brown that covers the basics of sharpening and honing. Just don't believe his lies about the best knife being the one that's the most comfortable in your hand. Normally he's pretty right on, but he really missed the mark on this one. You do want a comfortable handle, but you also want quality steel. And you can have both, for a reasonable price. (I think it's worth noting that he happens to use and recommend Shun knives on his show. I'm sure the handles are comfortable, but I've seen others that I think are more comfortable and cost less. And since Food Network never showcases brand names, what do you want to bet that he also didn't pay for his Shun knives?) When I hone a knife, I do it the way they show here, rather than the way they show in the video. I'm just a little nervous about sliding a knife towards my hand, slowly or not. (Oh, and you can sharpen knives yourself at home, despite what he says.)

Lastly we have the 6 steak knives. And again, you don't need to buy the best quality when it comes to steak knives. The dollar store may be a little too cheap in this case, but you can get a decent set for not a lot at your local department store. So what are we left with that you will actually need?

8-in. chef knife -- $??
Honing tool -- $15
Storage tray --$1
Set of steak knives -- $10

Bread knife -- $1
Paring knife -- $1

Minus the chef knife, you can get everything you really need (plus a couple extra you probably don't) for $28, leaving you about $50 for your chef knife. Even Oxo only charges $20 for theirs. So by not buying them in the block set you not only save money, but end up with more counter space and less clutter in your kitchen. The price difference is even more pronounced if you decide to go with a higher end knife set like this $350 18-piece "gourmet" knife set by Wusthof. Separately, their chef knife goes for about $100. So $128 instead of $350. (And c'mon, do you really need a separate knife for your sandwiches? And tomatoes? Hey, at least their Santoku is 6-1/2 inches. Incidentally, I've seen some sets that include a "boning" knife. Now when was the last time you found yourself saying, "Dang, now where did I put that boning knife of mine?").

Oh, remember when I said you should avoid those wooden knife blocks altogether? This one might be an exception worth making.

Coming up in Part II I'll have my thoughts on chef knives, as well as some useful links on knives and knife sharpening.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Southwest Steak Sammich

Mmmmm, my mouth is watering just thinking about this. It's super tasty! (Of course it is, otherwise I wouldn't post it.) Not surprisingly, it's also made with our old friend the guajillo. I think of the guajillo as the Hugely Underrated Actor of the chile world. Think Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly, or Bill Pullman, or whoever else you think is awesome but not nearly as famous as they should be. That's the guajillo. I think I've mentioned before that I think it's going to explode on the scene in a big way, though. Pace has come up with a salsa that uses them. However, I've been told it's not as good as mine. No surprise there. They really should have consulted me for advice first. No surprise there, either, though; nobody ever listens to me.

Anyway, let's get this Sammich show on the road, shall we?

This came about as a result of one of those happy accidents. I was experimenting at work, trying to come up with I-don't-know-what; something. I ended up with a sort of salsa. It wasn't bad by itself, but not good enough to use solely as a salsa. It needed some support. So I had this idea that I'd marinate some steak in it overnight and make sort of a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Which I did, and it was excellent. The original was just the marinated steak, onions, mushrooms, mayo, and mozzarella on a hoagie bun, but with some input from some of my coworkers, it evolved slightly into what it is today. You're going to love it, trust me. There is a little bit of prep involved, namely the marinade, so it's not like you can just throw this together in ten minutes, but it's super easy to do, and you can make up the marinade in bulk and freeze it, and once that step is out of the way, it will take about 10 minutes to do! I've only tried this with steak, but I'm sure it will go well with any other meat, and maybe even tofu, if you're the vegetablearian type.

On to the marinade!

I do have a recipe for this, just not with me right now, and even though I know you don't need one because you've been reading this blog and you know that recipes are for jerks, I'll come back and post it in a day or two anyway. If I don't forget.

But for now...

bunch of guajillos, stemmed
brown sugar
lime juice

That's it! Just chop them up roughly and cover with a couple inches of water. The chopping part isn't exactly necessary, I just do it so they'll sit better in the pan- Guajillos are kind of long and tend to stick out of the water in all sorts of different directions if you leave them whole. Add a couple pinches of salt, a small handful of brown sugar, and the juice of one or two limes. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved it should have sort of a raisin-y taste to it. Adjust as necessary. Then just cook until you think it's done. I usually reduce it by about half. Next, blend it in your blender, or in the pot with your handy-dandy immersion blender. (If you don't have one of those things, you need one. Trust me.) Sometimes at this point, I'll throw in a jalapeno or two, but it's your sammich today- make it however you like! Now your marinade is done! Make sure it's cooled down (actually, you might want to do that before you add it to the blender- could end up with a big mess, otherwise.) and add the protein. This stuff goes a looooong way, though- 2 Tbs will easily cover a pound of meat. Let it marinate overnight, or at least 6 hours, and then gather up the following players-

Hoagie bun
colby-jack cheese
chipotle mayo
anything else you think would go good on a Philly-style sandwich

First off, about the chipotle mayo- I'm sure they sell commercial stuff, but I wouldn't waste my money. It's too easy to make on your own (not to mention most likely cheaper) using your favorite regular mayo and a can of chipotle peppers. Simply take one can of chipotles in adobo sauce and add to 4 cups regular mayo. You can chop up the peppers by hand with a knife and then add to the mayo, or just blend the whole thing in a food processor. I'd avoid using a blender- it can easily break down the mayo into oil. At least, that's what happens to us at work. Then again, our blender only has two speeds- super fast, and supersonic. I'd still avoid the blender. Also, I found a recipe for chipotle mayo from scratch awhile back, but haven't gotten around to trying it yet, so I won't post it here right now, but it might be worth looking into. A quick search on the Food Network's website should turn something up. Even if you don't want to bother with all that, just using a good quality regular mayo, mixed with the chipotles is really, really good. I used to really not like the flavor of chipotle at all, until The Amigos at work started making this stuff and one day just for the heck of it I tried it. Now I love the stuff.

Break out the fry pan, melt some butter, add the steak and veggies and a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until done. (Normally I don't like well-done steak, but in this case med-rare doesn't seem to cut it for some reason.) Toast your bread, slather on the chipotle mayo, add the meat and veggies and cover liberally with cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Then pop the whole thing in a hot oven for a few minutes to melt said cheese. Alternately, you can just add the cheese to the steak/veggies mix while it's in the fry pan. We do that a lot at work, and it works well. Except we cook ours on a flat-top, not in the fry pan, but you get the idea.

It's quite messy, so have plenty of napkins handy.

I kind of like to eat mine with a knife and fork. However you choose to do it, I think you'll agree...

this one rises far above the level of "sandwich".

Truly, once you've had this one, you've had yourself a Sammich.