Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cutting Edge

Tis the season. It has arrived. The frantic shopping-cooking-visiting-partying-drinking season that lasts from Thanksgiving through the New Year. The season where we are urged to buy-to save-to get it here.

Well if we are going to buy, let’s at least purchase the best (which is not always the most expensive). Here is Part I of my Gift Ideas for the Home Cooking Enthusiast.

A Very Good Knife

There are dozens and dozens of brands and an even larger selection of shapes and sizes. Prices run from a few dollars to a few thousand. I will focus on the best all around size: the 8” Chef’s knife.

Forschner Victorinox makes the best of what I’ll call the Chevrolet class of knives. They keep a nice sharp edge and are comfortable to hold. Their knives are well balanced, of moderate weight (although not as heavy as some of the German brands) and run about $30.

Next up the knife food chain are Shun , WusthofGlobal and Henckels. These are the brands usually found in American cooking stores. They cost up to $150. Now, I can hear you screaming, “$150 for a knife??!!” Well, what is wrong with spending that on something you’ll use every day and will last a lifetime? (Besides, what did you spend on your last computer?).

My favorite in this group is Henckels.
Why? Because I’ve had mine for over 30 years and they are as good today as when I first bought them. They are the right weight (for me) and hold a sharp edge for a good long time. Also, the spine of  Henckels knives are smooth and do not hurt my hand when I’ve been cutting and chopping for a long time.

The cream of the knife crop, frequently the most expensive---and currently the cutting edge (no pun intended)---are knives made in Japan. I am not including the saber like creations you see in the hands of your local Sushi guy but Western style knives that are sharpened on just one side.

These knives run from $50 to well over $1000. Food world talking heads declare that Japanese knives have better steel than their German counter parts, tend to be a lot lighter, hold their edges longer and are easier to re-sharpen.

“They tend to be designed with a different philosophy: a light, thin, extremely sharp blade that glides through food, rather than the German model with a galumphing heavy blade that elbows its way to the cutting board,” wrote one foodie blogging expert.

Masamoto makes the Rolls Royce of Japanese knives. Their Honyaki Wa-Gyuto knives start at $1100. If you have it, go ahead, go for it, spend it. I frankly think that’s excessive and would not if I could.

I recommend Misono if you are buying Japanese. These knives are scary sharp and stay that way for a very long time. They are light, comfortable and are very nicely balanced, The 8” chefs knife will be about $250.

Other Japanese brands to consider are Masahiro, Mac and Hattori. Korin is a good site for shopping Japanese knives.

Now, beyond all of this, the very best advice I can really offer is to go out and try several. Hold them. Cut with them. Speak to local chefs, foodie friends and ask their opinion. Then buy the one YOU like best.

To quote a fellow blogger, “They’re just knives. They all cut stuff. You spend more than 10 bucks and you’re going to be OK.”

Knife Maintenance

Any sharp knife is better than any dull knife and most people use dull knives. Keep your knife sharp with a steel, one of those long metal sticks with a handle on the end. A ceramic steel is the best choice; I like a MAC. It costs about $50.

Steeling is easier than you might think and it’s not a tragedy if you don’t get the perfect angle. But steeling doesn’t sharpen a knife; it just helps maintain the existing edge, which will eventually fail. A good way to see if your knife needs sharpening is to slice a tomato. If you have trouble breaking the skin, and the steel doesn’t help, it’s time to sharpen.

If you like the idea of busting out some whetstones and grinding a new edge, sharpening isn’t hard to learn and the equipment isn’t very expensive.

Korin sells a tutorial DVD and Chad Ward’s book An Edge in the Kitchen has several illustrated chapters on sharpening. Electric sharpeners such as Chef's Choice work well on German knives but not on Japanese knives.

Me? I take my knives to pros for sharpening. For a typical home cook, taking your knives to a professional sharpener once a year is a good rule of thumb (It is a proven fact that there are more hands and fingers cut because of dull knives than because of sharp ones). Make sharpening a New Year’s resolution.

In Atlanta, I recommend The Blade Smith. Check with your local cooking stores for professional sharpeners in your community.

One last word of advice: Never, Ever put your beautiful knife in the dishwasher. Always wash it by hand with hot water and mild detergent. Dry it immediately and store it on a magnetic strip or in a knife block. Do Not let it knock around in a drawer with your other tools.


I am food obsessed and everyone who knows me knows that. And a few months ago, I took my obsession a step further and started to write about it. At first, it was a good idea and then, after I started, I wondered, “Who cares?”

So I started checking what the blog site calls my dashboard, counting the “hits”, watching for remarks and blog generated email. People were reading what I wrote: one day there were over a hundred visits and a friend (Bless Him!) told me he shares all my recipes with people at work. They actually look forward to reading what I write.

Now I’m a monster with fantasies of becoming the newest Mark Bittman, Ruth Reichl and MFK Fischer dancing in my head. Then I wake myself up and snap out of it. Still Me in the mirror with the messy kitchen and the latest food disaster in my garbage.

But that has got to count for something. Not everyone grows up to be Top Chef Master, Escoffier or Julia. Most of us just muddle along to become above adequate cooks who enjoy feeding ourselves and others. There have got to be us hidden gems out there in the great unknown, unsung and unpaid. Yep, I am serving a purpose after all. I am one of The Little Ones, a very happy foil to all of The Great Ones.

Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My 1st Confit

Recently my friend mentioned she wanted to learn to make confit, duck confit and I blustered, "I can show you" knowing full well I'd never confited duck much less watched someone else.

For rescue, I turned to my Julia books, the last words (for me) on classic French cooking. I found a recipe covering both sides of two pages with notes directing the cook to an additional recipe taking up both sides of another page. The combined directions detailed a time consuming process that called for, among other things, pounds of melted duck fat, esoteric equipment and herbs (that despite my extensive collection) I had never heard of.

Not easily dissuaded, I also searched the web, my faithful Larousse , a 40 year old NY Times Cookbook written by Craig Claiborne (no mention there of confit) and an even older book written in French (I used WordMonkey to translate).

What follows is an amalgam of ingredients and procedures and pictures of some of the steps. And my reactions to this first attempt at making duck confit? Not bad. Would I do it again? Yes! in exactly the same way. I enjoyed the challenge; it was fun (and it didn't taste half bad).


  • 2 fresh duck legs with thigh attached
  • 4 juniper berries
  • 6 pepper corns
  • 4 whole cloves
  • ¼ tsp dried thyme or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch allspice
  • 4 TBS Kosher salt
  • 1 TBS sugar
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled, left whole 
  • Optional additional seasonings: pinches of fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, dried ginger
  • Regular olive oil to cover the duck legs by 2”. I used almost all of a 34-ounce bottle

  • Using a mortal and pestle, lightly crush the juniper berries, clove and peppercorns together.

  • Crumble in the bay leaf, dried thyme, all spice, salt and sugar and mix everything together. If you are using fresh thyme, do not add it yet.
  • Select a porcelain or glass dish (with sides) that will hold the legs snugly.
  • Spread half the mix on the bottom of your dish along with 2 sprigs fresh thyme (if you are using fresh).
  • Put the duck legs in the dish, skin side up and spread the remaining mix over the skin side of the duck. Put one sprig of fresh thyme (if you are using fresh) over the top of each leg.  
  • Cover tightly and refrigerate undisturbed for 48 hours.

  • Preheat over to 225°
  • Remove the duck legs from the cure and brush off as much of the mix as you can.
  • Return the ducks to a high sided oven proof container and cover them with the olive oil. The oil should come over the legs by about 2”
  • Float in the two cloves of garlic.
  • Slowly poach the duck, uncovered, for 3 hours or until the duck starts coming off the bone.
  • Do not let the oil bubble. It should cook very slowly and have little or no bubbling.
  • After the duck is cooked, remove it from the oil and put it into a clean glass or porcelain container large enough to hold the legs and all the oil.
  • Remove the garlic cloves and save them for slathering on a crusty piece of bread: cook's treat!
  • Strain the oil and pour it over the duck legs. Be sure the cooked duck is fully submerged in oil. Leave the duck to cool and then cover tightly and refrigerate. It will keep up to 3 months.


Some years ago I attended a cooking demonstration given by someone who (at the time) I considered the last word on all matters food. Her advice---which I took very much to heart----was that we use too much salt consequentially masking the natural deliciousness of our ingredients not to mention doing our health little good. She adamantly maintained that the sign of a very good cook was to learn to develop flavor with little or no salt.

The lady’s advice was forward thinking and many experts soon espoused that position. Wanting to be modern and a good and healthy cook, I eschewed the saltshaker, almost to the extreme. There were other ways to enhance food and I happily sallied forth using lemons, herbs and spices to gild my dishes and wake up the palate.

Now, I did not harbor any ill will toward salt, as I still was a closeted salter of corn on the cob, grilled meat and pasta water. For those foods my health concerns were out the window rationalizing that some things require salt, lots of it, and there simply was no substitute.

Over time the obsessiveness with salt as evil eased. The food world gradually directed that salt was okay again and not only that but now we would have many choices as to what salt to use. Some were for cooking, some for finishing, some for the table, all literally from all over the world. Some were to be used with meat and some with fish or fowl. Salt was to be paired much like wine and suddenly I was looking at exotic salts carrying prices akin to the finest Barolo or a vertical of Silver Oak.

Climbing again on the food trend bandwagon, I set out to acquire a few varieties and study the impact of gray salt, pink salt, sea salt (fine grain, large grain) and Kosher salt on my cooking. I prosthelytized on salt and imposed my opinion on the benefits of using artisanal salts (other than the usual blue box stuff) to anyone who would listen.

But secretly I was growing some serious confusion. All these exotic salts---one website listed forty! Forty? (yikes)---and I still had trouble telling them apart. Aside from larger or smaller grains, few offered any significant differences in taste and I am concluding that hand harvested French sel gris at $7.99 an ounce is just too much.

So here I am, after many years of ups and downs with salt, settled on just three: Kosher salt for general use, rock salt to make a bed for meaty juicy roasts and sea salt when I’m cooking fish. And that, my friends, is it.