Tales from the Kitchen: Using a Mandoline

It was the perfect Christmas morning: Presents were all unwrapped, everyone was joyful with their new bounty, and it was now time to start thinking about the family dinner. With a mimosa in hand, we were off to the kitchen.

I begin working on my assigned dish. a Spanish Potato Tortilla. While it is a dish with a number of steps, nothing is overly complicated. Essentially the steps are slice potatoes, fry potatoes, saute garlic & onion, combine everything with eggs, and cook in a pan.

Fast forward about 10 minutes later, and I’m running my newly shortened thumb under cold water, with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the bleeding will stop. For you see, on this fine Christmas morning I decided to use a mandoline.

Mandoline Slicer

For those not familiar with a kitchen mandoline, it is essentially a plank with a blade in the surface. By offsetting the blade, you can make uniform slices of food very quickly by sliding the food back & forth on the surface. In order for the device to work well, the blade needs to be sharp. Very sharp. Every time I’ve seen one used on a cooking show, the host always cautions “be careful of your fingers”.

I always felt that this warning was only met for kitchen plebeians, surely not for me. Turns out, it was meant for me.

On my second potato, I wanted to make sure I was getting every last slice. That last slice happened to also include my thumb. Because of the nature of the cut and the location, it was a bleeder. Thankfully the local urgent care center was open, and an hour later I was back in the kitchen finishing the dish. On a quick aside: every nurse commented “I’ve seen so many of these cuts, I won’t touch those things.”

Mandoline Thumb Injury

Thumbs-up!

The moral of the story: as much as you love cooking, you are not a professional cook. You do not have the hundreds or thousands of hours in the kitchen that create the muscle memory that keeps you from getting injured. If you ever meet a professional cook or chef, look at their hands – they’re mangled. Their paws are covered in scars, burn marks, and typically will be missing a tip or two.

So, when you’re stepping into the kitchen, don’t be a hero. Use the guard. Take your time chopping. Be wary of hot oil.

 

 

How to Make Crosshatch Grill Marks

I love grilling. I can’t stay it plainly enough: I love grilling.

While I enjoy braising, frying, baking, & roasting, it just seems that grilling is quintessentially the manliest way of cooking food. Nothing is cooler than open flame.

Cross-Hatch Grill MarksAnd one of the coolest parts about grilling is the grill marks. If people “eat with their eyes first”, a good cross-hatching of grill marks tells those eyes that this is going to be some tasty goodness. The best part is that making these marks is probably one of the easiest parts about grilling.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Think of your grill like a clock. On my grill, the grates run 12-to-6.
  2. When you’re ready to put the meat on the grill, lay it diagonally across your grates. In my case, that means 1-to-7.
  3. A quarter of the way through your cooking time, rotate the meet 90-degrees. This means aligning the steak 11-to-5 now. You’re not flipping yet, only rotating.
  4. When you flip the steak, repeat the process.
  5. Voila! Cross-hatch grill marks.

Some additional advice:

  1. Make sure the grill is HOT. Don’t just throw on the meat when you start it up.
  2. Make sure your grates are clean. Brush down the grill before & after every use, and it doesn’t hurt to use some vegetable oil to prevent sticking.

Kitchen Tools You Need: Knives

Nothing pains me more than cooking in someone else’s kitchen and being forced to use shitty knives. Without a doubt, this happens at a couple of places: vacation houses, homes of people that don’t cook, tailgate parties, and airport restaurants.

(No, I don’t cook in airports, but don’t understand why we can have real forks but can’t have real knives.)

Cutting VegetablesUnless you’re preparing a meal of ice cream or cereal, I’m hard pressed to think of a dish that doesn’t require you to cut something. And the act of cutting is usually the first step of any recipe, meaning that if you start with shitty tools, you’re already on your way to having shitty food.

So, be prepared to get some knife knowledge dropped on you in this post. But, before I start giving you a shopping list, let’s review some vocab.

Stamped Knife – Stamped knives are literally made by a machine using a cookie-cutter template to stamp out the knife from a piece of sheet metal. Sometimes they’re cut with a laser instead of a stamp, but it’s the same product. This means they are cheap. Really cheap. They’re practically paper wrapped in tin foil. They feel cheap in your hands and usually have a cheap plastic handle to go with the cheap blade. Even when they have an edge, they suck, and they lose that edge quickly. (In case you couldn’t tell, I don’t like stamped knives.) The ONLY time to purchase a stamped knife, IMHO, is a filet knife, because you need the blade to be nice & flexible. But, that’s it!

Forged Knife – Picture a blacksmith, working with a piece of steel, toiling through fire & sweat as he swings his hammer to create a mighty blade. This is how a forged blade is made. This means that your knife starts as a block of metal and is then molded through heat and hammer into the final product. The blade is dense, holds it’s edge, feels good in the hand, and will last you a life time. The entire blade and handle are one piece, which makes for excellent balance. Plus, most forged blades tend to be made of high-carbon stainless steel, which helps them hold an edge and not rust.

Tang – The tang is where the blade widens out into the handle. On a forged knife, the blade and tang are one piece, and the handle will be attached to the tang. (Yes, I wrote this part just to use the word “tang”. Hey, here’s a nifty way to remember which type of knife is better: forged knives get full tang.)

Since I won’t be talking about filet knives at all, let’s assume all the knives I discuss are forged knives.

What Knives to Buy

First of all, avoid the knife sets. Even the nice sets with names like Henkel or Wustoff, even though they cost several hundred dollars, which probably seems like crazy money. There’s no way that the knives in that block are all the quality you want, plus it’s doubtful that you’ll use them all.

While I know what I like for knives, I consulted my friend Andy Cox, who is a REAL chef, about what knives to get.

All you really need is a chef knife but the second a knife, or French knife. There’s two ways to go German (e.g. Henkel or Wustoff. These are heavy high carbon stainless steel, which mean they are are malleable enough to take an edge but not so soft that they will rust. I started with a Henkel Professional S Series 10″. Unless you’re going to be doing some serious chopping I recommend an 8″ for home cooks.

The second way to go is Japanese like Global knives. Also high carbon stainless but much lighter. Different feel totally. I have graduated to a Japanese knife (Mac brand) it’s a 7.5″ santoku, which means the end curves down rather than up or flat.

What you need to do is decide what feels right to you. I know places like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table will let you handle and sometimes even try knives and they will have Henkel, Wustoff, Global, and proabably Shun knives for you to get a feel. Don’t buy a block of wustoff for $200, they are crap. Spend from $100-$130, but this knife should last for ever. Ask they sales rep about care but they are likely similar.

My Mac is only high carbon so I have to clean it immediately after each use. Once you know what you want you can go online or wait for a sale.

So there’s the professional’s opinion: get a good chef’s knife. Spend the money on this one good knife and you’ll be happy.

I couldn’t agree more. I pretty much use my chef’s knife exclusively for everything. I have 3 good knives, pictured below.

Tools to Have - Kitchen Knives

From left to right, the knives are:

I really only use the Santoku. The ceramic is nice, but you can’t use it for certain tasks due to the risk of it snapping. The Nakiri (which is Japanese for “vegetable slicer”) was actually left to me by a friend that passed away, so I really don’t use it for sentimental reasons, but it is a good knife.

But, I’m getting to the point in my culinary career where I feel like I need to make some more knife purchases. Right now I’m looking at a filet knife, a boning knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife. I also may upgrade to a larger Santoku blade, but I do like the size of my Shun, as it’s big enough for most chopping & slicing, but small enough to do finer work.

Since a knife is such a personal tool, does anyone have their own preferences? (If you say stamped, I WILL cut you.)

 

Reheating Pizza

Into every bachelor’s life, a little leftover pizza must fall.

Granted, this isn’t a bad thing. I usually order pizza by the slice for a number of reasons: I’m eating alone, it’s cheaper, and I really like when they reheat the slice in the oven leading to a crispier crust.

However, I will occasionally order a whole pizza, which almost always results in leftovers. Like any self-respecting bachelor, a good portion of these leftovers will be consumed cold while I stand over the kitchen sink. This is mostly because reheating pizza at home never results in a desirable slice.

If you go the microwave route, the crust can quickly become limp & soft (that’s what she said), and reheating in the oven never seems to get the right combination of heat throughout the slice without something burning.

But, I was sent this video, which will now be my method of re-heating slices at home. You know, when I feel like sitting down like a civilized human being.

How I Learned to Cook – Part 1

The incomparable Julia ChildMy earliest food memories are of watching the incomparable Julia Child on NH public television and helping my mother in the kitchen. While I can’t remember a single recipe, aside from fluffy scrambled eggs, from watching Julia, I do remember that she was fearless in the kitchen; nothing seemed to fluster her. She would laugh at her mistakes, compensate if she couldn’t find an ingredient, and made it all seem so fluid. I even convinced my mother to send away for some recipes – I wish I still had those laying around.

My mother, like most mothers, did an excellent job of feeding the family on a daily basis. But what really stands out for me is helping my mother prepare for a dinner party. She pulled out all the stops when we had guests over: Coquilles-St. Jacques,  Beef Bourguignon, Chateaubriand, asparagus, cocktails… the whole 9 yards.

One dinner party, Crazy Ootie (my mother) was making some sort of dessert that she had never made before. I can’t remember the specifics, but it was some sort of custard with blueberries. She was using the blender, and in her concentration she forgot to put the top on before hitting ‘start’. Suddenly custard & blueberries were EVERYWHERE in the kitchen. I was totally in shock, waiting for some sort of immediate outburst. After all, she just made a mess of the entire kitchen, hours before her party. Instead, her reaction was to laugh. I mean, it was hysterically funny. I have yet to see a similar blender mishap.

But, between Julia and my mother, I was able to learn two of the most important culinary lessons very early in life: don’t be afraid and have fun.