Sharp as a Knife

It's been a long journey since I decided I needed a new chef's knife, did all the knife research, and eventually bought the knife. Looks like it was about a year and a half.

Of course, I didn't just purchase a knife. Oh, no. I was going on a life quest to become Serious about my knives. To do the knife thing properly. And, in order to be prepared for my new knife-owning lifestyle, I had to be prepared to sharpen my knives myself. Not with a sharpener. With whetstones.

Oh, it was to be glorious. I would see my knives getting dull, and say, "Now is the time where I, with my serious knife lifestyle, will make the knives razor-sharp. Well, knife-sharp. And I will know that nothing is beyond my power."

A year and a half later, and no knives had been sharpened. The collection of whetstones sat in a cupboard in the kitchen like so many lace doilies, waiting for a day that might never come.

Well, that day finally came.

Shun Classic Chef's Knife with whetstones

The In-Laws were visiting last week, and Melanie's mother owns a Shun paring knife (one of the Alton's Angle ones), and apparently at some point after October of 2008 I offered to sharpen it if it ever became dull. Of course, it might have been Melanie who, thinking I was silly for paying all that money for whetstones I probably would never use, offered my sharpening services. Time dulls memory, and it's hard to know which story is more likely.

In any case, the knife was dull, and she brought it for sharpening. The time for delays was over.

Most of my trepidation with sharpening wasn't about the knives or even the sharpening process itself. If I did a poor job of it, as long as I didn't keep at it for too long, the worst that would happen is that I would have to take the knives to a local shop to have them sharpened. Not a big deal.

As with most projects that never get started, my problem was with the little details, like where to do the sharpening. Some of the videos I had seen show people outside at a table set up with all of their whetstones in a row and a bottle of water that they can pour over the whetstones when they are in danger of drying out. Well, if I did something like that, then I'd want the weather to be nice, and I'd need a table outside, and possibly to have the hose set up to provide moisture, and so on. That set up never happened, so knives slowly started to dull.

When push came to shove, I lubricated the whetstones with the kitchen faucet, then placed them on the island where I could sit down and sharpen them. If they looked a bit parched, I went back over to the sink. It was not a great hardship. If I were sharpening 100 knives, it would be a great hardship. For 10 knives, it was pretty simple.

With the logistics out of the way, I could finally sharpen. I'm not really planning on discussing technique, because I've had one sharpening session based on information I pulled off of conflicting sources from the internet. My knives are sharp, but I can't say that what I did was the best way to do it. Suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, previously dull knives could now cut a piece of paper in twain if such were my wont.

Instead, I will give you a video from the No Reservations Twitter feed that promises knife instruction. It's somewhat appropriate, as Anthony Bourdain is largely to blame for me deciding I needed this lifestyle change, so hopefully this video will help any others who have been similarly urged into sharpening knives. The technique demonstrated in this video is not how I did it, but I may give this technique a go next time.

Am I a better person for this experience? It's such a philosophical question. From a personal perspective, I now have a more direct connection with my kitchen tools that didn't exist before. If the apocalypse comes, I can still have sharp knives without needing any electricity or help from a third party. These are good things. From a social perspective, point at ten people on the street: will they be able to sharpen their own knives? Chances are maybe one of them can, so that must make me better than, what, 90% of all people on the street.




Wood Fire Oven


I'm reading The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens in an attempt to come to grips with whether or not I'm going to be able to swing having a wood fire oven in my back yard. The downside of my back yard is that it is tiny and that most of it is several feet below the back door. I have a wood deck that is conveniently floor-height, but I have some concerns about placing a wood fire oven next to the deck.

Three of the big decisions that you have to make when picking out what sort of oven you're going to have are:

  1. How much are you going to cook at one time?
  2. Is this oven primarily for pizza or for bread?
  3. How often are you going to cook in it?

There's no oven that will easily support all of the range of options posed by the questions above without causing you to either waste a lot of money on wood, waste a lot of time heating the oven, destroy your oven after a few years, and/or give you an inferior product when you're done with it.

The more mass you give an oven, the longer it will take to heat, but the longer that the heat will last. For an oven you're going to use every day, you want a lot of mass, because it will hold much of the heat overnight. This means you have to use less fuel heating it up the next morning.

On the other hand, the same massive oven, used only a few times a week, would be a terrible pain, because it would take a tremendous amount of wood each time to heat it up, and you'll wait around forever for it to happen. Depending on the materials you've chosen, you may cause extra damage to the oven by causing the repeated expansion and contraction of something that was prepared to spend its life mostly expanded.

I can't imagine a better guide through these options than The Bread Builders. It's a fascinating read, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about the design and construction of this oven. Who knows, one day I may even build one. Wouldn't that be exciting?

Slow Cookery

iStock_000011141268XSmall.jpgI own a slow cooker. This is a tremendously useful device that has been around for decades. Many books have been written on application after application of casseroles, stews, braises, and so on. After all, it's a big piece of equipment, so you want to get your shelf-space worth out of it. For me, although I'll occasionally branch out into other dishes, I find that it earns its keep by doing just two things for me: stock and boston butt.

The thing I like about making both stock and pork butt in the slow cooker is that it requires no thought at all. None. No consultation of recipes, no worries about how it's going to come out. Okay, I lied: I do have to think about if I'm going to be around in 8-12 hours to decant the thing. But that's usually accomplished by setting it to cook 2-4 hours before I go to bed. Ta-dah!

Stock. Okay, let's say I want to make a chicken or turkey stock. What do I do? I take a whole chicken, or a chicken carcas, or some of a turkey carcas, or turkey necks, some chicken wings and thighs, and I dump them into the stock pot. If I have some vegetables, I'll cut them up into big pieces and put them in, too. Then I'll 3/4 or so fill the slow cooker with water and cook on low for 8-12 hours. When I'm done I decant the liquid into plastic containers, put into the cooler with some ice and other freezy-things until it's cold, and refrigerate or freeze. No recipes, no ratios, nothing. If there's a trick, it's not to try to squish too many solid things into the pot.

Pork Butt. Take a Boston Butt. Put it into the slow cooker, fat side down (or trim the fat, if you're ambitious). Pour in two beers. Some sort of Ale is probably best, but whatever. Nothing too dark. Liberally salt the top of the pork. Cook for 10-12 hours on low. If you want, turn the thing after 2-4 hours. Once it's done, it should fall apart when you barely poke it with a fork.

Both of these dishes freeze nicely and are great things to have around when you need to add a little something to some dish that you don't want to spend a lot of effort on. No matter what, the stock you make here is better than anything you'll buy at a megamart and probably at least as good as what you'll get from a specialty store. And the pork has saved me on man a what-am-I-going-to-have-for-dinner night. Both are cheap as dirt. Both are dead simple.

So, if you have a slow cooker, break it out, fill it up, and let time, low heat, and liquid work its magic on inexpensive, collagen-filled ingredients. And if you're considering getting a slow cooker, don't think you need a recipe book to make it a worthwhile purchase. Sure, it's great to branch out and do more with it, but it's hardly necessary. Load it up and go, and prepare to be amazed.

A most impressive addition

Wake_Robin_Bread_Extraction.jpg During my recent trip to Asheville, for which you'll get an overview and a disclaimer soon enough, we took a quick trip to Wake Robin Farm to visit the bread makers and their oven. There is a lot to be said about both, but right now I want to focus on one small part. A brick oven is a relatively ancient technique for making bread. Not the original method, of course, because ovens are a pretty recent invention as far as cooking is concerned. If it wasn't done on an open fire, it's probably not one of the first cooking techniques. Still, centuries ago, a single town or village might have a single wood fire oven that is shared across the community. Generally, the ovens I've seen haven't deviated much from what you might have seen back then, except most of the ovens I've seen are smaller and may have some design differences for aesthetics or because of the skill of the builder. It wasn't until last week that I saw something that is truly modern and, to my mind, vital for anyone building a new wood fire oven. thermocouple_interface.jpg What's shown in the picture above, embedded into the side of the oven, is a series of thermocouple interfaces. Thermocouples are effectively thermometers that can handle a wide range of temperatures, especially at the extreme range of what the typical cook would have to deal with (as opposed to what the typical physicist might have to deal with, which would go significantly higher or lower). These thermocouples are set in the oven so that Steve Bardwell, co-owner of Wake Robin Farm Breads, can plug in a compatible meter and see what the temperature of not only various parts of the interior surface of the oven, but also a few points between the interior surface and the exterior surface. This gives him a tremendous amount of information about how fully the oven is heated and should allow him to predict how long the oven will retain its heat. Were I to build a brick oven, I would steal this idea. Without a doubt. I would then connect the sensors to a computer to allow me to graph the temperatures and keep a record of historical heating curves. Because there's no geeky idea that can't be made just a little better by recording and graphing the results.

Instructable Wednesday: Wood-Fire Oven

Over at Instructables, you can find out how to make just about anything. I've been collecting a list of interesting food-related projects. This one is: Make pizza with a plasma cutter, a backhoe and a pile of mud! One of the great things about this particular Instructable is how the author, Fritz Bogott, talks about many of the inspirations and deviations that he took while on the path. There is some good use of reclaimed materials, some techniques sustainable and not, and a whole bunch of pictures. To view the detail shots of the photos, you'll need to make an account and sign in. I don't know that I can convince Melanie to let me go ahead and try to make this one, but it seems like a great way to enhance the back yard.

Tomato T-Shirt… for nerds!

This tomato t-shirt is perfect for the food geek or nerd in your life. If you make it to a taping of Iron Chef America, and it happens to be Battle Tomato, you will potentially save Alton Brown milliseconds of trying to remember the scientific name for the tomato. 1723-tee_large.png Plus, it's a Threadless t-shirt, vendor/creator of a hefty percentage of my t-shirt collection.

BaR2D2 Mobile Drink Station and Party Robot

Some of you may know that, during the day, I build robots. And while making a car that can drive itself on city streets is pretty cool, I have to admit that I kind of wish I had my own mobile drink serving/mixing robot. But, with the aid of Instructables, I can now build my own BaR2D2.* The build instructions are very complete. It wanders around a party, it has lots of clever, sound-activated lights, it serves drinks, it has cold beverage and ice storage. Oh, just watch the video: Via BoingBoing Gadgets. Preview photo by Kristie Stephens. *- And, of course, you can also build your own. They don't all necessarily have to go to me.

Back in the Day: Tinkering with the Vacuum

A couple years ago, I regularly brewed coffee with a Bodum Santos Vacuum Coffee Pot. It was a great way to make coffee, especially in the environment that I worked at the time. However, there was a flaw with the coffee pot, and it wasn't brewing for long enough to develop the flavor that I wanted. So I tinkered with the vacuum pot in a non-destructive way, and made it work better.

Kindle for the Food Enthusiast

The image used in the preview of this article was taken by John Pastor and used via a Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license It's hardly a secret, especially after Oprah told everyone to buy one, that Amazon has* an e-book reader called the Kindle. There's a general review of the Kindle and a comparison between it, books, and other e-book readers, but those who already own a Kindle and just want to know what books to get for it can scroll down to near the bottom, past the blocks of text and into the listy bits. The basics Your general purpose e-book reader is a small device, generally the size of a paperback book or thereabouts, designed to hold a bunch of books on it. The screen of an e-book reader is usually what's called e-ink. Unlike your general LCD screen, the e-ink has a very high contrast ratio, meaning that it's easy to distinguish between the words and the white space. Also, it's completely reflective, so unlike a laptop, it works just as well outside in full sunlight as it does inside under a lamp. And it does require a lamp, because also unlike a laptop screen, it doesn't have any sort of backlight. So, just like a book, you need to ensure that there's a proper reading light source available. What's special about the Kindle There have been several e-book readers over the years, many of which are from Sony. What makes the Kindle so special? The Kindle has a built-in cell-phone modem, meaning wherever you have an EVDO connection, you can shop for, buy, and receive books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. So, if you're stuck at the airport and nothing you have in your library suits your tastes for the 4-hour layover, you don't have to buy the latest Stephen King novel from the airport newsstand. Instead, you pop into the Kindle store, search through there hundreds of thousands of titles, and within a few minutes, your new book will be ready for you to read. Best of all, it doesn't take any more space in your luggage or your home library for the extra book. Because it has an always-on internet connection, you can even browse the web in a pinch. The browser isn't the best, and the connection is a little slow, but it's great for popping over to wikipedia to look something up that might not be in your library. Pros vs. Books As mentioned, you can have hundreds or thousands of books on your Kindle, and they won't take up any more physical space. The largest of books will never be heavier than the smaller books. You can make annotations, highlights, or page clippings from books, and those will appear in a centralized file that you can reference later, as well as interspersed within the books themselves. It's hard to argue with the ability to hold a library in your bag. The biggest advantage of the Kindle vs. a real book, aside from space savings, is the ability to search everything in your library all at once. For me, this is especially useful. If I want to find out what I know about aubergines, I can hit the search button and see: aubergine-kindle.png Likewise, if I do a similar search for "maillard" and click on the On Food and Cooking link, then I will see something like: maillard-kindle.png Clicking on any of those items will take me to the part of the book referenced. It is unbelievably handy. What are the downsides The biggest downside to the Kindle vs. books is that the Kindle does not handle the organization of large numbers of books very well. You can sort them by title, by author, or by recency, but that's it. You can't sort by genre, you can't make custom lists or groups, and you can't put them into folders. I really hope they fix this problem, because it's the one thing that keeps me from going crazy putting lots of extraneous-but-free books on my Kindle.** Another downside, which is much more obvious but should be stated, is that the Kindle is a battery-powered device. This means that, if you don't keep up with the charging, you will be book-free until you charge it back up again. This is rarely a problem, especially if you don't leave the network connection running all the time. One of the advantages of e-ink is that it really uses very little battery power, and mostly just to change the page. I've gone for days of regular use without having to recharge, though it's wise to get into some sort of charging routine. While there are pictures in the Kindle, they are not as sharp as they would be in a book, and they are never in color. Generally they're good enough to get by, though. Finally, the Kindle does not support all of the features of the e-book file format that it uses. Specifically, it can't handle tables, which means that there are sections to some books that look like lists that would make much more sense if the Kindle decoded them properly. This and the organization of books should just be a software update, so it's possible that they'll fix both of these problems. Maybe. What do I have on the Kindle, anyways? Although I have many other titles on the Kindle, these are the things that are related to food and/or cooking. From the Kindle Store: From other sources: On Food and Cooking and Bakewise are the two titles that currently get the most use. I can't yet fully recommend the other titles, because I haven't gotten through them all, but these seemed the most useful to have on hand of what was available at the time. As time goes on, I'll update the list here. If it weren't so expensive, I would pick up a copy of Chef's Book of Formulas, Yields, and Sizes as well, because it sounds terribly useful for a reference library. Perhaps one day. Preferably one day when the price is lower. *- Well, I say "has" but they're sometimes backordered, such as at the time of posting. However, according to commenter Karen, there are refurbished Kindles available. Read her comment for more information. **- There's this great e-book from that has links to kazillions of free e-books, whether public domain or creative commons. You download the book into the Kindle, then click on the links in the e-book, and it will put the book onto your Kindle, as if by magic. They have some cool other services as well, and they have things that work with other e-book readers, so go to their site and peruse.

Reduce refrigerator energy usage by 90%

EcoRenovator has a post on how to make a fridge that runs on 100Wh of energy per day. It's links to a PDF by Tom Chalko* that basically shows you how to modify a chest freezer to operate in temperature ranges. The nice thing about the fridge is that, when you open the door, the cold air doesn't readily escape, and thus you save energy. The bad things are: you lose a lot of volume of storage, because for the floor space, the fridge is taller than a chest freezer; also, it's a pain to organize and retrieve things from a chest freezer setup, so the ergonomics aren't there. Still, if your overriding concern is to be good to the environment and to use less energy, this is clearly a relatively easy and effective way to go. via Make. *- Boy, is this an interesting side note. Apparently, Dr. Chalko is very keen on the environment, which you will notice from his web site. Also, doing a minimal amount of digging on Google reveals that there is a paper he's written linking an increase in seismic activity to global warming. Apparently, there is no such correlation, but there was quite the kerfuffle about it. All this does not mean that the refrigerator idea is not a sound one.

Nerding out your Roasting

Thinking back to the old Kitchen Computer idea of yore, one of the important aspects of it is being able to monitor, in depth, the temperature of, well, everything in the chain of the food. So, obviously the food itself should be monitored, the cooking environment, the cooling environment, and the resting environment. This will not only let us know whether the food is done, but how quickly, what path it takes, whether it should be safe to eat or not, and if cooling it down made everything in the fridge go bad. I've explored the topic of temperature control in the past, but I had never found quite the right sensors to use. I've been playing around with the other aspects of the computer interface, such as the microprocessor and the communications, but the temperature sensors were never quite right for me. Fortunately, I am not the only geek in the world, and someone else has done much of the legwork (and, really, all of the work) for tracking these temperatures. Enter the Turkey Tracker, which was live-casting temperature updates for a turkey, the smoker, and the outside environment. There was even a video stream, photos, and everything. This is a project by, according to the list of authors on the blog, Robin Parker, Michael Weinberg, and Chris Chen. The Turkey Tracker Blog has plenty of words describing what's went into the process. What Went Into the Turkey Tracker describes some of the hardware and software, including the ideal, high-temperature thermometers that I'll need to use for my setup (though I may have to have separate probes for low-temperature sensing). There's even a FAQ, that gives answers on cooking and temperature sensing techniques. To see what it all looks like, you can check out this Flickr set about Project Wirebird.* Obviously, I'll be learning much from this example, so that I can build a strong and powerful kitchen computer. There is talk of open-sourcing the code as well as having multiple turkey-trackers next year, so perhaps I'll get in on the fun then. via Make. *- The image I used for the preview of this article was taken from that Flickr Set, and is released under a Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike License. So, as with my stuff, feel free to use that image or its source, but be sure to give attribution. Also, if you use that image, be sure to license whatever you use it in similarly.

Char-Broil Oil-less Turkey "Fryer"

I have not been able to turn on the Web for the past week without seeing something about the new The Big Easy Oil-less Turkey Fryer from Char-Broil. What I hear is "it won't catch your house on fire like a turkey fryer will" and "infrared heat." I will start by saying that in no way am I suggesting that this device will not make a delicious turkey. I don't own one and am not going to pay for one, so unless someone wants to pony up a Big Easy Oil-less Turkey Fryer, I will not make that determination. I'm sure there'll be plenty of reviews in a few days from all over the place. However, I will tell you that this device, despite its form factor, is not going to fry your turkey. What it's going to do is broil your turkey. You know how I know? No oil. It's one of the secrets of frying, you see: you need oil. So what's happening is that the Big Easy uses some propane to feed some enclosed burners. These burners get warm, and radiant heat (a.k.a. infrared heat) cooks the turkey. The nice thing is that this happens around the whole turkey at the same time, thus providing a reasonably easy setup. Of course, a turkey is a bulky, fiddly hunk of meat and bone, and it just doesn't cook evenly, which is why pain is taken to keep the white meat from drying out while the dark meat becomes safe to eat. If you have an oven that has a rotisserie attachment, then stick your turkey on that and turn the broiler on. That's the same basic setup as this "fryer". But don't go thinking that you're going to get the same sort of flavor that you would from a fryer. You may or may not even get as good of a turkey as you would from the oven, and I might even suggest just going out to the grill and using a rotisserie there, especially if you have coal. Coal rotisseried turkey would probably be a good way to impress the relatives. You know how, in a convection oven, you don't cook the food at as high of a temperature? That's because radiant heat is a relatively inefficient way to cook something. It'll get there in the end, and is great for the right kinds of foods, but it is not efficient as these things go. Oil, being a lot thicker than air, conducts heat very, very efficiently. This is why you might stick your arm into a 500°F oven for a couple of seconds to pull out a roast, but you would never stick your arm into a 350°F pot of oil. Not even for a couple of seconds. Oil is very efficient. So when Char-Broil calls their round, only use at Thanksgiving broiler a "fryer", I scoff. Again: could be a wonderful device, but it transfers heat in a completely different way from what a fryer uses, and knowing how heat transfers is an important part of cooking. I don't appreciate the spreading of misinformation. Still, if you don't mind having a good chunk of your garage cluttered for 365.242199* days of the year with a device that is not going to fry your turkey, then feel free. Personally, I'll stick with the oven. Unless, as I said, someone wants to give me one. Then I will give it a fair shot. I might not keep it, but I'd certainly cook something with it. *- Give or take

Holiday Shopping: Jurassic BBQ Apron

Every good food geek requires properly geeky attire when cooking. Maybe not all the time; you can't just go getting dressed up in a lab coat when you just want to throw together some eggs and bacon, but when taking extinct animals and cooking them for pleasure and nutrition, sometimes you need a little something extra. The WearScience store has just the thing: the Jurassic BBQ Apron. Perfect for the summer barbeque parties or the holiday get-togethers. Impress your friends! Frighten your family!
From the product page:
Hypothesis: Over 99% of prehistoric animal species are now extinct, many of which were no doubt delicious. By mastering advanced cloning techniques we can incorporate these long dead animal species into a unique and scrumptious BBQ experience.
Note: I'm not getting any money or other kickbacks from this, but I do think it's a swank design.

Roasting Coffee the Popcorn Way

Remember when I said I had to stop myself from posting anything that comes across and Ideas in Food? Apparently Make is one of those, as well, at least for their food related posts.* However, in this case, a casual exchange on twitter prompts this one.
Ihnatko: 'I've just ordered a hot-air popcorn popper on Amazon. Yes, I am indeed living the dream…' thefoodgeek: 'Are you modding it to roast coffee beans, or is this just for popcorn?' snitty: 'You can do *what* with a popcorn popper? Do you have a link? Also, is the modification reversible?'
At the time, I just forwarded a link to an old engadget article about seriously modding a popcorn popper. It's a good read, but then I ran across this article on Make about an airpopper coffee roaster, with included video, and it is so much easier. No modding, available inexpensively though yard sales or eBay. Go to it! You can pay for the popper with about 3lbs, based on the price estimates in the video. Plus, your coffee will taste better. Less money, better coffee. *- To be fair, I have scooped a few of the more mainstream sites with a couple of these, so I apparently have my finger on the heartbeat of the something something blah blah.

Hardcore cooking - Knives. Part 3: The purchases

In the first part of this series, I told about my general difficulties with insisting that I be a proper cook even if I'm not a proper chef. Also that I am looking for a new knife. In the second part, I discussed the various research that I performed, and gave a few tricks for doing your own research on similar topics.
So, after all that work, did I get a good knife? Did I decide to outsource the sharpening? Am I mad? Yes, I am quite mad. For the knife, I purchased an excellent knife.
That is the Shun Classic 10-Inch Chef's Knife, and it is lovely. It's not as lovely as the Ken Onion knife I originally wanted, but the Classic had a couple of advantages. First, it was slightly cheaper. Second, although the Onion looked very comfortable, I was concerned that, as with the global knives, they wouldn't stand up to long-term usage the way a knife with a more traditional grip would. Of course, during all of my research, I was thinking about MAC knives and all sorts of other crazy Japanese brands. Why didn't I go with those? The short answer is: availability. There was no way for me to try those knives out, so I'd have know way of knowing how well they fit my hand. I could have extended the search for several months, locating retailers who had samples to try and compare, but in my heart I knew I loved the Shun, so there was really no reason not to get it. Maybe one day I will open the search up again, but I am quite happy for the foreseeable future. 80085_1_n.jpgFor the sharpening, well… I couldn't let my manhood go uncontested. Therefore, I have purchased a Standard Knife Sharpening Set from Epicurean Edge. Not a machine, which while acceptable if you get the proper brand and model is not nearly manly enough. No, I have a set of stones with 4 levels of grit. This will allow me to ensure that not only will my knives never be dull, but that I can remove any sort of damage from the edge. Mind you, I've been told that I will be maintaining every knife in our collection now, not just my Chef's Knife. Which is fair, I think, though I may be paring down the selection before too much time passes. After all, I don't even use most of those knives now.

Upgrading the Stand Mixer

There are two new items for the World's Most Popular Stand Mixer In The World*. I'm writing of the KitchenAid Stand Mixer, not some other mixer. The first is the BeaterBlade. Available from Amazon, this handly little device is just like the paddle attachment on your stand mixer, except that it has some silicone bits around the edges which scrape the sides of the mixer for you. Simple, effective, and a no-thought upgrade. If you know someone with an appropriate model stand mixer, you have your holiday or birthday present for the year. The second, for the bread enthusiasts, is the Spiral Dough Hook. This one is an official KitchenAid attachment that will work for the Professional 5 Plus and the Professional 600 models (sorry, Artisan folk). As seen in the embedded video, the new dough hook actually kneads the dough along the bottom of the bowl, thus picking up the various bits of flour at the bottom. Also, it prevents the dough from slapping the side of the bowl like a one-armed midwife at a birthing competition**, so it keeps the mixer from trying to walk across the counter to its eventual doom. *–I have no data to back that up. I completely made up the title. It's a pretty popular mixer, though, you'll agree. **–It sounded okay in my head.

Hardcore cooking – Knives. Part 2: The Research

In Part 1 of this story, I described how my conscience is Anthony Bourdain and that I needed to spend far too much effort finding a knife. In Part 2, I will detail that effort.
First, I had to consider what I already knew about knives. I've been trained, briefly, on holding a knife with a pinch grip, where the back of the blade is between the thumb and forefinger of the knife hand, and the other three fingers hold the handle. I knew that comfort is one of the most important things to consider. And I knew that some knives are harder to sharpen than others, while some knives hold their edge better that others. I also knew how and why to steel a knife. So, all told, not that much. Thus I turned to Google to answer my questions. I started by looking for phrases like "only chef's knife I'll ever need" or "best chef's knife in the world", but those were predictably useless search phrases. Still, have to start somewhere. Eventually, I made my way to some forums related to cooking, specifically the ChefTalk Cooking Forums. This was a handy place to go, because there's a section on cooking equipment reviews. From ChefTalk, I saw a recommendation to visit (and this is where it gets dangerous) knife enthusiast forums. Places such as Knife Forums. The great thing about Knife Forums dot com is that there's a well-developed community of generally nice people who are enthusiastic about their hobby and willing to help anyone who might be interested in sharing it. If that doesn't sound dangerous, then I may have to explain. One of the great and terrible things about the internet is that, although you can still be a freak, you will never be a lonely freak. Across the world, or even just the countries where people speak the same language you do, there will be a hefty number of people who share your interest. If those people are polite and have a nice community to form around, then good feelings abound whenever they are there. Life cannot be spent entirely on the internet, though, so when one ventures into the real world, the percentage of people who share or at least tolerant of your interest dwindles rapidly. Often, your spouse is one of those people on the other side of that percentage, especially if your hobby is expensive. The major side effect of this is that, consciously or no, you will feel better about yourself if you bring more people into your realm of interest. Understand: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this process, as long as nobody's getting hurt. It's not dangerous because it's wrong. No, it's dangerous because I can obsess about things, and I can latch on to these interests with ease, delving into it until I am, if not an expert, at least able to sound like one to someone with passing familiarity on the subject. That's why I have my own food web site. The especially dangerous thing is that knife collecting and maintenance, as with any hobby, can be extremely expensive. Once you know how to speak the language and where to find the right places to buy and how to differentiate between a great knife and a near-perfect knife, you are in serious danger of a spousal talking-to. Here's a tip for knowing when you're in dangerous territory: look for the acronym SWMBO. The faster you find it, the more alluring and expensive the hobby. Why? SWMBO means "She Who Must Be Obeyed," and if a man speaks of the SWMBO, that means he either treads the line of overspending on the joint credit cards or that he has crossed it. The more it appears, the more you know this hobby has its murky waters. It took me less than 10 minutes of casual browsing before I found a "SWMBO," and that told me I was in the right place. Here are the highlights of what I discovered:
  • Global's used to be very trendy, but many people found that the ergonomic handles caused some repetitive stress injuries over time;
  • Shun's are currently topping the trendy list, which means that they are expensive, but still they are good knives;
  • For a really good price/performance ratio on a chef-quality knife, MAC is the way to go;
  • The Wustoff Le Cordon Bleu is awfully good for a European knife;
  • In general, Japanese knives can hold a better edge than European knives, because Japanese knives use better steel;
  • When you get into it, the Japanese don't corner the market on good steel, but you're going to have to learn some specialized terminology, which I was not quite willing to do;
  • Really good knives can cost well over $1000, and I should just ignore all of those posts because that way lie dragons;
  • Sharpening a knife is really not very hard, and besides, and a Real Man should sharpen his own knives.*
Dammit. I mean, what should I expect from a knife forum, right? Of course they are going to recommend sharpening your own knives, and they will think less of you if you don't. I mean, they won't say they'll think less of you, but you'll feel it over the WiFi connection. So that kicked off a number of avenues of research on sharpening, much of which is fraught with conflicting advice from people who seem to know a lot more than I do, which means that, for the beginner, you can probably follow any of it and be fine for several years. The basics of the advice are:
You know what? This is foolish. I am not a knife sharpening expert. However, here is a lovely and detailed post that will give you all of the information you need on sharpening knives. There are other posts on various forums, and plenty of videos from experts and expert-adjacents, but that should get you through. On the next and what should be the final part of this series on Knives, I will tell all about what I decided to purchase, as well as any final thoughts I may have on the process. *- Or Real Man analogue, if you're feeling like the language was sexist and that I wasn't accounting for the fact that women can also be bullied into taking the hard route because they lack Fortitude. If that is your preference, feel free to post in the comments an analogous phrase to Real Man that fits you better.

Hardcore cooking – Knives. Part 1: The Conundrum

I have a dreadful secret: the voice of my conscience is Anthony Bourdain. Well, maybe not me entire conscience. That would probably be bad for my health and my marriage. Strictly speaking, it's my cooking and cooking persona conscience that gets the Bourdain treatment. If I'm thinking of chopping up some vegetables in the food processor, I hear, "Julia Child, for example, raised people's expectations of food. When Rachael tells you that it's perfectly O.K. to buy prechopped onion from the supermarket... I mean, how hard is it to chop an onion? The takeaway is, I could cook, but [instead] I'll finish this bag of Cheetos and that gallon of Diet Pepsi before dying of diabetes." Were Anthony Bourdain to come over to my home during a particularly boring episode of No Reservations, and he watched me cook and ate my food, I would like for him to say to the camera that, while not a professional chef, I at least took it seriously. I would probably have Julia Child's voice in my mind, but I've seen a lot more Bourdain recently than Child, but the idea is the same: even if I'm not in a professional kitchen, I try to take cooking seriously. I study, I learn, I practice, and I try not to take the easy way out if I can avoid it. Sure, there's some occasional pain, and sometimes I'm slower than I might be, but it's all for the greater good. And I'm sure the food tastes better. Sometimes the fight between convenience and being hardcore is a close struggle, filled with compromise and bitter recriminations. (That sounds appropriately dramatic.) Such was the case with the choice of what to do about a new chef's knife. Before starting the research, I was pretty sure that I wanted the Ken Onion Chef's Knife. It's beautiful, from a reputable company, and beautiful. It's also very pretty. [amtap amazon:asin=B0007IR2MO] Still, it's pretty expensive, and you don't just want to jump into something like this without preparation. That would be…not serious. So I did some research. Then some more research. Followed by research. Then I realized that the question was bigger than I had realized. Research research research. Ask around. Google. Agonizing. Then, finally, purchase. Well, purchases. The basic idea was that I wanted The Chef's Knife. I own several chef's knives, and while I tend to favor some over other, I generally treat them as interchangeable pieces based upon, ahem, which one happens to be clean at the time. I'd decided it was time to settle down with The Chef's Knife, whom I could love and care for properly. So all I'd have to do is pick one and… wait, did I say "care for properly"? Gahhh. Knife maintenance is an issue that separates the Serious Cook for the enthusiastic amateur. Anthony Bourdain? Sharpens his own knives. At least, he did in culinary school and before, so I'm going to presume that he kept it up. Alton Brown does not, and recommends having a professional do the work. Hmmm. So what to do? Those of you familiar with three paragraphs ago may guess that the answer was "research," and so it was. How hard is it to sharpen a random knife, really? How expensive are the proper tools? For the knife I end up getting, will it be easier or more difficult than average? Am I a crazy person for even considering it? Now you know the difficult road that lay ahead of me. Next time, I'll summarize the research, and give a bunch of links to useful resources.

Bane of Existence: Select-a-size paper towels

Really? The select-a-size paper towels, designed with the goal of making it possibly to only use half of a paper towel when only half is needed… are they really the "bane of existence"? Yes. Yes they are. Here's the thing: I have over 30 years of muscle memory devoted to properly tearing paper towels. There's a certain flick of the wrist, a pull at the elbow, and a certain amount of force necessary to properly tear off a paper towel from the roll. And because it's muscle memory, I don't think about it. I walk up to the roll, grab the edge, and voila, a single paper towel is in my hands. The select-a-size towels are, as you would imagine, about half the width of a normal paper towel. This means that when you pull on the corner, the stresses that go into the tear are all wrong. All. Wrong. It's a shorter distance from corner to perforated edge, and the ratio of width to height is messed up, too. This means that chances are better than even that the paper towel is going to be torn in ways other than the perforated edge. And, because there is that perforated edge, one cannot pretend like the select-a-size is just a normal paper towel, because it'll start tearing at the first perforation, then tear in horrible ways. If you attempt to adapt to the strangeness, not only does it not quite work right for the select-a-size, but when you go back to normal paper towels in frustration, you'll find that normal paper towels don't work properly for a while, either. It's like a movie about the prom queen dating the class nerd and then trying to go back to the football star afterwards: it just doesn't quite work out like it should. The worst part is that the towels have the right goal: be environmentally friendly by encouraging people to reduce waste and blah blah blah. I appreciate environmental friendliness, I practice it in many ways, but this way is doomed. It's like a hybrid car, saving gas and poisoning the earth with its batteries. It's like the compact fluorescent light bulbs, saving energy and poisoning the earth with its mercury. Except without all the poison. Still, it's a bad compromise, and there are better ways. So, select-a-size paper towels should be avoided.

Lunch Box Stove

12 Volt StoveFor those of us who watched the fourth episode of Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt, there were plenty of items of note. There was the unfortunate accident, the nice police officer who managed to get his own TV show, and the revelation that Alton Brown pretty much makes coffee the same way I do (and, unlike most of my cooking, my coffee making technique was mine before I ran across Good Eats, so it was a nice case of parallel development). However, probably the most notable part of the show was the introduction of a new gadget, the Portable 12V Stove in the shape of a lunch box. I've been accused, at least once, of being awfully influenced by Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novels. Still, as with the coffee, I'd learned about myself, that I can go from just learning of something's existence to owning it in the space of about 45 seconds, happened well before The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul was written. Though perhaps not before the Dr. Who episode which it eerily resembles was written. In any case, I do not own the 12V Portable Stove shaped like a lunchbox, but that's mainly because I'm saving up for a honeymoon, and it would be frowned upon if I bought something that I have absolutely no use for when that money could go towards espresso in Rome, right? This portable stove can heat to 300 degrees, which means I wouldn't be baking any bread in it, but it sounds great for a stew, or the meatloaf that Alton Brown made, or some manner of cobbler, perhaps. You know, when I go on a road trip to...somewhere. Okay, I really have no use for it. Tailgating, perhaps. Not that I go to sporting events. Really small chili cookoffs. Ummmm...bah. It's $30, and sold out 'til mid-November (Possibly because of Feasting on Asphalt, but still, a great little gift for someone who would not have any reason to get it for him- or herself.