Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Spinach with Scorched Garlic

This is one of those simple dishes in which description fails to capture the result. Scorching garlic, while generally a cooking mistake, seasons and scents the oil that brings out the best of the spinach, a lighter pungency from the garlic with the earthier flavors from the spinach.

Because the garlic is left intact, it's not too strong and can withstand the cooking that would ruin minced or sliced garlic.

1 pound spinach, washed, drained, chopped in 1 inch pieces
4 cloves garlic crushed but still in one piece
1 tablespoon oil
salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Bring a good volume of water to a boil, 3-4 quarts is good. Do not salt the water. Use the heating time to finish prepping the other ingredients.

Blanch the cut spinach in the boiling water for 1 minute. Drain, and shock the spinach with cold water.

The spinach will have collapsed and cooked down. Drain, blot or spin the spinach in a salad spinner to remove excess liquid. Spinning works best. I find it easiest to season the spinach after spinning.

Now, when you stir fry the spinach, it will not leak out bitter liquid. The blanching and spinning turns spinach into a great vegetable for stir frying. You can blanch ahead of time and keep the spinach refrigerated or at room temperature for an hour or two before cooking.

Heat the oil in a wok on high heat. Add the garlic and stir fry until the garlic has taken on some dark color on all sides.

Add the spinach and stir fry to coat the spinach evenly in the oil, breaking up any clumps.

Serve immediately.

I picked up this dish from Barbara Tropp's The Modern Art of Chinese CookingIt's out of print as are many of the best Chinese cookbooks, but still readily available in the used book market. 

A similar dish done with Yu Choy can be seen at the Steamy Kitchen blog. The basic idea is adaptable to any quick cooking greens.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hoisin Simmered Strips

The original version of this dish uses a whole 5-6 pound stewing hen and a proportionally longer cooking time. Here, I simplify this using leaner tender cuts and cooking them quickly though the steps are the same. It's not as rich or intense, but makes for a simpler quicker meal that is still quite good.

As written, this recipe uses a lot of meat. It's one of those dishes that you can make ahead of time and reuse in different ways. For a smaller version, you can reduce the amounts to 1/4 that listed. The ingredients will scale will at that ratio.  I'll list those amounts in parentheses.

4-5 pounds lean tender chicken, or pork in strips. (1 pound) Chicken tenderloins work well and are already the right shape.
rice wine

I'm using up a package of chicken tenderloins and pork sirloin tip roast. Trim off any sinews or unwanted fat. Chicken tenderloins often have some of the tendon still attached and its best to remove that.  Season with salt and a few drops of rice wine on each side. Let sit for at least 15 minutes.

Sear off strips in a hot lightly oiled pan on high heat. You don't want to cook it through, just put color on the strips and develop some fond in the pan. The meat will stick at first, but release when it's been seared on the surface. Turn and cook on the other side. Don't stir fry or otherwise disturb the meat, you'll only have a sticking problem. Remove seared strips to a plate and repeat in batches as necessary.

My pan is heavily loaded, arguably overloaded. I'm cooking on induction on maximum wattage. And you'll see it colors and releases well without rendering out liquid or steaming the meat. Work within the limits of your stove and pan.

The brown bits left in the pan are the fond. Notice there aren't meat bits stuck all over the pan. The fond is the basis of many pan sauces in Continental cuisine and it will improve the sauce for this dish as well.

Remove pan from heat, and add the sauce ingredients.

4 large cloves garlic, minced (1 clove)
4 teaspoons minced ginger (1 teaspoon)
3/4 cup water (3 tablespoons)
3/4 cup hoisin sauce (3 tablespoons)
4 tablespoons mushroom dark soy (1 tablespoon)
4 tablespoons rice wine (1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon sugar  (1 teaspoon--this is technically more than 1/4 but it works)
1 teaspoon salt (1/4 teaspoon)

Bring to a boil over medium heat, scraping up your fond. Return the strips to the sauce and simmer gently until done, 15-20 minutes.

Remove the strips, slice them, brush with toasted sesame oil and drizzle with the cooking sauce to taste. Serve extra sauce at the table. Keeping the servings arranged as strips improves the presentation.




Thursday, October 2, 2014

A different method for passing through oil

I was streaming some TV this evening through the apps feature of my TV. I chose an episode of Great Chef's Holiday Table, the one with the Wong Brothers making their Lettuce Blossom (video link)  It's a nice chicken and vegetable filled lettuce cup or wrap.

Some interesting technique is demonstrated in the video. I give time marks to the different technique points.
  • 2:03 double cleaver mincing.
  • 2:30 marinate in quite a lot of cooking oil, but this turns out to be a prelude to passing through oil. And I don't think its really a marination step, but a measuring step.
  • 3:02 the commentary indicates to stir fry the chicken. This is a bit of a misnomer in this case. By adding the room temp chicken and oil to the hot wok, it all heats up more slowly and par cooks the chicken gently. The chicken is strained out of the oil with a spider,
  • 3:26 then truly stir-fried in much less oil with the vegetables following on quickly. 
I liked this technique of passing through oil for a few reasons. It premeasures the amount of oil needed. By mixing the oil with the chicken before heating, you know how much oil you need. This is a little less hassle and more efficient. 

You don't have to measure the temperature of the oil to keep it cool enough. Passing through oil technique usually targets an oil temp between 250 and 275 F. You can visually gauge the progress of the chicken and simply remove it at the right time without fussing with thermometers. 

Additionally, the meat will not all cook together quickly as can happen with the usual technique when you first add the meat to the hot oil 

However, you're still limited by not overloading the wok. The commercial wok stove they used had plenty of power to heat the chicken up. It will take some experimenting to see how well this technique translates to home equipment. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

How a Serrated Blade Works

Serrated blades work on a couple of different principles. In general, you have a continuously variable cutting angle as you draw the knife in the cutting stroke.

(image courtesy of Sypderco via Amazon)

Other serration patterns exist too of course. I own a Victorinox 10" Bread Knife and New West Knifeworks Super Bread Knife. The Victorinox has had a best buy rating from Cook's Illustrated as it's a good performer for a very reasonable price. The thin blade is a little flexy for certain uses though. The Super Bread Knife is a very good knife for quite a bit of money and uses a less common gentle wave serration. I also like how the tip is un-serrated on the Super Bread Knife for a clean finish to the cut.

The Victorinox uses  a fairly common pointed scallop.

And both are chisel ground, meaning they're flat on the one side. Serrations are ground in with shaped wheels. As each wheel will wear somewhat differently, it's difficult to match up the pattern on both sides of the blade. A chisel grind is a reasonable solution.

For a given length of blade, a serrated blade has more total edge length than for a plain edge knife of the same length. There's more distance to a curvy route than a straight one. So for the same cutting stroke, a serrated blade can apply more cutting surface.

Serration patterns with points gain some sawing effects making serrations more efficient on fibrous materials. Further, those fine points concentrate the pressure on a small area increasing the apparent cutting power, but also increasing wear on the points.  The points tend to round over with time and use. 

Serrated blades seem to hold an edge longer. This is both true and false. The points of the serration are what contact the cutting board. The points take the abuse and are structurally more prone to wear and dulling.  Dave_Martell at Knifeforums has a very good photo of this as shown below.

However, the points are the least amount of edge on the blade and protect the curves from the more dulling aspects of cutting thereby preserving the overall apparent sharpness of the blade.

Performance differences 

Comparing my two serrated blades, they're fairly similar for cutting bread overall. The serration patterns behave a little differently. The pointy serrations start the cut in crusty bread faster. However, once into the bread, the super bread knife is a bit faster and creates less crumb on the board.

They were indistinguishable in cutting tomato. 

When making a long deep cut, as in cutting a cake horizontally for filling, the thinner more flexible blade of the Victorinox can wander towards the tip making for an uneven cut. Converserly, in a denser material, like squash, the thicker blade of the Super Bread Knife has more wander. 

There are some simple brackets to help you make the cake cut evenly though. 

Sharpening a serrated blade

The primary trick to sharpening a serrated blade is to find a sharpener with a radius equal to or less than that of the serration. Dave_Martell in the knifeforums link above demonstrates using Edge Pro sharpening films around dowels to do so. Spyderco's Sharpmaker has finely rounded corners on the triangle stones purposely for sharpening serrations, though it tends to round over the points a bit. Sharp round tips, but not as pointy anymore.  DMT makes some tapering diamond files for this purpose as well. Generally speaking, serrations are ground at 30 degrees on one side only. 

It is this fitment issue that precludes some serrations from being resharpened fairly simply and usually requires factory equipment to do so. This is the issue with Cutco style serrations for example. 

As the serrations get finer and finer, they become harder and harder to sharpen. Inexpensive knife sets often take this path to offer an initial sharpness and then just become food saws in cheap steel.

The wavy scallops on the Super Bread knife are easier to sharpen than the pointed scallops, at least on the Sharpmaker. It's not a big difference though.

Drawbacks to the serrated blade

  • Exaggerated glide to finish the cut. When the edge contacts the cutting board with just the points, the cut is incomplete. You have to move the points through the the rest of the cut to finish cutting. 
  • Most of the edge does not contact the cutting board
  • Requires special tools and techniques to sharpen
  • Marks the food when. cut Consider those steak knives that tear the steak more than cut it. Serrations are reasonable for a steak knife where they're used on hard ceramic plate that would dull a plain edge. But I don't like what they do to steak. You'll see the marks in other foods as well, even from a sharp blade. Waviness left behind and such. 
  • Wanders in the cut
  • Junk masked by serrations. Many inexpensive knives are serrated on poor steel because they'll still saw through pretty much anything
  • Impossible to sharpen some serration patterns without factory equipment. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Knife Skills: When to Guillotine and NOT Glide

So after the Craftsy knife skills class it may seem there is never a time to cut straight down through something. I suppose one could construct such an argument, most likely based around the exceptions having specialty dedicated cutting gear.

But most of us don't have or want a lot of rarely used specialized cutting equipment.

Most of the foods in this category have a weak but clingy structure such that the gliding action of a cut causes the product to break apart as it clings to the knife in its stroke. Cheese, various pates and terrines and so on. Cheese is probably the one most frequently encountered.

For my eating preferences, cheese is something I often want cut in thin slabs for making a sandwich or similar things. Just about every guide to cutting cheese has you breaking it down into wedges for serving and eating it plain or as part of a cheese course.

And that's useful to know too. So here are a few visual guides to cutting cheese from various shapes.

Cheese Guide from Australia
Huffington Post article on softer cheeses
Wikihow, but notice that this is a thick slab and not good for sandwiches

Prepping the Knife

Dedicated cheese knives often have holes or kullens (often called dimples, but more correctly kullenschliff) to break the clinging action of the cheese. Others use ridges to break up the sticking. On your chef's knife, you experience a similar thing with many vegetables clinging after a cut. Just as the holes or kullens work to break the sticktion, you can create a surface on your chef's knife that has the same behavior.

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Using a green Scotch Brite pad or equivalent when you clean your knife blade will scratch the surface up over time. On a Chef's knife, this is somewhat desirable in that it allows air in behind what you're cutting to minimize the sticking. It's not as effective as the holes, dimples or ridges, but you're making your one tool more versatile.

I like a tall knife for cutting cheese rather than a small knife like a paring knife. The tall blade rests against the cheese block during the cut and helps keep the slice an even thickness through out the cut.

I prefer a stainless knife to a carbon knife for cutting cheese. Growing up I had too many occasions where our carbon blade left a black smear of metallic tasting yuck on the cheese. Yes, the knife was not properly cared for as one in proper shape shouldn't do that. . Still, the experience soured me on carbon blades and cheese.

Keeping it Clean

Be prepared to clean your blade after every cut or every few cuts. As residue builds on the blade, this often aggravates the issue of the cheese sticking and deforming. You'll know when it's time to wipe the blade clean. On a similar note, you'll see people say to cut with wet blade or an oiled blade. This can help make a clean cut, but the oil or water residue is often just as undesirable on the cut cheese. No harm in trying it of course and seeing how you like the results.


Use the pinch grip. The pinch grip helps you keep the blade vertical. It WILL try to tip if it's dull or your pressure is not straight down. Using your off hand for additional pressure only compounds this effect, though I do use my off hand in this way. As with all knife skills, it takes some practice. There will be times the knife breaks free of the cut and plunges to the board with some force. This is not safe, nor good for the knife. It will happen as you learn. You must keep your fingers totally away from the edge, particularly with your off hand. No curling the fingers under. Do this at your own risk, and this is why dedicated tools exist for this task.

Ideally, your knife is long enough and the cheese block low enough that you can keep the knife tip on the board. This gives you more control and accuracy. But that won't happen every time.

This is not a quick drop as a guillotine, but a continuous even pressure. Avoid teeter-tottering the blade as that will lead to an uneven or failed cut.

In Use

Each knife will have a different minimal thickness it can cut evenly. This is related to the thickness of the knife itself. Here's my 10" Henkels with a broken cut and a plunge to the board in a brick of Tillamook sharp cheddar. I'm cutting too far forward for optimal pressure as well but some of that was from the jump.

Ok, my Henkel's isn't my sharpest knife and it's also on the thick side.  As you can see from where it snapped, I'm cutting very thinly. Too thin for this blade.

Again with the Henkels, this time it didn't break off mid cut. This slice is a little thicker than the previous one. But it cut thinly at the end as the thickness of the blade wedged it out of line of the cut. This is a serviceable slice for a sandwich but not ideal. Cutting the cheese even a little thicker would have solved this problem.

Here's a good cut with an 8" Ikea Slitbar in VG10. Very sharp, thinner blade stock. Even thickness for the whole cut. Notice its thinner than the last cut with the Henkels and even for the whole slice. Each knife has a minimum thinness it can cut. It will also vary from cheese to cheese by type and even within type as some bricks of the this cheese are moister and cling more. Occasionally you'll get a cheese that just refuses to cut well.

Here's an oblique shot to illustrate residue build up. The thicker Henkels builds more residue for more resistance and trouble in the cut. The Ikea being thinner has less residue. Still, towards the thicker end of the knife at the handle, you can see increased smearing and residue. You can see from the smears that I'm cutting straight through, no gliding forward or sawing which breaks the cheese apart. 

And an attempt to show blade thickness differences, Ikea in the foreground and Henkels in the midground. Even with the foreshortening distortion from perspective, the Ikea is still thinner.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Craftsy Knife Class Lesson 5

Lesson 5, Honing and Sharpening

As Brendan points out in the beginning of this lesson, this topic is deep enough for a whole series itself. What he demonstrates is simple, and uses commonly available equipment.

Within those limitations and to an audience who is not focused on high end knife performance, this is perfectly reasonable and complete enough for most home cooks.

I liked his grip trick for getting close to the edge angles for both "steeling" and the stone work.

Notice that his sharpening stone is pretty long. For sharpening kitchen blades, its best to use  a stone that is at least as long as the knife blade. Because you will make strokes the whole length of the knife, you need that long stone to have that much space. You can kind of fudge it on a slightly smaller stone or work in sections on too small of stones. But you're just adding to the work and aggravation to do that.

It's useful to have a few tricks to test sharpness. He cheated on the tomato test. To demonstrate the dull knife, he did  a pure push cut on an intact tomato. That's a really hard thing to do even with a scary sharp blade. There's a sort of holy grail test of knife sharpness that you can sharpen a blade to where it will push cut a tomato. Without a little sliding action to initiate the cut, tomato skin can resist a blade quite well. When he demonstrates his sharp blade, he slides it and it cuts easily.

The paper test is a pretty good one and he notes the simple things to look for. I usually use a piece of paper from the junk mail in my recycle bin. Newsprint is even better as it's flimsier and more revealing of edge flaws.

Any way, here's some paper cutting tests I did in 2012 for a particular line of small knives. Click to see larger versions and look at the edges of the paper. They vary in smoothness, feathering, folding and such.

Another hand test is as you're cutting potatoes. The cut surface of a potato should feel smooth and slippery. If it feels pebbley at all, it was cut with a dull blade. 

There is a set of downloadable pdf materials to complete the class. It includes a conversion chart for Metric to US and vice versa, pictures of the 4 knife types and some recipes as mentioned in the classes.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Craftsy Knife Class Lesson 4

Shortcuts for Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs is the title of this lesson.

Paring Knife Use

Jalapeno with the spine of a paring knife, switch to a serrated blade. Notice how much rib and seeds were left behind with his choice of technique. It's a fine technique if you want a half of a pepper for filling or such.  And he's right, the skin on any pepper will quickly demonstrate if your knife is dull and you're doing a chop motion instead of a forward glide to finish your cutting stroke. I do prefer to have  the skin side up for cuttings same as Brendan does.

My preferred technique, yes even for small peppers like a jalapeno, uses the large chef's knife:

And he does this as well for bell peppers so I don't know why he didn't for the jalapeno. Perhaps just to demonstrate some options and let people use what they like best. 

Cauliflower, good technique, and better than I've done it before. I learned something new.

Citrus, good technique again, but the knife has to be sharper than most home cook's paring knife is likely to be. Even his microplane demonstration shows that they dull and become less effective over time. His was dull. A sharp microplane makes a fabulous fine zest without ripping or tearing. A vegetable peeler is likely to be a better tool for most home cooks to pare/peel the zest away. Then clean up the pith as as necessary. Or dedicated zester tools, though I've not yet found one that worked as well as I would like. If you need fine strips, a vegetable peeler and some knife work is my preferred method. Brendan flips the zest skin side up for the cutting for all the same reasons as the pepper.

Citrus supremes, he'd doing it right. The flat top and bottom cuts are important to this technique. One note about supremes. They're great presentation and flavor, but you lose fiber. Our diets are usually too low in fiber and an orange is often one of the higher fiber sources commonly available. This is one of the concerns about drinking fruit juice. It's so high sugar that without the fiber it's little better than soda at that point. Further, fiber slows and even blocks some sugar absorption in our gut. I suggest you save supremes for special occasions and eat smarter and healthier.

Serrated Blade Use

Tomato with the serrated knife. Notice that his circular cutting motions are now much longer on the glide part of the stroke. The edge of a serrated knife only makes contact with the board at the points. So you have to do a longer stroke to cut through the last part of the tomato. This is one of my peeves with a serrated knife is it's less efficient at finishing the cut.  A sharp Chefs is just as good if not better at this in my opinion. But that caveat of sharpness is important. For many home cooks, the serrated blade is their reliably sharpest blade. And if that's your situation,  using the serrated blade makes sense.

The grape/cherry tomato demonstration is a piece of genius.

Skipping over the peppers, because we discussed them above, Brendan demonstrates preparing a pineapple. He gives a little steering discussion for lefties as they'll have some struggles using the commonly available serrated blades more than the right handed users simply because of how chisel grinds are commonly done.  Notice that he keeps cutting on the right side of the pineapple from his perspective. If he tries to cut the side closest to him, he'll run into that steering problem because he's now cutting on the other side of the blade.

Butternut squash, technique is good of course. He clearly knows what he's doing.

Chef Knife Use

Avacado, it was good to see him demonstrate choking up on the blade. That's not something demonstrated very often.

Herbs, he's definitely not a fan of rock chopping and with reason. It's not as even or controlled mostly but less safe as well and damaging to the board and blade. I'm not going to tell you not to if you prefer it. I don't think this is an issue of significant merit in this case.  As to floating herbs, spinach, and such for cleaning, that's a good technique to have in your arsenal. Leeks, I can see the appeal, but there's enough grit in cutting the leeks up to that point you could be messing up your blade more than the somewhat simplified cleaning merits.

In summary, there's plenty of good ideas here. Brendan is a good presenter and keeps the lesson moving.  It's not especially insightful if you've been cooking a while as you've probably run across them. While he pointed out control and safety issues a number of times, I think he could have explained it more concretely and tied it back to the universal principles he laid out in Lesson 3. Breaking the squash down is not just about creating reasonable shapes. As with the onion, the breaking down cuts create flat stable surfaces for later safe cuts. That philosophy of cutting things will help you as deal with watermelon, cantaloupe, and other large food items.