Friday, August 12, 2005

My Big 10 Inch

I must have been 14 when I sliced the knuckle off of my left index finger. Even at such a young age, I had the good sense to trim the top off the carrot and stabilize the base of the carrot against the wooden cutting board as I began to cut with the 10” chef’s knife from the nubby tip of the carrot to the base as I maintained a tentative grip with my left hand. I glided through the thin tip of the carrot with the knife as if I were unzipping a pair of pants, then I got the fibrous core of the carrot and my not too sharp knife took an off-ramp into my not too sharp left hand. I remembered all of this when I sat down to my first “knife skills” class last month.

This came as a happily received wedding gift from my friend Robert after a conversation about our mutual insecurities in the kitchen along with our shared desire to unlearn years of sloppy habits. Although I have never been professionally trained in anything, I hold the conviction that there are “correct ways” to do things, and ways in which you either ape what is correct or do what you can to get by. I have had a sinking feeling over the last few years, and the hundreds of hours of meal prep, that I am simply doing it all wrong when it comes to handling my knives. While cuts are a rare occurrence in my kitchen, and I certainly haven’t had anymore repeat Grand Guignol experiences like I had when I was a teenager, I know I have some bad habits that need to be unlearned.

So, on a sleepy Thursday night, Robert and I made our way to Culver City for, what was to be my first, cooking class (of sorts). The idea of cooking classes excites me, since nearly all of my limited expertise has come from trial and error, and I tend to overvalue the word of the expert (even though I have pronounced anti-authoritarian tendencies). The classroom was littered with unbelievably uncomfortable low-back wire stools that all dutifully faced a stainless steel whale of a kitchen. There was a lot of pre-game chatter among the adult-contemporary students, while they craned their necks in opposite directions to spy what was on the menu and who was blowing through the door unceremoniously late.

While I could drag you through a blow-by-blow of what was taught, the cuddly panda bear nature of the teacher, and the several grand-standing questions asked by my fellow students, I think I could do us all a favor by boiling it down to the key points of the evening, and they read something like this:

Most people don’t sharpen their knifes but instead use a steel (that blunt skewer looking thing) to do a sharpening job that is never done. Steels don’t sharpen knives; they only realign an exiting edge.

There is a part of a conventional onion that really should be cut out and thrown away (the root) because it is bitter and tough.

Housewives from Redondo Beach don’t know what a chipotle pepper is.

Your chef’s knife is your most important and cherished knife and could be used for just about anything.

Those handy paper thin plastic cutting boards that provide the freedom to funnel a few cups of chopped onions into a sauté pan are murder on your knives and should likely be relegated to shelf liners.

The New School of Cooking is never too proud to serve their students Charles Shaw Chardonnay at $2 a bottle.