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14 December 2005

gleaming bright in the dark night kitchen

Wusthoff, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

A confession: for the past decade, I’ve been doing all my cooking with a lousy $20 knife.

I bought it when I still lived on Vashon Island, when I was teaching at my little island high school and living in a pre-fab apartment behind the fire station. I was 29 years old, just on the verge of life as I know it. There’s a big difference in that decade. Since then, I’ve lived in Manhattan; moved to London with the CFP; met the Dalai Lama; started yoga; sat meditation every morning for years; made dozens and dozens of friends who are dearly important to me; moved back to Seattle and started teaching again; nearly died in a car accident and learned how to live; suffered for months in inexplicable pain; found out my celiac diagnosis; started this website; and changed my life once again.

And that’s only the outline.

And through it all, I’ve been using the same cheap, crappy knife.

On Vashon, I set up my first real home, a never-lived-in apartment with two bedrooms. The kitchen was a squashed rectangle, with all-new appliances and pewter-grey counters. After having subsisted on hand-me-downs and thrift store buys alone, I was thrilled to finally buy new supplies. So I bought a knife set at Fred Meyer and started cooking seriously for the first time in my life. I made recipes from Laurel’s Kitchen, the Moosewood library, and every vegetarian cookbook I could find. I made homemade bread every week. I also cut open the base of my thumb with that knife, by quickly ripping open a package that Sharon had sent me from France. I knew it contained fabulous olives and expensive sea salt, and I wanted to see them. And then the tip of the knife slipped, and my skin slit open...I can still see the little white crescent scar in the light, to remind me. Mostly, I thrilled to make meals come from my hands, with my flashy knives.

I shipped the biggest knife in my boxes to my apartment on the Upper West Side, in 1997. In a city where I knew no one at first, opening the box with my kitchen supplies was what made me feel like I was home. I chopped vegetables, trimmed the edges of pie crusts, and sliced the first Thanksgiving turkey I made on my own with that knife. I threw apple pie parties, made stews by the dozens, and learned how to cook with truffle oil. Of course, so few people in New York City actually cook that my first roommates in that apartment were perpetually freaked out that I had such a big knife in the kitchen.

And when I moved to Seattle, I set up my kitchen again. A tiny gas stove, a small counter space, open cupboards, and a humming refrigerator that never shut down. I made basil goat cheese pasta on beds of arugula for the boyfriend at the time, along with slices of mango marinated in brown sugar and lime. I finally learned how to cook salmon well. Enormous salads, quinoa for the first time, and always, fabulous baked goods.

And through it all, I always felt a little sick, a lot run down, never quite well. I didn’t know it was the pies and pasta and baked goods.

And through it all, I chopped with that same, flimsy knife. I’ve never sharpened it. I can’t even see my own reflection in it anymore. It’s dull and barely worth it.

Anyone else would have bought a really good knife, long ago.

But good knives just seemed so darned expensive. $50 to $150 for one knife just felt like decadence, in the last decade.

However, if I’ve learned anything about cooking in the last year--and oh boy, have there been plenty of lessons--it’s that a few “expensive” kitchen essentials make the entire experience more worth it. And since my celiac diagnosis, I mostly eat at home now, in my wide, spacious kitchen that feels far more permanent than any place I’ve ever lived. Spending most of my disposable income on fresh ingredients, slightly exotic spices, and truly great olive oil, I still save more money than the days when I ate in restaurants without really thinking. Making my own food saves me money and simply enriches my life.

So I decided, last month, to buy a truly great knife. I asked my compatriots, at Food Blog S’Cool, what they thought of knives. Some of them have been to culinary school, and some of them are simply dedicated amateurs, like me. But every one of them had an opinion. If you’d like to see some of the names they offered, take a look. You might be as dazzled by the options as I was. And excited. Rachael also offered her insightful guide for how to care for knives. After reading, I felt confused. But everyone seemed to give the same suggestion: go to the store and hold some.

So I did. I held some Ken Shun knives at my favorite local kitchen store, Les Cadeux Gourmets. They felt good, but a little light. One of the knives rode funny on my palm. That wasn’t the one. But I kept them in my mind.

Well, last Monday, I went to Sur la Table. And not only did I have the ineffable joy of taking a cooking class from David Lebovitz, but I arrived early enough that I could ask to test some knives. I had no intention of buying one that night. It’s the holiday season. I should be spending my money on other people. And at first, I felt removed. The Globals felt flimsy in my hands. I’m certain they’re great knives, but after a decade with my cheap knife, I wanted one with heft. The Henckels felt fine, but just all right. And then I picked up an 8” Wusthof.

Wusthoff II

It was like falling in love at first sight. I held it in my hand, and I never wanted it to leave. It just felt good. Heavy, but not burdensome. Whole and solid and perfect. Holding it, and then chopping some potatoes with it, I knew that I needed to own it. Why look further when you’ve already found it? I trust my gut. I bought the knife.

I took it home and looked at it. Took pictures of it. Slid it in and out of its cover and listened to the sword-like tzwing sound it made when it emerged from its shell. At first, I didn’t want to use it. It’s so pretty. But then, I broke that barrier and started chopping.

Here’s a friendly warning for you, if you’re planning on buying yourself a really good knife (and you should. You really should.): respect the knife. When I started slicing vegetables, I was in awe of the knife. I’ve never chopped so slowly in my life. Everything simply fell into small slices and tender nibbles without the least bit of trouble from me. Eager to cut and chop and dice and slice, I took every vegetable I had in the house, and watched it transform into magic under my hands. I was mindful and kind and watching and alive. It felt good. The minestrone soup that grew from a mound of vegetables filled me, entirely.

But a few nights later, in trying to prepare for my impending party, I started making mushroom stock at 10:20 at night. The counters were covered with foods yet to be prepared. My large cutting board was yet to be washed. And I was in a hurry. So I started slicing onions, fast, on a small cutting board, precariously balanced on one of the stove’s burners. Forgetting the knife’s power, I used the same force I needed for my old one. Without a single minute of warning, I took off a chunk of the top of my ring finger. Just gone. And suddenly bleeding.

Another lesson learned.

I’m okay. I stopped it. Bandaged it. Went to bed. By now, it’s just slightly red, fading into a scar already. After I stopped ingesting gluten, I heal so quickly I almost feel superhuman.

But let me tell you, I’m not going to take that knife for granted. It’s a beautiful knife. Whisper sharp and gleaming in the dark night kitchen. I plan on owning this one for at least another decade. And I can’t wait to eat all the meals that will appear, underneath my hands.


MINESTRONE SOUP, adapted from The Best Recipe

This is the easiest, tastiest minestrone recipe I have ever made. After I discovered it last winter, I must have made it a dozen times in two months. Each time, eager friends asked for second and third bowls. When I made it last week, as a way of chopping vegetables with my new knife I had an enormous pot of soup bubbling away on the stove in no time. Since it's only me in the house, I had bowls and bowls of it leftover. On Sunday morning, I set it on a slow simmer and served it to my guests that afternoon. They kept asking for more bowls as well.

I've written the recipe with my customary vegetables, but really, you could use any winter vegetables you like in this one. The trick is the parmigiano rind.

2 leeks, washed, white and light green portions chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
2 small white onions, peeled and sliced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced (I like Yukon gold)
2 zucchini, sliced
1 large bunch of spinach
1 can of whole tomatoes, packed in their own juice (try Muir Glen or San Marzano)
1 rind of good parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can white beans, drained (cannelini or great northern beans work well)
1/2 cup pesto (homemade is best, of course)

Chop, dice, and prepare all the vegetables with your best kitchen knife. Treat it gently. Do it mindfully. Believe it or not, this care will show up in the taste of the soup.

Place all the vegetables (including the canned tomatoes), the rind of cheese, the salt, and eight cups of water in your best stockpot. Bring this to boil. Once it has boiled, turn the heat down to low (or medium-low, depending on your stove and your pot). Simmer the mixture for an hour or so, or until the vegetables are starting to soften while still keeping their shape.

Add the beans and cook for ten minutes or so, until they are cooked through. Remove the pot from the heat source. Immediately, fish out the rind of parmigiano, because that would be quite the discovery for some unsuspecting guest. Add the pesto and stir it into the soup.

Ladle the fragrant soup into bowls and serve immediately. For decadence, top with grated gruyere.


At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a friend that says a knife isn't yours until you've cut yourself with it.

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I started teaching myself to cook and began cooking for Amy, the first thing she convinced me to do was to go buy a good knife. I also went for an 8" Wustof. I love it! I'll never buy another brand. In fact, I hope I never need another knife. And just like you...I cut myself within the first two days. Luckily it wasn't that bad, and I've never cut myself with that knife again.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah for treating yourself to the good knife. I am looking forward to reading more recipes.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Colaptes auratus said...

This minestrone soup sounds (and looks) _so_ good. I look forward to trying it, as well as that amazing, slightly spicy, cocoa with cauliflower recipe.

I am awash with gratitude for all these excellent cooking ideas!

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Excellent choice, Shauna. This is the knife my chef brother-in-law picked out for me ("only the best for my little sister-in-law!") and I too fell in love the first time I held it in my hands. And my love affair with Wustof has led me to continue (very slowly) my collection...and yep, I've cut myself a time or two breaking them in. Just a tip: Wustof knives are also available from Bed Bath and Beyond (although I totally have a love affair with Sur la Table whenever I am near one) and those little 20% off coupons they send you in the mail every few months are how I've been adding to my collection.

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Fran said...

Absolutely love your posts. Thank you. I have been wanting to invest in a "real" knife too. Have never had one and think it may be time. Thanks for the insights. Keep up the wonderful work here.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Dawn said...

What a thrill. I have one good knife. I know I should get more. But, $50 or $150 is way more than I ever stop to spend on myself! I think there must be thousands of foodies out there pining for good knives. And when you get one, well, you know how good it feels. People who have the ability to walk into a store and drop $1k bucks on knives will never understand that thrill!

At 3:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's magic in your writing. i like the way simple things in life just get deep and thoughtful along your posts! Thank you!

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Ilva said...

Shauna-you have almost convinced me to invest in a good knife, I wonder if I can find a Wustof here in Italy??? I have to google a bit...

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have now experienced knife lust. It's an interesting experience!

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing how few knives you really need, if they're really good knives. I use to tournee potatoes with my chef's knife, because I was too lazy to get my tournee knife out of my bag. A chef's knife, a small paring knife, and a serrated knife is a great way to start. Add a thin boning/filet knife as your budget allows.

Learning how to properly sharpen and use a knife is critical. At least with a good sharp knife if you do cut yourself, it heals cleanly with a much smaller scar...

At 5:05 PM, Blogger kitchenmage said...

pretty, shny, sharp! hold me back from the knife lust... :-)

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Ruth Daniels said...

As usual, I love your posts.

My mom bought me a set of Henckels knives when I married the first time in 1970 - they've lasted much longer than the marriage did. Anyway, I recently added to my set with an 8" chef's knife and I love the weight of it.

And yes - respect the knife!!! I had a similar accident (in a hurry not paying attention) with my mandoline and sliced the tip of my finger. That was more than a year ago and it still has no feeling at the very tip.

Happy holidays, and thanks for sharing your writings with us.


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