To nourish your mind as well as your body

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tools for a Healthy Kitchen

It occurs to me that I'm throwing out recipes that involve all my nifty tools, but I'm not always clear what all I'm using (besides the food processor, which is listed below, by the way). So, I decided to compile a list of tools that I think every chef-wannabe must have in their kitchen:

1) A good set of knives. You must have good knives; I cannot stress this enough. Your knives will be one of the most (if not the most) used items in your kitchen - you want good quality ones you can count on. [I personally use a Wusthof knive set and love it.]
The basic knives you need are: a paring knife, a cleaver, a serrated knife, and a chef's knife. There are lots of different kinds of knives out there and they all have their own special uses, but these four are ones you will definitely want.

A paring knife is a small knife with a straight, sharp blade between 3-5 inches long. You use this knife to cut up small items, mince garlic and other items, core and slice fruits. Oh, heck. It's just really handy.

A cleaver has wide blade about 6 inches in length. You use this handy blade to chop, shred, and pulverize foods. You can use it to cut through hard materials like chicken bones and pulverize meat. You can also use the flat of the blade to crush garlic and other herbs.

A good serrated knife is between 5-10 inches long with little notches in the blade. You use this one for foods that are hard on the outside and soft on the inside, such as crispy French bread. It's also great for squishy fruits and vegetables.

A chef's knife is one of the most misunderstood items in a knife set. It's a versatile cooking knife and can be anywhere from 6-12 inches long. [Side note: 90% of what I have learned about cooking has come from my parents and my grandmother, who are all fabulous cooks in their own right. The other 10% comes from my friend Alison, a lot of books, and a too short summer in the scented halls of the NY CIA (Culinary Institute of America).] This knife makes chopping, dicing, and slicing easy as pie, if you're handling it right.

Here is a not-so-short, very informative, note from my father on the use of knives in a kitchen. Thanks, Dad. :)

"The 12 inch (large size) chef's knife is one of the most valuable tools you can have in a kitchen; unfortunately, it is frequently under-utilized and/or incorrectly used. I think some people are afraid of using a large knife or think it is inappropriate for cutting small items. This is incorrect. The larger size chef's knives are easier to use on many items and safer than small knives. This is because of the rounded blade shape and its length. I have never cut myself using a blade properly.
A large chef's knife should always have it's tip anchored on the cutting surface, with the front to middle of the blade used for slicing as the blade "rolls" back and forth. This is a natural rolling feel. The knife tip should seldom leave the cutting board surface, so the blade is made super stable. A large chef's' knife can be used for almost anything and knowing how to use a chef's knife is a big difference between amateurs and real chefs. The large chefs' knife should be your most used blade. The larger the knife, the easier it is to keep the tip anchored and still slice larger items like large onions.
You should not use a chef's knife free handed like you might use a paring knife. The same rolling action on a cutting board (that makes it one of the safest knives in the kitchen when used properly) can cause it to roll on round objects and cut you. Used improperly, it can turn it into a difficult-to-use and risky tool. If you were to cut an onion on a cutting board and not anchor the end of the knife, it would be easy for the onion to roll or the knife to slide off; either way, you are put at risk. You also have less precision in slicing items the thickness you want without the tip anchored.
A chef's knife (like all good knives) does need to be kept very sharp, using the steel rod that comes with most sets after every use. Avoid using this knife on thick bones. Do not use it as a cleaver - little nicks will form in the blade that are difficult to remove. A properly maintained chef's knife will quickly slice without tearing or catching, even on small tomatoes or grapes. Even the longest, widest, and thickest chef's knives are rolling-slicing instruments - they are not for hacking at things. Use cleavers for even chicken bones and cutting through cartilage between bones. A large cleaver for big stuff and a thinner smaller cleaver for small items are a nice pare of tools to have.
If you have screwed up before and dulled or nicked your knife (look at its edge with full spectrum sunlight behind for nicks), take it for professional sharpening. After a full sharpening that removes some of the metal - if you use the knife properly, don't hack with it, and rod it 3-4 times a side lightly after every use to reset the edge grains - you may never need a grinding-type sharpening again. The knife will last almost forever if you hardly ever need to grind metal off the blade.
You also need several size paring knives, but they should be used sparingly in free-handed mode. If something can sit on a cutting board to be sliced (especially if the item being cut can roll), you should always use an anchored chef's knife for speed, control, and safety.
Some little knives look like little chefs' knives and can be used the same way as a large chefs knife for tiny things like small garlic cloves (a large chef's knife does this well also). They can be used anchored for slicing. Rod these knives after every use also. Dull knives are more likely to cut you than a sharp knife, especially when free hand."
-My awesome, multi-talented, and encyclopedic father

2) A food processor. This is one of those invaluable items that you won't know how much you need until you have it.
 I know, I know. You're thinking 'What? More equipment? But why?!' Well, here are some reasons: pesto, spaghetti sauce, cashew butter, sunflower-garlic blend, egg salad... oh heck. Do I need to keep listing? Now, you could go and buy spaghetti sauce and pesto at the store, right? What's the big deal? A food processor will free you from the chains of someone else's taste buds. It will allow you to produce delicious things that are made by you, for you, and you will know exactly what's in them - and be able to pronounce all those ingredients! No nasty chemicals. [And also, not so much extra salt. A lot of soups and sauces that you buy at the store really have way more salt in them than you need. At least now, if you oversalt, it's because you chose to and you can take full responsibility for your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. :) ]

3) An immersion blender. Now, this tool is my personal guru in the kitchen. I use it to blend soups (which can make dairy-free, milk-sub-free soups still taste creamy and delicious) and make smoothies (every morning - see how much I use this thing?). You can also use this nifty tool to make homemade hummus, mousse, gravy, and mashed potatoes.
There are two main differences between this little item and a big ol' normal blender:
a) You can stick this guy down in a pot of cooking vegetables and blend them up on the stove, rather than transferring everything out of the pot and then back into it. It's a time saver and a mess preventer.
b) It allows you to make much smaller portions without thinking "shoot, and I have to clean this whole thing after?" A quick rinse under the faucet and pop it in the dishwasher and you're done. It's tiny, storable, and infinitely awesome. [*Portion control is a big issue in eating healthy. You want to make sure you eat enough at each meal to feel just barely full, which tends to be 1/4-1/2 the size of normal restaurant portions.]

4) Now, finally, two items you might not have mixed in with your pots and pans that you'd probably enjoy:
a) A stock pot. You'll use this for making big batches of soups, goulashes, etc. Soup and goulash are my go-to meals for when I know I'm going to have a really busy week. Just make a huge batch Sunday or Monday night and store it. If for 2-4 days, you can just store it in your fridge. If for 5-7 days, store in the freezer.
b) A cast-iron skillet. This thing is the best! You can cook with them on the stove top and then just stick them in the oven, without transferring your food from the skillet to a baking dish. Easy peasy!

It's a short list, yes, but it's four small steps towards easier, happier, healthy cooking! Best of luck!

1 comment:

  1. Yep...your dad must certainly take after you. (Or maybe it's the other way around?) ;)

    I think we've already discovered that I'm sadly lacking the kitchen tool department. As evidenced when we looked over recipes and I said, "Well, I don't have a food processor or a blender, so..." and you offered to loan me yours. :)