After almost nine years at Gourmet Magazine, I need a new forum for adventure sharing. My heart is split between country I consider home and a city that keeps me excited. It's food and drink that tie them together.
This is the latest post in Ian Knauer's Farm to Table series. Ian will be checking in weekly throughout the season with recipes and stories from his family farm in Knauertown, PA.
Photograph courtesy Cut Brooklyn
Some years ago I was sitting around a picnic table drinking beer with my friend Joel. He's a knife maker who's pretty much always thinking about his craft. We started chatting about all the lumber that my grandfather, an erstwhile carpenter, had stored in the barn at the farm, scraps of which are still there: cherry, red oak, and black walnut. I asked Joel if he could make me a knife with a black-walnut handle. He thought for a moment, then said yes.
I brought Joel some scraps of the walnut and he made me the most beautiful knife I have ever cut with. He based the design on his grandmother's well-used classic kitchen knife and, with my grandfather's walnut, achieved a beautiful and classic aesthetic. The knife is a real tribute to American craftsmanship. The first time I used it was to cut through a rutabaga. As the blade slid effortlessly through the rock-hard vegetable, I made a sound that was some combination of gasp and giggle. It is still my favorite cooking tool.
Every so often I bring Joel more scraps of black walnut from the barn. About half the knives he sells these days have 40-year barn-aged Knauertown black-walnut handles.
I've learned a lot from Joel about knife care. His tips start with creating what he calls a "relationship" with your knife. Get to know its sweet spots (what the knife excels at: rock-chop, slicing, dicing, julienne, etc.) and you will use it to the fullest and begin to appreciate it for the finely tuned tool it is. It will become your best friend in the kitchen.
Grandma's knife below; new one on top
Once you've established that relationship, caring for your knife becomes second nature. You won't throw it in the sink (or, God forbid, the dishwasher). You won't cut on a glass cutting board (which will dull it immediately). You'll slow down, nick yourself less often, and let the knife do the work.
Of course, now and then you'll want to hone it back to its original samurai-quality edge. For that, you'll need a steel.
A honing steel is the long, round metal rod that you see professional chefs glide their blades over all the time. It doesn't actually sharpen the knife, but removes little burrs as well as nicks and dings that are created by regular use. These imperfections get in the way of the cutting edge's ability to cut, and removing them is easy.
We see TV-personality "chefs" whizzing their knives back and forth over a steel at record-breaking speed. Joel suggests you slow down--a lot--and let the weight of the knife do all the work. He glides the blade once or twice over the steel in a slow motion at a 20-degree angle. That's all you need to do to hone the knife.
Okay, it's not all you need to do. Every year or so, depending on use, you will need to have your knife truly "sharpened." You can do this yourself with a whetstone, or take your knife to a pro like Joel to give it a once-over.
Your knife, when it's at its sharpest, should effortlessly slice through a sheet of paper, or anything else for that matter. And you'll have a lot of fun using it. One of my favorite uses is to make unfathomably thin slices of cabbage for my favorite slaw.
Red Cabbage Slaw with Bacon Bits and Carrots 6-8 servings
Hot bacon dressing makes everything better. Here, it helps cook the cabbage just so, taking away the raw edge. This dish is an easy way to use up a head of cabbage, and it complements almost any entree.
INGREDIENTS 1 2-lb. head of red cabbage 2 large carrots 1 jalapeno 1/4 lb. bacon, chopped 3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
PREPARATION Quarter cabbage and slice crosswise, as thinly as possible, with a chef's knife. Peel carrots and cut into thin matchsticks. Thinly slice jalapeÃ±o. Combine vegetables in a large bowl.
Cook bacon in a heavy skillet over medium heat until browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to cool. Add vinegar, oil, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper to skillet and stir with a wooden spoon to blend, scraping up any browned bits.
Pour dressing over vegetables in bowl and toss to coat. Crumble reserved bacon and sprinkle over; toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.