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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tools of the Trade


This may sound strange, but I have a thing for knives.  My first knife was given to me by my sister Susan, as a house-warming gift when I moved into my own apartment in San Francisco.   It was a Wusthof 7” slender slicing knife that I used for everything.  Since it was my one and only good knife, it dulled, of course, and I gradually added more knives to my collection.  But not before learning to hone and sharpen them when they became dull. 
The importance of having a sharp knife is not to be taken lightly.  I have cut myself with both a sharp and a dull knife and the sharp knife wins.  It heals faster and it is a cleaner cut.  A sharp knife will improve your kitchen skills immeasurably.  Chopping and slicing go more quickly and easily and your hand doesn’t tire as much.  Many people ask me what type of knife to spend money on.  Should I buy a knife just for slicing? Another one just for chopping?  Yes, a bread knife is as essential to cutting bread as a chopping knife is to dicing an onion.  So where to start?

1) Buy the best knife that you can afford at the time.  Department store sales on sets of knives are not always the best quality, but they will get you started.  I prefer Wusthof Classic design because I learned to cook with them, but feel the knife in your hand and see what is right for you.  2) The knife handle should be comfortable and feel good in your hand.  Buy a knife that not only feels good, but has the right weight for your hand size.   3) Only spend money on a knife that you will get a lot of use out of.  In other words, don’t buy a tomato slicer if you don’t like tomatoes that much.  Choose a size and design that will be well used for how you cook.  How much chopping do you do?

When your knife is moving, chopping or slicing, the knife tip should be resting on the cutting board at all times!  This will give you more control and prevent a stray blade from slicing your finger.  With your fingers curled at a 90-degree angle and knuckles poised perpendicular to the knife blade, you can slowly start to chop using your thumb to guide the food.  You then lift only the handle and press down, slicing, dicing or chopping.  Use the knife to guide your ingredients away from or nearer to where you want them to go.  When dicing or mincing, you can put your other hand on top of the knife blade to direct it even further.
Over the years I have found myself in unique and truly amazing knife shops in Tokyo (Kappabashi-Dori) , the Loire Valley where the 500 year old company, Nontron, makes their knife handles from boxwood and aged for five years.  (Our friends have theirs engraved with their initials.)  In Paris my favorite store Laguiole in the Marais (6, Rue Pas de las Mule). There is also a small knife store in Santa Fe, NM ( in the historic La Fonda hotel on the old Santa Fe Trail.  Different colors of green and blue Turquoise and coral embedded handles and pocketknives in glass cases hanging on the wall. 

The last time I found myself looking for a new knife was at Sur La Table on 4th Street in Berkeley, for an addition to my daughter’s Christmas present.  I was giving her a couple of Japanese cookbooks to make her favorite cuisine and I wanted her to have a good knife to do all of the chopping and slicing.   I ended up getting her a smaller version of my Santoku, the Japanese chopping knife that is ergonomic, lightweight and excellent quality.

Knives are worth the investment and worth taking care of.  Most knives come with a lifetime warranty, but I don’t recommend putting them in the dishwasher, the finish will come off the handles.   Please don’t try to open cans with them.  With care, you can have your knives your whole life.  Mine have never been replaced in the over 20 years or so that I have been cooking and catering.  It is my best asset in the kitchen, next to my tastebuds! 

When I do get my knives sharpened professionally, I get them sharpened at the Farmer’s market ( either in Santa Rosa or Sonoma.   Check your farmer's market or hardware store and see if they will do it while you are shopping.  Do you have a knife shop that you have visited that you love?  Please let me know.  You can reach me at or

Try out your chopping skills in this “chopped” salad.  The crunchy combination of fennel, peppers, and fresh herbs with the fresh lemon vinaigrette really tantalizes your taste buds. You can add other favorites, like chopped celery, radish or leave out the fennel if you like.  Try using seasonal ingredients for peak flavor. 

2 cans organic chickpeas
1/2 red onion, finely chopped or thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
red chilies, optional

Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp sugar
1/8 cup white balsamic vinegar
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the red onion and the garlic in a little olive oil.  Be careful not to burn the garlic.   Let cool.  Drain and rinse the chickpeas, then pat them dry with a paper towel.   In a large bowl, mix the chickpeas, chopped fennel, chopped red pepper, and scallions.  Add the cooled onion and garlic and salt and pepper.  Add the vinaigrette, then add the cilantro and parsley.  If you like, add an 1/8 of a teaspoon of red chili peppers.  Top with the crumbled feta cheese.  You can let this sit in the fridge for up to three days.  Enjoy!  This recipe was inspired by Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes by Tessa Kiros.      


kellypea said...

What a wonderful salad. I've been seeing so many chickpeas in great recipes lately, but the ingredients in this are something I'd love to try. Great info on knives, too. I also use Wusthof knives, but have recently added two ceramic knives (Kyocera) to my collection, and they're truly amazing!

Marly said...

This looks delicious. Chick peas are one of those things that I never thought I would like. That was until I discovered hummus. Then I decided to give them a try in whole form. Now we buy them in bulk at Costco. What a transformation, eh? Thanks for this post. Very enlightening. I will never look at knives the same way again.

Chef Dennis said...

what a beautiful chick pea salad!!! I have been having my way with chick peas lately...who knew they were so versatile!!
I will have to add this to my rotation on the salad bar.
thanks for sharing!

Tricia O'Brien said...

Thanks for your comments! Some more info on Chickpeas from Wikipedia: Chickpeas are one of those foods that are so good and good for you....Enjoy! Chickpeas are a helpful source of zinc, folate and protein. They are also very high in dietary fiber and so a good source of carbohydrate for people with insulin sensitivity or diabetes. Chickpeas are low in fat and most of this is polyunsaturated. Chickpeas also provide dietary calcium with some sources citing the garbanzo's calcium content as about the same as yogurt and close to milk.

Carla said...

don't forget that when ever you give someone a knife as a gift they have to give you some money (usually a penny or something small!) back so that they "pay" for it

JillyAn said...

That chickpea salad looks outstanding! I will definately be making that. I'm rather fond of my knives also :)