Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thoughts on Knives

I was recently asked by a friend which types and brands of knives I would recommend as a gift for his wife, who does the cooking in their family. Here’s my response, which I am recording because the question comes up from time to time:

I would pick the best knives in each category rather than going for a set. Expensive German or Japanese knives are not always best. I have read a fair amount of testing research, from Cook’s Illustrated and Serious Eats, among others, and have personal experience with countless knives from all sorts of manufacturers. Based on this I can recommend the following to someone just setting out to equip a kitchen or to upgrade his or her knives.
  • Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8- inch Chef’s Knife, $39.95 at Amazon. Workhorse.
  • Wusthof Classic 5-inch Hollow Ground Santoku. $93.89 at Amazon. Nice for cutting small items, like garlic, shallots, radishes, scallions, sun-dried tomatoes, but not necessary, as the chef’s knife and paring knives can do these jobs. It just feels right.
  • Mercer Culinary 10-inch Wide Bread Knife, $22.61 at Amazon. Best I’ve had. Great for tomatoes, too.
  • Schmidt Brothers Cutlery 7-inch Boning Knife $74.24 at Amazon. Expensive but superior to Wusthof and Victorinox. I love this knife.
  • Wusthof Classic 3-inch Hollow Ground Paring Knife in Sheep’s Foot Shape, $64.95 at Amazon (optional, the pairing knives below being adequate, but I love mine). Wusthof and Henkels paring knives are expensive, dull quickly and are impossible to sharpen.
  • Victorinox Swiss Classic 3-piece paring knife set. $14.36 at Amazon. I use these every day.  They are cheap and you can just replace them once a year (which I don't).
  • Victorinox 12-inch Fibrox Pro Slicing Knife with Granton Blade, $43.96 at Amazon. Inexpensive but it has a very thin sharp blade that does its one job beautifully.
There’s one knife that would be a splurge. I have never used it, although the source who recommends it (Kenji Lopez-Alt) is reliable. It’s the Misono UX10 Santoku 180, double edge. $171.99 + shipping at Hocho Knife, much more expensive at Amazon. I have a Japanese style deba knife that I use all the time, even more than my chef’s knives, and I would probably go for the Misono if I didn’t already have mine. Be careful to get the 2-edge model. Amazon has a similar right-hand model (which is the one Kenji uses) at a good price but don’t get that, as it requires special sharpening technique.

Of course there are many specialty knives for specific tasks, like flexible fish knives for boning fish, sushi knives, cleavers, etc., but this post is about basic equipment that can be used for many tasks, except for the single-purpose slicer.

Finally, a ceramic sharpening “steel,” preferably at least 10”. There’s a 10.5” white ceramic sharpening rod for $29.95 at Amazon. I would get ceramic because, unlike a true steel, which hones but does not sharpen, I think ceramic sharpens lightly so you can avoid (or do less often) true sharpening. If you sharpen your knives regularly (but what non-professional does?), then a conventional steel would be fine.

I love knives. I am reminded of Jacques Pépin, who said you only need a chef's knife, a bread knife and a paring knife, but added with a twinkle that he had about three hundred knives. I am not there, but probably am closing in on a hundred.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Way I Cook

People often ask me what I like to cook, and I always answer "everything," which is a slight exaggeration, but I do enjoy learning about and trying new cuisines. For the past few years, I have been delving pretty deeply into the food of Turkey and the Middle East, including Syria, Iran, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

We had dear friends for dinner last night and I made a Middle Eastern/French meal. Hors d'oeuvres consisted of crostini topped with salmon rillettes made with poached and smoked salmon, dill and preserved lemon, which I learned to make a lesson at Atelier des Chefs in Paris,
Salmon rillettes
and mustard batons (puff pastry with mustard inside) from Dorie Greenspan's excellent Around My French Table,
Mustard batons
The starter was watercress and chickpea soup with rose water and ras el hanout from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem, a beautiful expression of complex and warm Middle Eastern spices.
Watercress and chickpeas soup
For the main course I made roast chicken with sumac, za'atar, lemon and pine nuts from the same chef's first book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, an old favorite that showcases different -- but just as interesting -- Middle Eastern flavors.
Roast chicken with sumac, za'atar, lemon slices and pine nuts
As a side, I made Persian rice with tons of herbs, using my new Instant Pot and a recipe from Melissa Clark's Dinner in an Instant. This was only partly successful: the wonderful crust (tahdig) that is a hallmark of Persian rice was not quite thick enough. Still, Clark's method is easier than the way I usually do it, so I'll try again, adjusting based on my experience.

Dessert was back to Dorie's French table, for Marie-Hélène's apple cake, made especially for my apple-loving old friend.
Marie-Hélène's apple cake
With the exception of the rice, I had made all of these dishes before, but not in the same combination, and I think it turned out to be a coherent and interesting sequence of dishes.

Bobby Jay

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

This year we had 11 adults, one five-year-old and a three-year-old for Thanksgiving dinner. With careful planning, and knocking off a couple of dishes a day, I was able to get a huge amount done in advance and actually had a pretty relaxed Thanksgiving day.

I made the turkey the same way as I have a number of times: deconstructed, then the breast cooked upside down in a saute pan, and finally all cooked over the stuffing. I dry-brined the turkey with salt for one day, instead of wet-brining the breast as the recipe suggests. It looked pretty good, and turned out to be the best I have ever made, moist white meat that held up even as leftovers the next day.
Turkey breast ready to be carved
Here's what I served (and cooked except for the Opera Cake):

Thanksgiving Dinner
 November 23, 2017
  • Slow poached garlic shrimp (from Tyler Florence's Ultimate TV show)
  • Mustard and tapenade batons (from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)
  • Whipped feta with home made pita chips (from Milk Street)
  • Tuna and cannellini bean crostini (Bobby Jay)
  • Bar nuts (from The Union Square Cookbook)
  • Turkey with chicken sausage and sage stuffing, gravy (from Cook's Illustrated for Turkey, The Food Lab for stuffing and gravy)
  • Cranberry mostarda (from Food and Wine)
  • Sweet potato gratin with sage (from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)
  • Hashed Brussels sprouts with poppy seeds and lemon (from The Union Square Cookbook)
  • Apple Tart Mémé  (from Essential Pépin)
  • Giant cannelé with pumpkin pie spices (from Atelier des Chefs cooking lesson, modified by Bobby Jay)
  • Chocolate espresso Opera Cake furnished by Payard (for mother's 95th birthday)
And here's what some of it looked like:

Hors d'oeuvres were served in the living room, around our old art deco table.
Mustard and green olive tapenade batons
Slow-cooked garlic shrimp
Then we moved to the dining room, spectacularly arranged as always by Joan, for a buffet style dinner.
Thanksgiving table
The turkey, deconstructed and carved:
Carved turkey
Sweet potato gratin:
Sweet potato gratin
Hashed Brussels sprouts:
Hashed Brussels sprouts
Finally, a chocolate espresso Opera Cake furnished by Payard to celebrate my mother's upcoming 95th birthday and two desserts that I whipped up the day before and the day of: Jacques Pépin's Apple Tart Mémé and a giant cannelé inspired by Michel Trama, with a recipe from Atelier des Chefs and added pumpkin pie spices (my [very good] idea).
Apple tart Mémé
Giant cannelé with pumpkin pie spices
Many commented that it was the best Thanksgiving meal I have ever served. Maybe true, maybe not, but when in doubt, say thank you.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Japan 2017 -- A Humble But Perfect Finale

Kitsune udon at Korian
Our Japanese ceramics tour ended with a visit to the great Kyushu artist, Tanaka Sajiro, who lives in the world's most picturesque compound perched on a mountaintop (see below), followed by lunch at a wonderful nearby noodle shop, Korian.

We had an innovative version of inari sushi, rice balls coated with okara, the grainy lees that are a byproduct of tofu making (usually aburaage -- see below -- is used for this),
Inari tofu at Korian
followed by noodles: I ordered my favorite kitsune udon (pictured above), made with aburaage, thin tofu that is fried, then blanched in boiling water to eliminate the grease. Delicious.
A humble -- but perfect -- ending to a tour filled with high-end gourmet adventures.

Bobby Jay

PS  I can't resist showing a few non-food related pictures of Tanaka-sensei's magnificent compound.

Tanaka Sajiro's compound and the artist himself

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Japan 2017 -- Ruminations on Western Food in Japan

Japanese chefs are now omnipresent in Paris and, indeed, all over France. I'm talking about chefs making genuine modern French food with, perhaps, a stylistic acknowledgment (often unconscious) of his or her Japanese origin. I guess they like living and working in France more than returning to Japan. Of course, many young chefs get training in the West and return to Japan.

Some Western style food in Japan is excellent; some is not, particularly outside of Tokyo.

We returned to an Italian favorite in Kyoto called Kyoto Nese. The food was excellent and the service beyond. The man behind the counter remembered us from four (or possibly six) years ago and could not have been nicer. The food was authentic and good and beautifully presented. Look at this linguini with clam sauce: not a traditional presentation . . . but it should be.

Linguini with clam sauce at Kyoto Nese
I wish there were more good Italian restaurants in Kyoto, but I fear there are few. Ones that we have tried over the years have always been disappointing.

Our favorite French restaurant in Kyoto for many years was Bellecour The owner chef had never trained in France but served amazingly authentic and excellent French fare. The owner is no longer the chef, spending his time at his informal bistro and catering facility, and the restaurant, now La Part Dieu, has lost its soul. The set meal includes a sashimi course and the so-called French food, while pretty good, is not French. Presentation is everything, from the amuse bouches served with holly to the 64-vegetable salad to the foam for dessert.

Dinner at La Part Dieu in Kyoto
Even La Mer, the French restaurant at the wonderful Shima Kanko, had no clue.

Dinner at La Mer at Shima Kanko
I mean, really, what is this stuff?

I don't want to over-generalize. I am sure that excellent French and Italian restaurants exist in Japan outside of Tokyo, but apart from Kyoto Nese, we haven't found them. Surprising in this era of global cuisine, but there you have it.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 4, 2017

Japan 2017 -- Gorgeous Food Where You Least Expect It

I love Japanese food. The quality of the fish, meat and produce never ceases to amaze, as does the subtle manner of preparation. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Japanese food is the beauty of the presentation. This has inspired chefs in the West, and notably had very strong and direct impact on the French Nouvelle Cuisine movement of the 1970s and 80s.

Of course one expects to find magnificent food at fancy kaiseki meals, and I have shown pictures of one of these in the previous post. What is more surprising is that beautiful food presentation is everywhere, as will be seen below.

Our tour formally began with a welcome event at Tsuki-no-Katsura, a centuries-old sake brewery in the Southern part of Kyoto, which featured a catered party consisting of numerous delicious and beautifully presented items.

Party food at Tsuki no Katsura
A number of our meals were at ceramic artists' ateliers or showrooms, and they made sure to provide excellent food with presentation to match. This lovely sushi and bento lunch was served by Fukumoto Fuku and her husband Yoshimura Toshiharu, on Yoshimura-san's plates, at their workshop North of Kyoto.

Lunch with Fukumoto Fuku and  Yoshiharu Toshiharu
An elaborate spread was arranged for us by Tanimoto Kei and his wife, which we ate in their large country kitchen.

Lunch at Tanimoto Kei's home
A late afternoon snack was provided by the ceramist Kato Ichiro: elaborate Western style pastries served on the artist's exquisite plates.

Late afternoon pastries at Kato Ichiro's home
Sometimes we traveled at lunch time rather than stopping for lunch. But all was definitely not lost: Japanese bento boxes are justly famous and, at their best, contain dozens of wonderful ingredients, beautifully served. Here's one example, a two-part box that we consumed on the train to Yamaguchi.

Bento box eaten on the train to Yamaguchi
Wherever we went we ate spectacularly well, feasts for all the senses: taste, of course, texture (occasionally weird by Western standards), smell, hearing (think slurping of noodles) and, perhaps most of all, sight.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Japan 2017 -- Two Sumptuous Meals

Leaving the wonderful Shima Kanko hotel, we journeyed next to Yokkaichi, also in Mie Prefecture, to visit the wonderful ceramist, Uchida Kouichi. Uchida-san took us to a nearby restaurant, Koetsu, that he designed from top to bottom. The place was lovely, and our lunch quite spectacular.

Lunch at Koetsu with Uchida Kouichi
A few days later, we spent a night in downtown Yamaguchi at Kokian, a totally unexpected magnificent ryokan, with spectacular architectural elements, beautiful private outdoor baths and superb food. We never would have tried an in-town place but for the recommendation of Japan Tourist Bureaus's boutique division, which made the arrangements for the tour: JTB was right: this is a destination ryokan.

Kokian Ryokan
We had a beautiful and excellent dinner (and a fine Japanese breakfast, too - sorry, no pictures). The next to last item below, a sort of Western style fish chowder, was invented in honor of us foreigners: quite good (sorry for the bad photo but I thought it was worth including to recognize the effort).

Dinner at Kokian Ryokan in Yamaguchi
You never know where you'll find a great ryokan in Japan but when you do, the food nearly always is excellent.

Bobby Jay