I’m worried about my son Daniel, who is currently facing an existential crisis involving knives.
He and Pauline are spending the month of September vacationing at his wife’s family summer home on the Normandy Coast. It’s a multi-story home with serpentine stairs reaching to the top floor. The view to the ground floor is unobstructed as one makes his/her way to the top, which is why I chose to stay off the staircase during my brief visit some ten years ago. Those stairs, as I recall were, in part, designed by the same guy who built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Gustave Eiffel was his name and he summered in Mers-les-Bains. He must have had an affinity for acrophobia.
Accommodations there were far different from the three-room clapboard cottage on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that my family would rent every year for two weeks.
Mers-les-Bains translates roughly to a “place where one bathes in the sea.” Although I was there for the frigid weather the English Channel delivers in November, I understand that it is a summer place where some people actually bathe. Others play Marco Polo in French.
But my son’s quandary stems from his having left his favorite knife at his home in Washington. His defiant use of a single knife for every cooking chore brings the concept of minimalism to a new level. Philip Glass would have been proud. Daniel is a fine cook who is putting together what I assume are excellent meals of fresh seafood and vegetables for family and friends, sans his favorite knife.
Apparently, the knives of Mers-les-Bains are substandard, thereby adding a level of difficulty to the task of food preparation in a kitchen that is not his own.
While I commiserate with the challenges of cooking in somebody else’s kitchen, I don’t quite understand how one could use a single knife for every kitchen task.
I have no fewer than fifty or sixty (you don’t think I’m actually going to count them, do you?) knives. I use only a few of them. My preferred knives are made by J.A. Henckels. That company’s cutlery has been made in Solingen, Germany since 1731. I’ve only seen some Japanese sushi knives that would compare.
My Henckels knives never saw the inside of my restaurant kitchen. I provided knives to all but three of my employees over the twelve years I owned Adagio, and I taught most of them how to make the best use of the various knives I supplied. A knife kept sharpened makes any task easier. It also hurts less if one happens to slice open a part of one’s body.
Nothing hurts more than being cut by a dull blade.
From what I can tell, Daniel likes the Santoku-type knife. Seven inches in length and slightly rectangular, it is one I’ve only used when I studied sushi at a school in Santa Monica, California. I liked it, but not enough to spend the money it took for a really good one.
Like most experienced cooks, I prepare for the day by selecting the knives I will need for service. I still do this at home. I place three sharp knives and a sharpening steel on my workbench. The ingredients for whatever dish I am making are arced over the top of my cutting board. Almost everything I make involves my chopping and dicing the vegetables that will become my mirepoix. For that job, I use an 8-inch chef’s knife. It is sturdy, comfortable, and wide enough to smash garlic to a mince.
Next to the 8-inch knife is a 6-inch chef’s knife that will do the duty of deboning chicken, removing the skin from a piece of fish, or taking off the silver skin from a pork tenderloin. My third knife is a paring knife that performs many of the small tasks on the workbench.
But there’s more!
I have an EKCO vegetable peeler that I bought on the very day I signed a lease on my first apartment in 1970. I still don’t know why I bought it that day, but I’m glad I did. It has served me well for lo these many years.
Close at hand is a 9-inch bread knife, a boning knife and a 7-inch cleaver.
I bought the cleaver at a hardware store in San Francisco’s China Town. It hung on a rack close to the store’s checkout counter and the clerk offered no packaging for me to encase the potentially vicious utensil. For five or six hours that sunny day, I walked about the city with my two small children in tow, cleaver held menacingly in my hand.
The Henckels’ serrated bread knife makes cutting through bread fast and easy. I seem to use it mostly for cutting stale loaves of baguettes into croutons for salads and soups.
My boning knife provides easy scaling of fish or easy trimming of any other animal protein.
At last, we come to my favorite knife—one rarely used but frequently admired for its simplicity and sleek beauty. It is a prosciutto knife, its blade 12-inches long and barely a half-inch wide, sharp as a razor to deliver paper-thin slices of the precious ham from Parma, Italy.
Someday, perhaps, I will get to revisit Mers-les-Bains. I will bring three knives and my vegetable peeler, just in case.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
French Onion Soup
Both elegant and rustic, French onion soup is easy to prepare and delightful to eat. Be generous with the cheese.
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 to 4 large yellow onions (about 3 pounds), peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 quarts (8 cups) beef stock
1 cup dry white wine
1 Tbs. dry sherry
1 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. black pepper
French bread cut into 8 to 12, 1/2 inch slices
1-1/2 cups grated Swiss or Gruyère cheese
Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and 1/2 tsp. salt, stir and cover, letting onions soften for about 5 minutes. Remove lid and let onions caramelize until golden brown over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 45 to 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm broth in a saucepan over low heat.
Once onions caramelize, add wine and sherry to the pot and allow mixture to come to boil. Stir in flour and let thicken for a minute or two.
Slowly add warm stock, 1/4 tsp. salt and the pepper to the onion mixture and boil uncovered for 10 minutes. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the broiler, and arrange individual ovenproof casseroles on a baking sheet. Ladle soup into casseroles, and cover top with croutons. Sprinkle each casserole generously with the cheese. Broil for a minute or two, watching carefully, until cheese melts and browns.