Originally published July 9, 2008: Talk about a timely cooking class.
A couple of weeks ago, personal chef Wendy Carroll of Seasoned to Taste in Fresno demonstrated the proper use of knives at Kitchen & Bath Plus on West El Paso near Blackstone Avenue. The class was great for families cooking more at home because of the tough economy.
Not only did the class boost cooking skills, it also featured a student-cooked dinner perfect for summer: crostini (toasted bread topped with peach salsa and brie cheese), gazpacho, panzanella (a bread salad) and semifreddo (a semi-frozen mixture of cream, almond cookies and lemon juice topped with berry sauce).
The class wasn't just about fancy restaurant-style flourishes, either. Budd Solaegui of Perfect Edge Sharpening Systems in Coarsegold showed students how to hone their own knives. And he offered a practical reason for using sharp knives: Since you're cleanly slicing through vegetables and fruits instead of mashing them with a dull knife, your food stays fresh longer.
Here are Carroll's and Solaegui's tips, from choosing knives to seeding a tomato in less than 30 seconds.
The knives you need
Home cooks frequently reach for three types of knives: the chef's knife, the paring knife and serrated knives, Carroll says. The chef's knife, great for everything from chopped to julienned items, should be 7-10 inches long. The paring knife, used for detail work or cutting small foods, is 2-4 inches long. And a 10-inch serrated knife is most useful for slicing breads and cakes.
It's best to shop around and hold several of each type of knife.
"What's most important is how it feels in your hand," Solaegui says.
When buying knives, choose ceramic or forged, high-carbon stainless steel, Solaegui says. Ceramic knives are very sharp and maintain an edge well, but they can break when dropped. Forged, high-carbon stainless steel knives are stronger; they also keep an edge for a long time.
Avoid regular stainless steel. It doesn't maintain an edge and is very difficult to sharpen.
Caring for knives
First, never clean knives in the dishwasher. The heat and dishwasher detergent can damage the blade. Solaegui washes knives by hand, then immediately wipes them with a towel along the back side of the blade. He advises storing knives immediately, using plastic knife guards or a wooden knife block to protect them.
Second, use a soft cutting board that will help maintain the edge of the blade, Solaegui says. For example, bamboo and plastic are better than glass.
Carroll likes Epicurean cutting boards, which are made of layers of paper and food-safe resin. They're dishwasher safe, heat resistant and soft on knives.
No matter the type of cutting board you have, don't scrape your knife sideways across it to clear away peelings and the like.
"You'll end up rolling the edge," Solaegui says.
He demonstrates how to identify a rolled edge. Grip the handle of the knife with one hand and hold it in the air in front of you. Curl the fingers of your other hand, then scrape your fingernails down one side of the blade and across the sharp edge of the knife -- this motion should be quick, as though you were plucking a harp string. Switch hands, and test the other side of the blade. If your fingernails run smoothly across the edge of the blade on either side, your knife is fine. But if your nails catch on the edge of a blade, that means it's a "rolled edge" and it's time to hone, Solaegui says.
Honing a blade "doesn't cut off metal," he says. "It just rolls back the metal to where it's supposed to be."
Use a ceramic steel or a fine-striated steel, Solaegui says. Hold the handle of the steel in one hand, and let the other end of it rest on a table. Grip the knife in your other hand, and place its sharp edge perpendicular to the steel. Then tilt the top of the knife at a 45-degree angle and move it again to about a 20-degree angle. Slide the blade across the steel on either side of the knife a few times, just enough to smooth the edges of the blade.
It's not necessary to hone the knife every time you use it. Repeat this process only "when you can't cut tomatoes cleanly," Solaegui says.
After using your knives for a while, you'll notice that honing no longer smooths their edges. When this happens, it's best to bring the knives to professional sharpeners; electric sharpeners can render a knife misshapen.
For more information, call Solaegui at (559) 908-2191 or visit him at the Vineyard farmers market on Saturday mornings at Shaw and Blackstone Avenues.
How to seed a tomato and other tips
Now that you know how to care for knives, here's Carroll's advice for using them. Some of the tips, such as dicing an onion, julienning a carrot and stripping parsley leaves off their stems, are easier to understand by watching video. To see Carroll in action, look for this story on fresnobee.com.
Other tips are explained here, such as the "pinch grip" Carroll uses with her chef's knife to maintain control and prevent her arm from tiring.
To use this grip, first look at the back of the blade. You'll see the bolster, a thick strip of metal that weights the chef's knife and makes it easier to cut.
Place your thumb on one side of the blade at the bolster. Then place your index finger on the other side of the blade. Pinch the blade with these fingers, then curve the remaining three fingers around the handle.
Once you've mastered the pinch grip, use it while chopping and mincing herbs.
"It's much easier to chop a dry herb than a wet herb," Carroll says. She recommends drying the washed herbs in a salad spinner before cutting them.
To make a chiffonade (very thin strips) of a leafy green such as baby spinach, stack individual leaves atop one another, then tightly roll them up lengthwise. Using a chef's knife, cut the rolled bundle of leaves crosswise into thin slices. Unroll the strip, and use them as desired.
As for seeding that tomato, Carroll's technique requires a bowl, paring knife and serrated knife or sharp chef's knife. Using the paring knife, she cuts a circle around the stem and pulls it out. (Don't bother to core the tomato; you just want to pull out the stem.)
Next, place the tomato on the cutting board and slice it crosswise using the serrated knife or chef's knife. Pick up a tomato half, and hold the cut side over the bowl. Gently squeeze, letting the tomato seeds drip into the bowl. Repeat with the other half.
And here's one more tip that's easy to explain in words: To cut vegetables for stir-fry, hold the knife at about a 45-degree angle to the cutting board, with the edge of the knife facing away from you. Slice vegetables into equally thick pieces.
Cutting the vegetables at an angle creates more surface area on the pieces and allows for faster cooking.
"You want to cook in a stir-fry very quickly," Carroll says. "You want to make sure the cuts are consistent."
Panzanella with grilled chicken
Makes 10-12 servings
For the chicken:
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For the vinaigrette:
4 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad:
1 loaf rustic bread, day old, crusts removed and cubed
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 large English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 medium bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh basil, julienned
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan or Asiago cheese
To make the chicken: In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the chicken and marinate for 20 minutes.
Grill chicken over a hot fire for about 8 minutes per side or until opaque. Cut the chicken into slices on the diagonal and set aside.
To make the vinaigrette: Using the blade of a chef's knife, create a paste out of the salt and smashed garlic cloves. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegars, garlic paste and extra-virgin olive oil. Adjust for salt and pepper. Set aside.
To assemble the salad: In a large salad bowl, toss the bread cubes with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Add the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, fennel, basil and rosemary. Mix well. Add the cheese and remaining vinaigrette, then let stand for 1/2 hour to 1 hour. Add the chicken and toss. Season to taste and serve.
-- Wendy Carroll, Seasoned to Taste
Lemon amaretti semifreddo with fresh berry sauce
Makes 10-12 servings
For the semifreddo:
1 1/2 cups coarsely crushed amaretti cookies, divided (see note, below)
4 egg whites
1 cup powdered sugar, divided
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
For the sauce:
1/2 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
1/2 cup fresh raspberries
1/2 cup fresh blackberries
1/2 cup powdered sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
To make the semifreddo: Line a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan (or a loaf pan of similar size) with two layers of plastic wrap. One layer should line the bottom of the pan crosswise. The other layer should line the bottom of the pan lengthwise. Leave a generous overhang of plastic wrap on all sides.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup amaretti crumbs over the bottom of pan. Freeze the pan.
Using an electric mixer and a medium bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup powdered sugar and beat until egg whites are stiff, but not dry.
Using the same beaters and a large bowl, beat cream and remaining 3/4 cup powdered sugar until peaks form. Fold in lemon peel and juice.
Fold a third of the cream into the egg whites. Then fold whites back into cream in two additions. Fold in 3/4 cup amaretti crumbs.
Transfer mixture to prepared loaf pan. Smooth the top of the semifreddo, then use the plastic-wrap overhang to cover the pan. Wrap in foil and freeze for at least 4 hours.
To make the sauce: Combine all berries and powdered sugar in a small pan. Bring to quick boil over high heat to combine. Reduce heat and let simmer 5 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, then let cool.
When ready to serve, remove foil and open plastic wrap. Turn semifreddo onto a platter and slice. Serve with a spoonful of sauce.
Note: Amaretti are Italian cookies with a strong almond flavor. They are available at Sam's Italian Deli & Market, at First Street and Clinton Avenue, and Piemonte's Italian Delicatessen, at 616 E. Olive Ave. in the Tower District.
-- Wendy Carroll, Seasoned to Taste
Makes 8 servings
For the soup:
2 cups cubed day-old bread, crusts removed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Pinch ground cumin
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato paste
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 large Italian frying pepper (also called Gypsy pepper), seeded and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 cup V8 vegetable juice
For the garnish:
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into small dice
1 red tomato, small dice
1 half red onion, small dice
1 yellow bell pepper, small dice
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into small dice
1/2 cup minced Italian parsley
Kosher salt, to taste
To make the gazpacho: Place the bread in a medium bowl, add cold water to cover and let soak for 10 minutes. Drain the bread and squeeze out excess liquid.
Using the salt and the edge of your knife, work garlic into a paste. In a large bowl, mix the garlic paste, cumin, sun-dried tomato paste, tomatoes, cucumbers, both types of peppers, onion and bread. Toss to mix. Let stand 15 minutes.
Working in two batches, place the vegetable mixture in a food processor and process until smooth, adding 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil to each batch. Once each batch is puréed, transfer to a blender and process until smooth.
Transfer to a large bowl and add vinegar and V8 juice. Adjust seasonings. Refrigerate until icy cold, at least 2 hours.
To make the garnish and finish the dish: Combine all garnish ingredients in a bowl. Pour gazpacho into iced glass bowls or stemmed glasses. Spoon garnish on top of each serving. Serve immediately.
-- Wendy Carroll, Seasoned to Taste