Saturday, December 30, 2017

Knives and other food prep - a starter set & beyond

The last few years I have much expanded my understanding of knives. I really started to get into it by watching Ryky Tran on YouTube (Burrfection). After a lot of experimenting, I decided to compile a list to sort of logically build up a beginners outfit of kitchen knives, which can then be expanded and grow over time. Based on all of that, if I were to start over again, here's how I would like to set myself up today. For some alternative info, I recommend the "Best Kitchen Knives of 2017" from Burrfection 

A serious starter set of knives 

Rada Paring knives galore from 2.5"to 3.25"
Rada "granny paring knife"


  1. A set of paring knives, like the Rada Cutlery Paring Knives Galore Gift Set.  I prefer the aluminum handles for visibility. I think I lost one with the black handle, because of that color, by inadvertently throwing it out with the cuttings.
  2. A bird's beak paring knife, such as the Rada Cutlery "Granny Paring Knife."
    The birds beak design is better for close in peeling tasks, including digging out sprouts from a potato, for you can operate it with your thumb opposing the tip, because of its short length. Bird's beak knives are also better for the slalom and things like tourné cuts.
  3. Don't forget to get a sharpener with it, I would just use Rada's own Quick Edge Knife Sharpener.
  4. A Gefu, or similar potato peelers. A serrated peeler is good for peeling various fruit with thick skins.
  5. A starter set of MAC Original Series Again don't forget a sharpener, probably at least the MAC 8 1/2" White Ceramic Honing Rod (about 1000 grit), or the MAC 8 1/2" Black Ceramic Honing Rod (about 2000 grit). The MAC knives are excellent for your plant-based kitchen, they are very thin, very sharp and slice easily through all plant materials, but you don't want to risk chipping them with overly woody parts or other hard things.
  6. A traditional European 8" Chef Knife, examples are in the budget category the KUMA 8"Chef Knife, or the Imarku 8" Chef Knife, or the Cozi life 8" Chef Knife. Notice that the Kuma and the Cozilife have a softer steel, which is still easy to maintain. You need to have at least one knife like that because the harder knives chip more easily if you ever have to cut hard things, like even peeling a pineapple, or hacking the top off a cassava root. See my notes below... I might go for the Kuma, and its accompanying honing rod. Having said that, I like the Imarku a lot too, but you don't want it as your ONLY chef knife if you already have a set of MAC knives. Burrfection likes the Mercer Culinary M20608 Genesis 8" knife best in the budget category.
  7. You might want to get a decent sharpening stone, a 1000/3000 stone is a good range to have for knives that are not seriously damaged, just dull. A leather strop and stropping compound are no luxury either, it is THE best finishing touch for any knife sharpening job.

The low down on knife maintenance

Knives like Rada are of a softer, stainless steel and will need regular maintenance. Fortunately the company provides a very convenient little sharpening tool. Harder knives like MAC will keep their edges a long time if you don't abuse them, but will need periodic touching up. Fortunately the company provides these ceramic honing rods that are a perfect match for their knives. If you need serious sharpening, you can either send them back to the manufacturer, or get a more serious sharpening setup yourself. The chef knives will need some regular maintenance and periodic sharpening.

Here by the way is a good video to explain why harder knives are worth it, but you will also understand why you need to have some softer knives as well. The bottom line is, harder knives are worth having, but you need to treat them with care, and you should simply let no-one else use them, unless they understand and are coachable about the proper use.

Specialized knives

We're now getting into the dream knives category. As you expand your cooking, this is worthwhile. Knives generally are easier to clean and maintain than fancy kitchen tools, so the more time I spend in the kitchen, the more I prefer knives over other tools in the kitchen, if I can help it at all.
With vegetables the difference between cutting and crushing is very important in general, and even more so if you are serving things fresh. Delicate things such as tomatoes and strawberries will show you the difference. But even slicing celery for a salad is very telling.
It is most important to realize that Nakiri or Usuba knives are not choppers. Their very sharp, delicate edges could be damaged. You want to use them in a locomotive fashion, pushing forward and down and pulling backward and up. The mass of these knives, combined with that gentle rhythm make cutting vegetables almost effortless, and very precise. The design of the blade gives you firm control. Speed comes with practice, but you want to learn proper hand techniques so your fingers never end up under the blade. For the most part it seems the single bevel, or kataba, knives are typically called usuba, and the dual bevel are nakiri. Here is a good intro to single bevel knives. The Usuba are also slightly hollow ground on the back side, enabling thinner slicing. That is where Usuba shines.
Dalstrong Shogun 6" Nakiri knife

Shun Premier 5.5" Nakiri knife

  • An Usuba and/or Nakiri knife, also known as a Japanese Vegetable knife. They range in length from about 5 to about 7". Examples are: the Shun Premier 5.5" Nakiri knife, or a Dalstrong 6" Nakiri knife, both of these are dual bevel, i.e. European style. I also have a Kamikoto 7" Nakiri knife and I love it. Interestingly, Kamikoto calls theirs a Nakiri knife even though it is single bevel, probably because it is not hollow ground on the back. Kamikoto advises me: "You are correct in observing that our Nakiri vegetable knife indeed shares many similarities with an Usuba, including the single bevel sharpening or kataba. However, as Usuba can come in multiple different variations, and as other features of our knife - such as its dimensions, weight, and blade tip - correspond better with traditional Nakiri, we consider our vegetable knife Nakiri rather than Usuba."
  • If you are into thin slicing, you might want to get into a single bevel (kataba-style) or Usuba knife, like the Shun Classic Pro 6.5"Usuba.
    Learning proper technique with an usuba is quite interesting.
  • A stainless Chinese vegetable cleaver is a better option for serious hacking like my example above of chopping the top off a cassava root. For this I love any budget stainless steel Chines vegetable cleaver, or a large chef knife.
  • Ceramic knives are not my favorite for most tasks, I do not like the light weight. The exception is for cleaning fruits, which is delicate work. I like the Kyocera Revolution fruit knife, or the paring knife for that. The downside of ceramic is that it is brittle, so you want to baby these knives, but for the right task they are unbeatable.
  • A high end paring knife/utility knife is a useful addition at some point. My favorite has become the Dalstrong Shogun Paring Knife, but I consider it to be a transition to a small utility knife, just like the MAC paring knife. The MAC paring knife even more so than the Dalstrong is almost designed for small cutting tasks on the board. For both of them the blade is too wide and too long to work effectively with the tip for peeling, etc. that's why I recommended the Rada paring knives. To put things in perspective, you can have a basic set of 3 straight paring knives, a birds beak paring/peeling knife and a sharpener from Rada cutlery for the price of a MAC paring knife, and you can have two MACs for one Dalstrong Shogun. I have had some of my MAC knives for over 30 years and they continue to perform.
In terms of paring knives, my conclusion is that they range from 2.5" to 3.5" in length, and I want them with a narrow blade. The important thing is that they are easy to control in the hand for peeling, etc. The wider, longer paring knives are really small utility knives, and the larger utility knives are small chef knives. In my view, over 4.0" up to 5.5" is the range of utility knives, and so-called paring knives over 3.5" tend to the low end of that range. In short, I agree with the folks from Rada, their paring knives run from 2.5" to 3.25," 3.5" is about the limit for comfortable hand operation.

Other means of slicing and dicing, chopping and blending

For some tasks, other tools do help, although, if you have a good knife collection, you will generally prefer a knife if you can help it. Examples of other useful tools:
  • Mandolin (V-Slicer), for a mandolin, the Swissmar Boerner V-slicer is my favorite. Personally, I prefer the original model, the V-1001 V-Slicer Plus,  the newer version, VPower or V-7000WH is supposedly a bit more compact to pack up, but in my view not necessarily more convenient.
  • Both a Magic Bullet and a Nutribullet are your best options for other blending tasks that are beyond the reach of knives.
  • A good immersion blender, like Braun, is another powerful option. A good one is the Breville BSB510XL, according to Consumer Reports. It is a great way of blending a soup or a sauce right in the pan, and these units have such a small footprint, you can find room for them in any kitchen.
  • Although I used to have larger food processors, my kitchen nowadays is simply too small for them, but I am not so sure that I would have one again if I had all the space in the world. The set of "power tools" listed here is really all you need.
And for the rest, it is whatever makes you happy, but a lot of fancy tools will quickly disappoint. I have owned a ton of garlic presses and crushers, but crushing garlic with the flat of a chef knife and chopping it up by hand is still the hands down winner. Sometimes I crush the cloves in my mortar and pestle. Endless gadgets have been produced to slice herbs. Forget them all. A super sharp Nakiri knife, or even a large paring knife or a utility knife on a good cutting board beats them all and is a hell of a lot easier to clean. Sometimes I think that many of those gadgets come up only because people don't know how to maintain their knives. Go watch some Burrfection and others on YouTube. On and on. Happy slicing and dicing.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Inspiration from Ecuador

Courtesy of Fatima, the cook for the school at St. Helena's, we experienced some Ecuadorian foods, while Audelle created an interesting green salad to go along with it, so we all get our regular requirement for leafy greens.

In this post I will report on the recipes, and I will elaborate on the preparation only after re-creating them and making some changes based on some things we tried.

Meanwhile, some notes on the ingredients:
In general, we use herbs & spices rather than salt, or if need be we add some Braggs Liquid Aminos which has 1/3rd the sodium of even low sodium soy sauce.
We included the green salad because a healthy #WFPB diet should see us eating 4-6 "fistsized" portions of leafy greens per day, because the leafy greens help the body produce nitric oxide that is good for endothelial health. And keeps your blood vessels flexible.
Added oils are always avoided, because they practically paralyze the endothelium for 3-6 hours after a meal. Small amounts of oily fruits (avocado, coconut, nuts) are allowable, but you definitely don't want to overdo it either.

Evidently, the cassava, lentils, potatoes, and veggies provide plenty of carbohydrates, so that this meal is probably close to the ideal balance of 80% (complex) carbohydrates, 10% fats, and 10% protein.


Locro de Lentejas (Lentils locro) - a thick soup 

red onions
Bragg's Liquid Amino's (instead of Salt)

We initially made it as above, with just water. Some people were adding a green habanero sauce at the table, or more Liquid Aminos. So next time I prepared this soup, here's what I did, to make about 1.5 gallon of it:

  • 1 lb whole lentils
  • 1 lb young potatoes (the kind with the thin skin, either yukon gold or redskin), quartered or smaller, depending on the size and personal preference
  • one small green cabbage, quartered and sliced in 1/4"stips
  • a large red onion and two white onions (just because I was out of red onions),sliced thin
  • 4 green chilis, sliced thin, with seeds
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, sliced thin (without seeds)
  • 6 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped fine.
  • a teaspoon of savory
  • a teaspoon of tarragon
  • 5 bay leaves
  • two pints of low sodium vegetable stock
  • three pints of water
  • a tablespoon of "Better than bouillon" vegetable bouillon
  • a half a cup of cilantro, chopped (leaves only)
  • Some Braggs Liquid Aminos to taste
Initially, I fried the onions (dry) with the chilis and jalapenos, over a low flame for about 5 minutes until they got soft, then I added the vegetable stock and the herbs, the lentils and the potatoes (with about a 15-20 minute delay).  Finally I added the shredded cabbage and let it cook for another 15-20 minutes.
(Note: some people would peel the potatoes, but if you buy thin-skinned potatoes, you can easily cook them in the skin, even cut-up: you lose less nutrition that way.)

My personal practice is always to cook a large pan of soup, and to have enough to freeze about 3, 4, or 5 quart-size freezer bags, which is about one large bowl of soup each. This way, you can have some the day you make it, and maybe keep some for the next few days, and have the rest in reserve for days when you don't have time to cook.

Mixed Beans and Vegetable Salad 

2 lb beets, boiled, cut in small chunks
2 lb carrots, boiled, quartered and cut in 1.5" chunks
2 bunches of scallions, sliced thin
4 lb fresh beans from Ecuador (Mama Tere, Frihol Mixto, Frozen)
1 bunch cilantro leaves only, chopped fine
Braggs Liquid Aminos to taste

This is the kind of recipe that is delicious as is, and people can individually choose to spice it up more with Tabasco, or Sriracha Sauce, sambal, or as I tried this morning a splash of Habañero infused balsamic vinegar.

Cassava Side Dish

Cassava (yuca) with a onion sauce (parboiled red onions, lemon, cilantro, liquid aminos)
  • Cut off the top of the cassava and peel it
  • Cut into 1.5" slices
  • Boil for about 30 mins until soft
  • peel some red onions, and slice thin
  • parboil the onion slices in boiling water for a few moments, so they are limp.
  • pluck the cilantro leaves and cut them up.
  • use the juice of one or more lemons to make the dressing
  • add in liquid aminos to taste.

Creamy Avocado Dressing

2 avocados, peeled and pitted

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 lime

1 tsp. lime zest

1 cucumber

~1/2 c. water

1/4 c. chopped cilantro

1/2 to 1 tsp. chili powder

Dash of sea salt or Braggs Liquid Aminos
Blend all ingredients together until smooth, adjusting water to get desired consistency. Refrigerate unused portions.
Makes 3+ cups

This dressing is brilliant. When I made it a second time, at home after our event, I made a complete kitchen sink salad, with red leaf lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, thinly sliced red onion, capers, olives, milled flax seed, chia seed and quinoa, and it was out of this world. Obviously, you can adjust the heat to your liking, but the cucumber makes it milder.

In any case, since I prepared all these things at home in the week before Christmas, I had some chance to share them with a neighbor, and I got very positive response to all of them. Notably, this was from someone who has no idea about the plant-based diet. And that to me is the real test, if you simply make good food, except that it just happens to be very healthy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The truth about paring knives

Periodically, I get excited about kitchen tools, everything to make life easier in the kitchen. Using the appropriate tools really does make a difference.

A good shopper can find excellent tools for a reasonable price, the trick is to know what tools you need to really make your life easier.

For the most part, a paring knife is about tasks you can do by hand, i.e. off the board. There are however two main varieties and it pays to know the difference.

Some of the best knives I've owned in my life were no-name knives, and others I picked up at street fairs. One of my favorites for an easy to maintain paring knife is Rada Cutlery. Besides a regular full length paring knife, they offer what they call a "granny paring knife," which has a curved "beak-like" bladed, like this:

Rada "Granny Paring" Knife
That type of a paring knife, or it's close equivalent, a peeling-paring knife, which typically has a short blade (like 2.5") are great for peeling apples or potatoes, because of the short blade and the long handle, they offer great control of the tip when you have to cut out the sprouts from a potato, or cut out the seeds from an apple, or simply in peeling fruit. In those jobs, I find myself controlling the action with my thumb, and if the paring knife is too long, you end up gripping the blade, and that's not a comfortable situation, and outright dangerous with some of the wider blades.
In other words, these curved paring knives are especially good in the curves, or when you want to do a tourné cut. The other solution for the peeling problem is is the "peeling paring" knife from Rada:

Rada Cutlery's 2-1/2 "peeling paring" knife
Again, these little paring knives are good in the curves, and offer a sharp tip, for coring fruit or the sprouts of a potato, and ideal for situations where you have to oppose the tip with your thumb.

Regular paring knives typically have blade lengths of 3.5" to 4" and the emphasis for these is more on cutting or slicing, mostly off the board, but sometimes on. There are some of these with a straight edge, which are really a compromise between the super short peelers, and a paring knife, for they offer the sharp point that is good for paring. I have a Sabatier 3.75" paring knife like that. It came with my original Sabatier set, and it remains a favorite. In my view, if you're going to have just one paring knife, this is the type you want. The blade is not too wide at the base.
Sabatier set with 3.5"straight edge paring knife
Many paring knives are more for cutting and slicing various finicky small items. The general idea of a paring knife is in the hand, off the board.

At the high end, Dalstrong offers a knife like that, which has become a favorite of mine. Besides super sharpness and long edge retention, these Dalstrong paring knives have superb handles, which give you a lot of comfort and control. They also have a weight that I actually appreciate when cutting. However, because of the type of steel and the shape of the blade (long, and fairly wide), this is for the straightaway, and not for the slalom course. It is unsurpassed for a task like preparing scallions, where you will really appreciate the difference between cutting and crushing. However, the wide, flat and fairly straight blade means you need another paring knife to handle the curves...
Dalstrong Shogun series 3.75" paring knife.
 Fortunately, Dalstrong also offers a peeling knife, as in here:
Dalstrong Shogun 3" peeling knife
These types of bird's beak knives are also ideal for a "tourné"- cut, where you cut in a slightly rounded fashion. This video makes the point whey the "bird's beak" design makes it easier, although you can actually do it with any decent paring knife if you have to. But you can see the attraction of having some different paring knives.

Some other paring knives, such as the Kyocera Revolution, and the MAC original series, have rounded tips, and are really purely for slicing and less so for peeling, or even small jobs on the board. These also often have wide blades, so besides not having a tip, they are awkward to control if you need to control the tip. You don't want to be gripping a wide blade like that. For the rest, the lightness of ceramic knives is actually a feature that I don't generally, like except for delicate tasks like quartering strawberries and then the lightness is an asset.

Kyocera Revolution, 3.7" paring knife
Another example is the MAC 4" paring knife, which besides not having a tip and a wide blade, has a handle shaped for on-board cutting, so it is really a transition between a true paring knife and a small utility knife. I have had one in my kitchen for 30 years. And it's another favorite for the right tasks.
MAC Original Series 4" Paring Knife.

All the usual precautions apply. The harder the steel, the longer it keeps its edge, but also the more brittle it is. That applies especially also to ceramic, which is super sharp, and keeps its edge a long time, but it is no good for twisting and turning, for they will snap. The best compromise approach at the high end are knives like the Dalstrong Shogun, where the central core is a high carbon steel with 62+ Hardness on the Rockwell Scale, while the outer layers of the steel are stainless. This layered method of knife construction (Damascus steel) is the best of both worlds in a lot of ways, but you should remember very strongly not to leave it wet for the super sharp edge is also more prone to corrosion. So you want to use it, wash it, and dry it and put it away safely for the next time. Typically knives are in the range of HRC 55-66 on the Rockwell scale, where 66 is really extremely brittle, so that harder may not be better. It is really a matter of compromise. Softer knives don't keep their edge as long, but they are also easier to sharpen.

The conclusion is, you can find excellent paring knives from $6 to $60, and anywhere in between, but what you want to watch for is the appropriate tool for the task, so that with experience, I found myself liking the two separate types, both a regular 3.5" to 4.0" paring knife and a 2.5" to 3.0" peeler to navigate the curves.

As I wrote in my previous post, if you want to know about knives, Ryky Tran is your man, his channel is Burrfection on Youtube. I find him fun to watch and he really motivated me to restore some old knives that I had neglected for a while. It remains true that dull knives are really dangerous, because they are harder to control. That applies in spades to paring knives, because you often use them for finicky little tasks and tight corners, so if you lose control, you can easily hurt yourself, whereas if you maintain them well, all your tasks are easier.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Knifery for Vegans

If you're serious about plant-based nutrition, you will soon end up learning more about knives too, for there is a lot of cutting involved in preparing various vegetable meals. Not to mention, I even like to make my oatmeal look pretty, and when I have strawberries I halve them or quarter them. More reason to use knives.

There was a time when I thought that a knife was a Sabatier knife, and I have had my set for forty years. They are always still a good choice, but I have learned to look beyond. For about thirty years, I had a set of MAC knives, which are still my favorites for cutting vegetables and fruits, because they are so razor sharp and very thin.

MAC Original Series, set of 3
If you want to treat yourself, I would strongly suggest a set of the MAC knives. They are not overly expensive, and they are hard to beat for preparing vegetables. My only beef is that the paring knife has a bit of a wide blade and is not too convenient for working off the board, purely in your hands. For that, I prefer a narrower blade, which my Sabatier paring knife and a closely similar Wüsthof do better.

Another good option can be ceramic knives, although they have limitations, but the good ones stay sharp almost indefinitely, and they are very sharp indeed. I have a set of Kyocera Revolution knives, and I love them for the right task. The paring knife is too wide, and like the MAC paring knife, I find I can only use it on the board, not in the hand, like for peeling an apple or a potato. You can't use them on the side to flatten your garlic or some such, for you will shatter the blade that way, they are very brittle. As long as you stay within those guidelines, they are a very useful option to have. Try it any time for slicing tomatoes, and you will never give them up again. For some tasks however, I actually prefer the weight of a steel knife.
Kyocera Revolution Fruit knife
If you have the patience to learn some new cutting techniques, a Japanese style nakiri knife (a vegetable cleaver), or a santoku knife are very versatile options, but especially if you get the single bevel variety, there's some learning curve...

Kamikoto knives, yanagi-ba, nakiri, and utility knife

Once you get handy with the single bevel knives, you will tend to make some other kitchen gadgets superfluous, for instance I find myself using my mandolin less often. I can slice a celery stalk in paper thin slices with a nakiri-knife in less time than it would take me to do it with a mandolin. For certain jobs a good mandolin is still a winner, but especially the single bevel Japanes nakiri-knife is excellent for slicing thin, or even julienne cuts. At that point my mandolin comes out only when I have a large batch to do.

Then, there is always maintenance, and for that, I got lots of inspiration from Ryky Tran, aka Burrfection on Youtube. Highly recommended. Sharp knives are safer than dull knives! (Except if people are not used to them...)

Burrfection comparing the sharpening of an $20 and $160 chef's knife

That was a fun test, showing that a $20 knife could outperform a $160 knife if it is sharpened well. By the way, he is right about the Kuma knife, it is a great buy, even at today's price of $30 - the $20 price was an introductory price when this brand first came to market.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Yet Another #WFPB Supper at Packsun

This week we had another lovely #WFPB Supper at Packsun...

Simple and sumptuous.

Three veggie dishes and GABA Brown Basmati rice

The dishes were simple:

A lentil stew with poi leaf (Malabar Spinach) with onions, garlic, turmeric, cardamom, bay leaf and chilis, be sure to add some black pepper because it potentiates turmeric, and you can use some Braggs Liquid Aminos in lieu of salt to finish it to taste.

A side of cauliflower with onions, garlic and turmeric.

Khokon and father David before digging in, I was taking the picture

And another side dish with broccoli, onions, garlic, turmeric and cardamom.

Khokon is also starting to eat more plant-based food and has lost weight that way. Father David estimated his weight loss in the first 6 months was about 80 lbs and 8" on his belt size, and the whole parish is noticing that he looks so much better. I keep joking with him that he will run the marathon yet.

The most important ingredient in any successful meal according to Khokon: put your heart into it.

On Friday of this same week my cardiologist (Dr. Robert Ostfeld of the Montefiore Cardiac Wellness Program) fired me: "I wish all my patients did so well!"