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American Slicer - Recap

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Cooks may have, Alton says, various favorite tools – pans, or whisks or whatnot. But no relationship is more mystical than the relationship between a cook and his knives. Alton presses a button on a remote and a large array of knives rises into view. He intends to explore this relationship between the cook and his oft misunderstood tool, with the goal of helping that cook better use his knives to turn out truly... Good Eats.

Alton starts with a discussion of knife anatomy, using an enormous model that lowers from the ceiling. The back of the blade, or spine, leads to the point (the technical term for which, Alton reminds us, is “point.”) The first third or so of a knife is the tip. That leads to the belly, which is most of the rest, and the heel, where the knife turns up and joins the handle. The leading edge of the handle is the bolster; it may have a finger guard. In a high quality European knives a part of the blade called the tang runs the length of the handle. Asian knives typically have a shorter, “hidden” tang that may be any size and shape.

A nearby television monitor shows Chef Klaus Wolfgar of the “Kutzu” Kitchen. The chef, dressed in black chef’s garb and an eye patch, demonstrates some fine German cutlery in the manner of a late night infomercial. He cuts leather boots, concrete blocks, and then slices a tomato so thin it cannot be seen (or so he claims). Just at the point where the pitchman reveals that he’ll sell fourteen knives for just $39.99, Alton cuts off the television and asks why anyone would spend a hundred dollars on a single knife when one might have a whole set for far less.

Alton turns to his microscopic viewer for the answer. The Kutzu knives use poor quality steel, so once the tiny edge serrations wear away, they will be useless. Their poor design also makes them harder to use; they are not balanced and have a poor angle of attack. Alton compares these characteristics to those of a higher quality knife, showing how the edge has a nice steep angle. Maintaining such an angle requires high quality steel. To explain what makes a steel high quality, Alton uses a baked goods model.

Bakers can produce different crusts, different crumbs, and different textures by varying the quantities of just a few ingredients. Like bakers, metallurgists have a pantry. Basic steel contains iron and a bit of carbon. Without carbon, iron is too soft to hold a decent edge. Chromium hardens steel and adds some corrosion resistance. Molybdenum makes the grain (size of the crystals) finer. Nickel adds toughness and elasticity, allowing the metal to resist bending while tungsten contributes wear resistance and vanadium refines the grain. Silicon adds strength, and so on. Just like the cook, the knife maker selects the precise alloy he uses based on the knife’s intended use, and cooks select knives in part for the alloys that compose them.

The other half of the “chopping equation” is what the knife touches. That’s normally a cutting board, and Alton diverts from his discussion of knives to touch on the cutting board. The most important characteristic of a cutting board is what it is made of; Alton provides a list of “evil” materials: marble, granite, composite counter tops, metal, glass (that one is “Dark Lord of the Sith” evil). That leaves wood, wood composites and polyethylene (a plastic). Wooden boards may be either cross cut (the grain runs parallel to the surface) or end cut (the grain runs perpendicular to the surface). The second factor of importance in cutting boards is size. To check a cutting board, lay the largest knife used with it diagonally. There should be two inches of space on either end of the knife. If there isn’t, the cutting board is too small for that knife. Alton prefers rock maple to bamboo because rock maple “cuts faster.”

Alton’s technical team has equipped him with a vest camera that permits him to show the knife work up close. It has a high definition mini-cam and... some other gizmo.

Before cutting, Alton talks about grips. The “Excalibur” grip wraps the fingers around the handle. According to Alton, it’s good for hacking and little else. There’s “The Accuser” which features a finger pointing along the spine of the knife. It offers a bit of tip control, but sacrifices stability. Alton recommends it only for those who can easily reach their medical insurance card with the other hand! Alton favors a grip he calls “the pinch.” He pinches the spine just forward of the bolster; giving better control and increasing power transfer from arm to blade. When paring he uses “the choke” which partially wraps a small paring knife with the fingers, positioning the thumb to guide the food into the blade.

Three basic cuts comprise most of the cutting cooks do: slice, chop, and pare. Slicing involves cutting by pulling the knife towards the cook. Long knives work best because they reduce the need to go back and forth, while thin knives reduce drag. The goal being a single thin cut, a long and thin knife works the best. Alton demonstrates on a roast beef.

Chopping is an unfortunate name for a precision operation, Alton claims. It involves... suddenly, there’s the sound of wood giving way, Alton frantically urges the cameraman back out of the way as... a tree falls in the middle of the kitchen! It is – or was – Alton’s cherry tree, and moments later, someone dressed as George Washington steps into view and offers Alton a hatchet she found “laying around” outside. But when a cook chops, it’s not the banging motion used with a hatchet. It’s a forward cutting motion where the entire blade contacts the cutting board. He suggests the train model, and shows a model railroad to demonstrate. What the cook wants is the same motion seen in a locomotive’s drive: up, forward, down, backward in an orbital pattern. Alton demonstrates with a few bits of celery. The knife hand drives the blade, but the fingers of the other hand guide the blade. As long as the blade is tall enough and the cook keeps the fingers of the guide hand folded back (guiding with the knuckles and the second joint of the finger) injury is unlikely. The technique works well unless the food is too tall for the knife, and is especially suited to herbs.

Alton selects and stacks a dozen basil leaves with the largest on the bottom, and then rolls them up and places them seam side down on the board. He feeds them through as he chops, just as he did with the celery. This technique even has a fancy French name: chiffonade.

Paring, the last of Alton’s “core techniques,” involves trimming and reducing the size of the food. It occurs off the cutting board and with the blade facing the cutter. Alton demonstrates by peeling a cucumber with his paring knife. Although the thumb is commonly in harm’s way, a sharp knife (making minimal force necessary) reduces the chance of injury. The fact that the thumb is on the same hand further reduces that chance, since this is little relative motion between thumb and knife along the knife’s long axis. More generally, Alton cautions, when one forces a knife it usually doesn’t end well.

These three cuts or hybrids of them represent (Alton believes) about ninety percent of all home cutting jobs. He demonstrates again, this time with a large red onion. He starts by paring off the stem and root ends (carefully avoiding cutting all the way through). Then he makes a shallow equatorial cut and peels the skin by pinching it between his thumb and the knife. He splits the onion longitudinally (keeping a piece of the central root on either side) with a quick slice. Laying one of the halves on its flat face, he makes a series of radial slices, carefully avoiding the root in the middle, and then cuts (this can be a slice or a chop) perpendicular to the root axis. The result is finely chopped onion. Alton suggests several recipes for those wishing practice: Creamed Corn, Turkey Rehash, and Okra & Tomatoes, all available at the FoodTV site.

Another (older) way of cutting an onion involved creating a perpendicular grid of cuts along the root axis (running from root to stem ends), and then chopping through perpendicular to the root, creating a three-dimensional grid of pieces. Alton finds this method messier and more difficult, but effective.

Mincing garlic works the same way. Keeping the root intact, Alton makes a few cuts in each of two directions before finishing with a chip that yields minced bits. He offers more knife-centric FoodTV recipes: Sweet & Sour Pork, Curried Split Pea Soup and Mojo Moulies before moving on to the red bell pepper.

First, Alton slices both ends off the pepper. Then he scoops out the inner part (with the seeds and slices the pepper in half. With a short “back and forth” sawing motion he carefully removes the inner waxy membrane (and the ribs), and then lays the remaining vegetable flat so that he can slice it into narrow ribbons. This sort of cut is called a julienne. Turning the stack so the ribbons are perpendicular to his knife, Alton chops the bundle into fine bits.

Jalapeno chili peppers? Alton takes off one ends and then splits the pepper. He warns that capsaicin remains on the hands for hours, turning them into mobile biohazards and suggests either gloves, or a weak bleach solution that will denature capsaicin into a water soluble solution that will rinse away. With a shallow sawing stroke like that he used on the red pepper, he removes the inner membrane, ribs and seeds. Then he lays the pepper flat and slices it into thin strips before turning the strips and slicing into a brunoise (cubes about an eighth of an inch on each side).

To cook with the big boys, Alton claims one must lean how to concassé, or peel, seed and chop a tomato. Slicing, by comparison, is easy. He starts by digging out the woody stem with a paring knife. Then he turns the fruit over and makes a very shallow X at the blossom end. Next, he drops them into boiling water for fifteen seconds. This loosens the pectins holding the skin in place; it will draw up, which is why Alton created the small X. When fifteen seconds have elapsed Alton removes the tomatoes to an ice water bath to immediately halt cooking (a process called shocking). In about a minute, the skin around the X incisions peels easily back. Next Alton cuts the tomato in half perpendicular to the stem axis (along the equator) and squeezes out the seeds, juice and pulp. Then he chops the tomato into small cubes. Still more recipes for sharpening the knife skills include Shrimp Gumbo and Seaside Squid Salad.

And what does Alton plan to do with all this chopped food? Why, eat it! He adds his chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, chopped onion and diced red pepper, jalapeno, garlic, tomato juice (mostly from the tomatoes he chopped) to a bowl and stirs them together. Right now, that’s a decent salsa. Alton’s not done; he adds extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, kosher salt, cumin (roasted and finely ground) and a little black pepper. Then he hands some of it to Thing, who liquefies it for him in a blender. He adds that liquid back to the bowl and refrigerates for a bit, then tops it with a basil chiffonade before eating it with Bruschetta. The result? The famed Spanish cold soup known as gazpacho.

For his final lecture, Alton covers blade care. First of all, never put quality cutlery in the dishwasher. It will eventually destroy both steel and handle. Not only that, it’s dangerous! He uses a soft brush to clean the knife and immediately rinses and dries it. He stores his knives on a magnetic strip, carefully twisting as he removes a blade so the spine is the last thing in contact with the magnet – this prevents damage to the carefully honed edge.