Japanese Knives, Staub and the Beginning of the Christmas Holidays

I have just finished what is always the hardest week of my school year: Parent-Teacher-Student Interviews. In my twelve years of teaching this has always been the hardest gauntlet to run, not because I need to talk to parents [I actually enjoy meeting families and learning about what they want to achieve, how they feel about what we are learning], but rather because I have to talk to sixty families in five to fifteen minute blocks over 24 hours. For an empathic person, like myself, that means total system overload. Still, it was worthwhile, and now I can recover before the Christmas holidays.

The first thing I did to recover from caffeine overload and a lack of sleep was to rest and shut the world out for a night. I would have loved to creep into one of the warmly lit pubs on my way home Friday night, but I knew that I needed sleep and silence. Fortunately, I woke up and hit the ground running Saturday morning with gift cards in hand. What I have noticed so far this shopping season is how little stock is in the stores. Abercrombie only had plaid shirts and t-shirts; their shelves almost empty – not because they are selling out, but because they took no stock in. After an hour of walking with mesmerized I decided to head over to one of my favourite refuges: The Beer Bistro. It was empty, which suited me just fine. I ordered one of their fine Christmas beer imports and a Buffalo Chicken Cobb Salad. I wanted a cone of frites and a pile of duck confit, but this salad is one of my favourite semi-healthy deals in the city. With nice buffalo chicken, avocado, pumpkin seeds, bacon, stilton and a wide variety of greens, I was set for the afternoon. Again, I am just using my iPhone 4 to snapshot what I see around me – these are not my actual work photographs – a little grainy with noise, but so handy when looking to capture quick moments for the blog.

What I decided to do this season was to only buy quality items. I have so many beautifully well-made things that I only want the best items in small quantities. What did I buy? I went with Staub and Miyabi – two companies acquired/created by Henckels. When I first began cooking the only thing I dreamed of were Le Creuset pots and Henckels knives. Twenty years later, I am without a single Henckels knife [I gave them away] and my Le Creuset pots look like they have been through a war. Hence, my switch to the more durable and well-made Staub line.

After Morocco, V. and I wanted to try our hand at making better than authentic tagines. I think that other than the homestay in the Atlas Mountains, the tagines of touristy restaurants in the Ramadan season were less than sanitary or tasty. We picked up the ideas and unique combinations by osmosis. However, we did take a “cooking class” which taught us little beyond how orthodox Moroccan men can be about the order of their tagines. Still, we are pretty darn good at demystifying any cooking process, and I really loved how carrots and potatoes taste in a tagine. What I did not like was the idea of using a dodgy tourist tagine with gobs of lead and god-knows-what. It would never have made it home anyway. I decided that I would be wise to wait and buy an inauthentic, but more effective, Western version. The Staub version, unlike the All-Clad version, has an iron base and a heavy clay lid. I am always leery of ceramics in the kitchen, but the lid feels solid. When I break it, I will still have an iron roaster. This was not a cheap purchase at $250, but as I said, I was not looking for cheap.

I am allergic to shellfish. Yeah…I still eat it, though. Stupid. Yep. But I have found that with some Benedryl I come out the other side safely. V. loves shellfish, so O decided to go ahead and buy Staub’s Mussel Pot. I suppose it is meat to look like a mussel? What I really appreciated about the pot was the mesh divider that allowed diners to access the mussel cream broth with their gobs of French bread early on. $200, but c’mon it looks like a mussel!

For a chef, choosing knives is perhaps the most personal action. I know that as long as I have my knives I can always find shelter from a cold Winter night – in fact, I have often only had my knives, and I have often ended up using them to cook my way to having someplace to sleep. Without sharp knives, I cannot cook properly. I can live with a cheap non-stick pan. I can make food from any combination of food found in any cupboard or garden, but I cannot cut with serrated or blunt knives with plastic handles.

I began with French/American style knives: Henckels, Wusthof, Sanelli, Grohman and a few weird knives. In the end, my hands were always too small for the blades and I never found them to be perfect. Eventually, everything changed because MAC knives came in and brought the Japanese aesthetic to modern cooking. My own collection of MAC knives consists of a Santoku, Chef, Santoku Paring, Bread, and Long Slicing knives. V. also picked me up a wicked little vegetable cleaver that I love.

When I was in Kyoto, however, I realized that there was a whole other world of single-edged blades for sushi, sashimi and fish. In a little shop within the Nishiki I purchased two beautiful knives [cash only] and felt like I now owned THE knives of my lifetime. They even hand-hammered a symbol that I have tattooed on my neck on both of the blades.

In the photos, you can see the smaller of the blades I bought in Kyoto – try explaining that to Canada Customs. Next to it you can see the Miyabi Morimoto 600D series small paring knife that I picked up with the last of my gift card money. This is the first time that I did not ask to pick up the knife in-store; I just knew that this blade with its damask steel [the waves] was exactly the knife I was dreaming of. Chef Morimoto apparently teamed up with Miyabi, which seems to be a division of Henckels, and produced three series of knives. The D series is the middle ground, and at $189 for a small knife, you can imagine the Signature series. Still, they had no Signature Series knives and this just connected with me.

Once home, the blade was like a scalpel on vegetables and its point is what sets it apart from lesser knives. Not great for raw meat – nor should it be – this knife will remain a tool for fine cutting and vegetables that need to be perfect. Rough cuts are more Chef and Santoku anyway. So where does that leave my knife collection? I am still looking for the perfect fish filet knife, but that is tricky as the blade needs to bed. What I wanted was an eel knife from Nishiki, but they refused to sell me one, as I did not pass their “do you cook eels? how often?” test. Fair enough.

Speaking of Japan and knives…Apple trailers featured what has to be one of the most inspiring foodie movies ever: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It almost made me cry at seeing the Zen-beauty of Jiro’s sushi, and his inspirational work-ethic and dedication to becoming a master is lyrical. It will be released in March, and I suggest you at least look at the web site on this cold, wintery day.

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