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Thank You, Anthony Bourdain, aka How Not to Humpty-Dumpty a Hard-Boiled Egg

17 Dec

There are simple kitchen skills at which we all assume we’re adept. Boiling water, brewing coffee, steeping tea, making toast, hard-boiling an egg…

Ah, but hold on a second – that last one. You think you know how to do this, don’t you. Of course you do. What’s easier than boiling an egg? I thought I knew. Of course I did! You boil water, you pop in an egg, you let it boil on for, uh, you know, a bunch of minutes, and then you take it out and, voila! You can’t peel the damned shell from the white because you’ve over-cooked the damn thing. And yet the last time you fancied a little egg salad, your happy little shell-wrapped orbs turned out just fine. Why, for the love of Egbert, why?

I’ll tell you why. Because hard-boiling an egg actually requires that you follow a few simple, fail-safe parameters. I learned this bit of genius from a book Anthony Bourdain put out a few years ago. In The Les Halles Cookbook, under the charming sub-title of “How to Hard Boil a Freakin’ Egg,” I was schooled on a vital bit of kitchen wisdom that allowed me to hard boil 30 freakin’ eggs for a party last weekend and not mess up a single one. Here’s whatcha gotta do:

1. Fill a pot with cold water.

2. Place egg(s) gently into the water-filled pot and cover.

3. Turn the burner onto high to boil.

4. DO NOT GO FAR! This is important — you need to pay attention or you’ll screw this up. Seriously. But to pass the time, fill a bowl with ice and water and set it in the sink.

5. The second the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes.

6. When the time’s up, strain the eggs and set them in the ice water.

That’s it. When they’re done, peel ’em. Make a sandwich, a nicoise salad, devil ’em, make a meatloaf and put one in the middle a la Lola (e.g., my mother-in-law’s trick), or salt one up and eat it as it is. All of which will be possible because those shells will come off lickety, peely split.

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A Short Conversation with My Dad About Knives

17 May

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“Dad, how do you pick out a knife?”

“How?”

“Yeah, how. Like, if I didn’t own a single knife and I needed to go get one, what can you tell me about knives.”

I’ve been pressing my dad–an 84-year-old retired butcher–with questions like this for the past couple of years. After growing up working in his shop and spending a lifetime as a butcher’s daughter, I realized there were a lot questions I’d never asked, millions of hours wasted not paying attention, and far too many things I hadn’t learned. And that the fault of this rested on my own shoulders. A sort of clock-ticking panic has set in.

So now I ask. I ask a lot, often with a notebook and pen in hand, scribbling away to his bemused consternation–everything from family stories to practical cutting and cooking questions. He’s proud of his life’s work, but Mike Zavatto is not a guy who likes being interviewed, so this has to be done in small doses and with great care. How do I cut up a chicken? Can you teach me how to make sausage? What cut of  beef should I buy for a pot roast? A roast-roast? All these questions, meted out slowly, carefully. And then sometimes impatiently. There never seems to be enough time.

I brought him all of my blades to sharpen for me one recent weekend, plied him with a roast beef sandwich, and followed up with a few questions about about knives. Tthis is what he had to say:

Type of knife he prefers: “I always like a carbon steel, but now they’re a carbon-stainless mix.”

What’s the difference? “Carbon steel doesn’t keep the shine, but it’s the best steel. It’s harder to keep it clean. It dulls, turns like a grayish tone, and it’ll tend to rust if you don’t keep it clean or put a little mineral oil on it. Should do that every time you wash them. Carbon steel holds an edge better than the mix.”

And the mix?The mix is not as good. Problem is, you can’t keep [the 100% carbon] shiny like the mix. They will be more sanitary because they stay cleaner. If you look at the knives I have in the drawer, they’re carbon steel and they look dark. And there are knives in there mixed [that are] shiny. Those are the carbon steel mixed with stainless.”

Should I buy carbon steel? “If you can find them–there are none around unless you buy second hand. Probably more expensive, too. Nobody wants to sell them. Those that have them, keep them. They hold a better edge. [The material] trues the edge and stays sharper than the fancy mix.”

How do I buy a knife? “I go by brand, usually.”

Which do you like? “Swibo, they’re Swedish, I believe. Forschner, I don’t know what the hell they are. I’m talking now knives we used in my trade. A lot of times a chef will use a different brand. For a U.S.-made knife, very practical and inexpensive, I like Chicago Cutlery. Excellent knife for the price. Did you see how when I sharpened yours it took the edge fast? It’s good steel. It cuts well.”

Which is the best? “You don’t know you like it until you use it. Some are fancy but don’t hold an edge. Just because it costs a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s a good knife.”

Any others? “Japanese [knives] are very good–Santoku, I like. The indentations make it easier to cut. It’s a good all-purpose knife. Lets you eliminate having a serrated for bread–it takes the place of two or three.”

If I had no knives, what are the bare-minimum of knives I need in my kitchen? “You would need a paring knife. You would need what I call a 6-inch boning knife. And one of those Japanese Santokus–that’s good for carving, bread, chopping. It came out five or ten years ago. It’s not an old knife; it’s a new design.”

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