Monday, February 25, 2013

Knife Skills Are Life Skills

I am of the opinion that every independent person who eats, should know how to cook. Everyone should have some rudimentary cooking skills if they want to live a healthy and delicious life. I think learning to cook is as important as learning to drive, maybe more so. To be independent, to feed oneself in a healthy manner, is a basic life skill. It is good not to have to rely on someone else for sustenance. Prepared food from the grocery store, frequent restaurant visits or the employment of a personal chef are expensive alternatives to learning to prepare a meal for yourself. I have tried to pass this philosophy on to my children. My girls are good cooks and my boys can feed themselves as necessary. I didn't focus enough on teaching cooking skills to my older boys, mostly because they were often otherwise occupied, but we did have some cooking lessons before they flew from the nest. Once they were out on their own they had to learn. They also worked restaurant jobs that trained them in some important skills (such as tossing pizza dough like a Sicilian).

I am starting to implement this philosophy at a younger age with my second set of boys, hoping to cover more ground, by having them help prep food for dinner, cook for themselves when I am away for the day, and bake goodies just for fun. Hopefully by the time they are teenagers they will have some real kitchen skills and will be preparing whole meals without help.

I decided to carry this a bit farther by volunteering to teach a class for Sam and Peter's 4-H club. Knowing that the nearly all-girl club had done plenty of cookie and muffin baking already, I chose to teach them how to care for and use kitchen knives. A good knife is a cook's best friend and kids should learn how to use them before they learn to cook.

I began by showing the kids a variety of knives and explaining their uses. I brought my paring knife, a filet knife, and serrated bread knife as well as small and large chef's knives. Those versatile wide-bladed knives are my favorite tool in the kitchen. I figured out that I never even had a wide chef's knife until I was at least in my thirties. It is so true that each knife has its special use and I am utterly amazed I cooked for so long without one. For my birthday last year my son and his girlfriend gifted me with a wonderful set of Miyobi knives. Razor sharp and perfectly weighted, I am now shamelessly spoiled.

At the 4-H class we talked about how to keep knives sharp. The kids each brought a knife and a cutting board to class so I set them up to learn the honing technique.

The proper way to hone a knife is to hold it at a 20 degree angle to the steel honer which is held firmly at a perpendicular angle to a cutting board. Two or three smooth strokes from the heel of the knife to the tip, on each side of the blade, is sufficient. Cutting boards should be made of wood or plastic. Ceramic or glass boards, like tile or granite countertops, will dull the knife edge by chipping microscopic bits when the knife contacts the hard surface. Honing the knife will smooth the burrs off the blade that are caused by use.

After I demonstrated how to chop a vegetable in even sized pieces, the 4-H'ers practiced by cutting potatoes into french fry sticks.

I then taught them the easy recipe for oven fries. While we proceeded with the class the fries baked in the oven. When the fries finally emerged, steaming and spicy with mustard and seasoning, they were eaten so quickly I didn't get a photo of them.

The next easy recipe was creamy potato soup, which required an onion. Each of the kids brought an onion and learned the proper way to dice it.

This is the point in the class when pandemonium broke out as the fumes from fifteen onions began causing kids and moms alike to weep and wail.

Somehow when I was planning the class this cumulative effect of onion chopping didn't occur to me. It brought to mind the scene in the movie Julie and Julia where Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is practicing her onion dicing skills on twenty pounds of onions. Yeah, it was like that... only louder.

But the kids survived. We bagged up the onion bits to contain the fumes and proceeded to evenly chop more potatoes for the soup. Sauteed onion and celery, potatoes and chicken broth were soon bubbling on the stove as the students devoured the oven fries.

By the time we were done with the clean-up the soup was done cooking. I added some heavy cream, salt and pepper and put the delicious results into containers for the kids to take home.

I'm hoping that the kids will remember more from this class than their burning eyes, but I'm not so sure.


  1. That sounds like a fun class!
    A little tip, IF you ever do the onion class again, freeze the onions first, it really helps cut down on the fumes/odor/tears.

  2. That's so cool! What a great class!

    And I agree with the freezing tip, above. Actually, just having the onions cold from the fridge works amazingly. Warm onions are the cryin'est.

    Jonah is suddenly obsessed with cooking. He is now the "vegetable chef" and in charge of preparing the vegetable every evening. He also baked Pioneer Woman's berry "cobbler" the other night, and today he made home-made cherry "jello"!


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