Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Ginsu Knife Learning Curve, or Why You Should Never Buy Cutlery From a Guy Standing on a Box

When I was a college student in the late 70's, my girlfriend and I would occasionally visit the local flea market. It offered a cheap and entertaining Sunday diversion for two broke college kids.

One afternoon we stumbled into a crowd of people entranced by a man perched on a small platform. He stood in front of a makeshift wooden table. On the table stood a few red-ripe tomatoes and empty Coca-Cola cans. He was dazzling the crowd with his well-rehearsed patter about a new, revolutionary knife from the orient. He declared that this sharp, serrated wonder would cut through a ripe tomato like a hot knife through warm butter. He laid the blade against a bright red beefsteak and eased it through. Then he picked up a soda can and announced that the very same knife would slice through aluminum just as easily, and he proceeded to do so. Then he sliced the tomato again. The crowed gasped in delight.

“I bet your knife can’t do that!” he said as the applause died out. “This knife is made with 100% true surgical stainless steel and comes with a lifetime warranty – it will be as sharp in twenty years as it is the day you buy it.”

He went on to say that a knife like this would cost $19.95 in stores, but we could buy it today for just $10. He sold them as fast as his partner could yank them out of a large cardboard box.

I was one of them.

And I didn’t even cook.

It was going to be a mother’s day present. My girlfriend was a little less enthused. “Shouldn’t you wait? Read up on it? See what Consumer Reports says or something?”

“It’s got a lifetime warranty. If it doesn’t work I’ll just bring it back. What’s to lose?”

We stopped at a grocery store on the way home and I bought two plump tomatoes and a six-pack of Dr. Pepper. That night I amazed my dorm-mates as I sliced through a tomato, then through an empty Dr. Pepper can, then back through the tomato and then the can. But when I tried the tomato again, it didn’t slice like a hot knife through butter. I examined the knife – the serrated edges were bent. Dull as Larry King with a head cold.

“Not to worry,” I said as I placed the knife back in the box. “It has a lifetime warranty. I’ll just send it back.”

I looked for paperwork that may have come in box. There wasn’t any. Nada. Even the box lacked a company address or phone number. Oh well, I thought. I’ll just go back to the flea market next week and get my money back.

Next Sunday I headed back out to the flea market and searched the grounds for the knife salesman. He was nowhere to be found. I did, however, notice quite a few people making the rounds with a knife box similar to the one clutched in my hand. They all seemed pretty steamed about the situation. Me? I just chalked it up to a nineteen-year-old kid who had $10 burning a hole in his pocket.

All wasn’t lost. Even though my mom could never use the ruined-knife as it was intended, it did serve a purpose. You see, she discovered that the thin, flexible blade popped open the bolt on the front door when she locked herself out. It was more effective than a credit card and it didn’t chew up the doorjamb like a screwdriver. Eventually the knife found its way to a convenient hook in the garage where it hangs to this day. I remember times when I’d show up unexpectedly from college with a few friends in tow only to find myself locked out. We’d head into the garage to get the knife. My friends would stare and ask, “What the heck is that?”

“It’s a door opener,” I’d reply with a grin.

“I never saw one like that.”

“It’s oriental.”

My lesson? If something is too good to be true, it probably is. I also learned that you don’t always get what you pay for; remember, I bought that $10 knife when the minimum wage was around $2 bucks an hour. That knife today would probably hover around $40. Not exactly cheap.

So, when it comes to kitchen cutlery. Buy the very best knife you can afford. And don’t get it at the flea market.

(with avg. prices - shop around for bargains)

J. A. Henckels Four Star $90.00
J. A. Henckels Twin Professional ‘S’ series $95.00
Wüsthof Classic Cooks Knife $100.00
Forschner Victorinox Fibrox $30.00

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bagpipes, Bangos, and Fried Calamari.

There’s nothing like volunteering at the local Y to give one a sense of civic pride. I once helped coach a basketball team of 7 – 9 year olds. Fortunately, my co-coach knew all about the game of basketball and actually played it a few times. As for me? Well, I guess he brought me in to raise the team’s collective self-esteem because each one of those little guys could kick my butt in a game of one-on-one. But I had one thing they didn’t have – a whistle.

And here’s what I found out. A whistle is a lot like the bagpipes, only easier to play. See, my parents bought me a set of bagpipes for my 21st birthday (to honor my Scots/Irish heritage). Since they came with no directions, the only way I knew how to play them was to haul butt down the interstate and hold them out the window. Geez, what a racket that made. In the first week alone, I was pulled over six times for practicing.

Thankfully, all that practice prepared me for my job with the Ocean Conservancy. At the interview they asked me if I enjoyed working with sea creatures. I said yeah. They asked if I’d ever handled an octopus. I said, no, but I knew how to play the bagpipes. They said that was close enough and I got the job. And that’s when I learned to cook calamari.

But the bagpipes was not my first instrument. That would’ve been the trumpet. Everyone in the 5th grade at Daniel Warren Elementary in the 60s had to learn an instrument. My first choice? The violin. Probably because Larry from The Three Stooges wreaked so much havoc with his. Remember when his bow took that guy’s toupee off in the courtroom? I so wanted to do that. I even wanted to be a lawyer just so I could try it. Anyway, it seemed that most of my classmates had the exact same idea. The school ran out of violins, so they gave me a trumpet.

And here’s what I learned: One should never take a trumpet to the beach to practice. Do you know how much sand a 5th grader can cram into the horn of a trumpet? Trust me. A lot. Especially if he takes off his sneaker and uses it to really cram it in.

The next day I turned my trumpet back in to the music teacher cuz the plungers keep sticking and the mouthpiece tasted like salt. After muttering some words that sounded a lot like ‘you little muffin plucker,’ he snatched the trumpet out of my hand and issued me a triangle in its place. But that was okay. Now I could at least practice at the beach.

Later on, in college, I picked up the banjo. Got pretty good at it, too. In the late 70s I was voted 2nd best banjo player in the state of Florida. I’d show you my trophy but the engraver misspelled the word ‘banjo’. He spelled it ‘bango’ (like I was playing a tropical fruit as it might be pronounced by someone with a sinus infection). I would’ve won first place if that star-spangled Vietnam Vet with MS hadn’t shown up in a wheelchair with the seeing-eye dog. Hell, he didn’t even own a banjo, let alone play one. I’m convinced he got the sympathy vote. But hey, at least I got second place. Third place went to a mailbox. It was a small competition.

Anyway, I still trace my fondest musical memory back to the bagpipes. It was fun practicing on the freeway and it was fun wearing a kilt as I did so. By the way, do you know what a Scot wears under his kilt? Me neither. So I wore nothing. It was very liberating. But you sure can’t jump off the second floor porch of a frat house into a crowd of sorority girls and not expect a reaction. Or an arrest. Especially if the campus police are hovering nearby. I’m just saying.

I hope you’ve been able to follow my glorious train of thought: Bagpipes. Bango. Octopus. Calamari...

Because even though calamari might resemble a small octopus, it is really quite different. Here is a classic recipe that I’m sure you will enjoy. Scaled down for two, of course. However, if you feel like inviting the Y basketball league or the entire sorority over, you may want to spring for an octopus. Oh, and if you’re bound and determined to jump off the second floor porch, don’t forget to wear some boxers under that kilt.

Bon appetit!


It hasn’t always been easy to find calamari (squid) in your neighborhood grocery store. Now, thankfully, many carry it cleaned and ready to cook at the seafood counter or in the frozen food section. If your grocery store doesn’t carry it, your local fish market most certainly will. This recipe is a northern Italian classic. Although traditionally served with a squirt of lemon juice, I’ve also included an aioli dipping sauce (calamari with tomato sauce is an American invention).

Prep Time: 15 minutes Soak Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 5 minutes


1/2 pound calamari, cleaned
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
3 fresh basil leaves, chopped
Enough canola or vegetable oil to fill skillet to 1-inch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Lemon wedges to garnish


1. Rinse the calamari and pat dry. Cut the body into 1/2-inch rings and trim the tentacles as desired.
2. Combine the milk, egg, and basil leaves in a small bowl. Beat until well mixed. Place the calamari into the mixture and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Prepare Aioli Sauce (below) and refrigerate.
3. Meanwhile, combine the flour, paprika, cayenne pepper, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl.
4. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet or heavy pot over medium heat until the temperature reaches 375˚.
5. Dredge the calamari in the seasoned flour to coat, then fry for 1 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately with lemon wedges or an aioli dipping sauce.


6 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for 15 – 30 minutes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Got Kicked Out of the Library, but I Got My Revenge and Still had Time to Make a Great Meal

I got booted from the library this week. Tuesday to be exact.

I was relaxing in a chair in the magazine section flipping through back issues of 'The Enlightened Sous Chef' when someone called me on my cell phone. I answered and tried to talk in whispers so as not to disturb anyone who was actually there to read. Then this librarian scurried over and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, sir, but didn’t you see the sign? You’re not allowed to use a cell phone in the library.”

I glanced up at her. “But I’m not using a cell phone”.

“Oh?” she said, raising one eyebrow. “Then what’s that thing you’re holding up to your ear?”

“It’s a pacemaker. For my brain. See, whenever I forget something or loose my train of thought, this little baby jumpstarts my thought process.”

She placed her hands on her hips and leaned forward. “Oh yeah? Then how come I saw you talking into it?”

“It’s voice activated,” I replied with a smile. “It only comes on when I speak. I save a fortune on batteries.”

She didn’t buy it and I found myself out on the street.

So I got back at them.

The next day I got my revenge. I went back and checked out, like, 27 books. But instead of leaving with them, I put them all back on the shelf.

Ha! Let ‘em figure that one out.

And while they’re scratching their heads over that one, let me share a recipe I managed to scribble down on the back of my library card. It’s from the Enlightened Sous Chef Issue #86 – The Swimsuit Edition.

Bon Appétit!



This is a wonderfully quick and delicious meal. Ham steaks can be found in the meat section and reheat in a jiffy. I usually purchase several if they’re on sale and keep them in the freezer for those nights when I don’t have a lot of time to cook but still want something out of the ordinary. If you begin the rice pilaf and steam the corn just before you grill the ham steaks, you’ll have dinner on the table in less than half an hour (a bit more if you are using charcoal).

Prep Time: 5 minutes Cook Time: 15 – 20 minutes


2 tablespoons plum preserves (you may use apricot if plum preserves are unavailable)
1 tablespoon white wine
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 pound hams steak, 1-inch thick


1. Preheat outdoor grill or hibachi.
2. When the grill is nearly ready, combine the preserves, wine, mustard, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook and stir until well combined, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
3. Lightly score the edges of the ham steak (to prevent curling) then grill, uncovered, until cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes per side depending on the temperature of your grill. Brush with the glaze during the last few minutes (do not burn glaze).

Serve with corn on the cob and rice pilaf.