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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

The Complete Guide to Buying Your First Knives

The following is some excellent advice on buying your first knives, from Darren72.

The first question: do you want to buy a packaged set? Most serious cooks wind up using somewhere between two and four knives, so, really, those humongous sets of knives are a bad idea. You get more knives than you need, and sometimes you end up with a high quality, expensive version of something that would would be just as fine cheap. On the other hand, very small sets (i.e., 2-4 knives) do save you some money, and come with asharpening steel, kitchen shears, and knife block. They’re worth it if you can find a set with exactly the knives you want. But note: different stores sell different sets from the same brand. So shop around for small sets.

And if you decide to buy knives individually, spend the big money on your chef’s knife. Most people start off with an 8-inch chef’s knife; a good one will usually cost between $75 and $90. Depending on your cooking style, you’ll also want a good-quality paring knife (3- to 5-inch), and a good-quality utility or boning knife (6- to 8-inch) or a Santoko knife. Serrated knives, such as bread knives, don’t gain much from being high quality–go ahead and get a cheap stamped blade. If you want to save more money, buy a cheap paring knife. Think about multitasking before you buy, too. Bread knives can be used to cut tomatoes; you don’t need a specialty tomato knife unless you cut an awful lot of tomatoes. Flexible utility knives can also be used for boning; unless you do a lot of boning, you probably don’t need a dedicated boning knife. Your chef’s knife will be your most-used knife for everyday chopping and slicing tasks, so it’s worth spending the money for a good forged steel model.

There are a number of good brands for top-quality knives, like Wusthof Trident and Henckels. But most of the differences between the high-end brands come down to feel and weight distribution. Research has limited usefulness; it’s better to just go into a store and ask to hold and practice cutting with various chef’s knives so you you know which brand feels best in your hands.

Storage: you want to store your knives in a wooden block, a knife magnet attached to the wall, or a specially-designed knife-holder for your kitchen drawer. Don’t just throw nice knives into a drawer! And don’t put them in the dishwasher.

Sharpening: you need a sharpening steel, which will cost about $20. These don’t actually sharpen the blade; they straighten it. You need to use the steel every time you use the knife. Then, about once every six months to a year, you need to go to a professional sharpener and get your knives actually sharpened. Go to a pro. It’ll cost a few dollars per knife, and will be way better than any do-it-yourself sharpening kit. But do some research to find a good professional knife sharpener who knows what he or she is doing and won’t grind your blades away.

Finally, buy a good cutting board. You want something large, but not so large that you’ll never use it. Wood is nice because it’s heavy and doesn’t move. Oxo makes excellent plastic cutting boards that are light, dishwasher safe, and have rubber edges to hold them in place. Avoid glass cutting boards. Consider buying a few thin, flexible, small boards for quick little tasks.

Board Links: knife recommendations?

Nifty New Corn Gadget

Kuhn Rikon’s new Corn Zipper makes quick work of separating raw corn kernels from cobs. It does its job exceedingly neatly, too, raves LindaR, literally “zipping” the kernels off into a bowl a few rows at a time, without cutting into the cob. And it’s safe–no chance of slicing fingers, as with other such contraptions.

Order from

Board Links: Best New Gadjet–Corn Zipper

Ranch Dressing

All agree: the base of ranch dressing is buttermilk and mayo. Recipes mostly deviate re: use of fresh or dried herbs. And then there’s an issue currently giving chowhounds night sweats: whether the real key to the ranch flavor we know and love is (shudder) MSG. Several hounds swear it’s true!

dano, who says of MSG in ranch dressing, “this WILL make it, believe it or not,” shares the ingredients he used in a restaurant’s recipe: Equal parts buttermilk and mayo; plus salt, MSG, onion power, garlic powder, black pepper, and dried dill.

Several hounds recommend Penzey’s Buttermilk Ranch dressing mix, which is handy to have on hand and make up whenever you’re in the mood.

Here’s MollyGee’s recipe:

1 cup mayonnaise
1/3-1/2 cup buttermilk (depending on how thick you like it)
1 tsp white vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1 or 2 cloves minced garlic
2 T chopped parsley or dill
2 T snipped chives
2 green onions, thinly sliced
freshly ground pepper, to taste

Whisk together mayonnaise, buttermilk, and vinegar, then add and mix in remaining ingredients. Will keep 3 or 4 days in refrigerator.

Board Links: ISO Ranch Dressing Recipe

J’S Beef in Linden, NJ

J’s Beef assembles and serves an authentic Chicago hot dog: a garlicky beef frank, steamed and tucked into a seeded bun, then finished off with chopped onion, very green relish, sport peppers, dill pickle, yellow mustard, and celery salt. It’s the real deal and seems to hit all the right vegetal notes for fans of the style, reports hotdoglover (who, like many Easterners, is “not crazy about a dog with all that stuff on it”). The “J” in J’s is Jack, the owner, a Chicago expat who has Vienna Beef franks and most of the condiments shipped in from his old burg.

He makes a creditable Italian beef sandwich, too–tender, flavorful, filling, and a great deal at under $5, says georgeb. If you order it “wet” (with the bread dipped in the meat juices), ask for a fork–the roll will almost fall apart in your hands. J’s also serves brisket and pulled pork smoked over mesquite–not bad, says georgeb, “but for my money, the Italian beef will keep me coming back again and again, even though I am more than 100 miles away.”

J’s Beef [Union County]
902 W. St. Georges Ave. (Rte. 27), between University Terr. and Stiles St., Linden, NJ

Board Links: Chicago style dogs..Linden NJ

Superior Scones, from Soho to the Upper West Side

Alice’s Tea Cup has some of the best scones in town, a daily-changing selection that might include blueberry, buttermilk, peach, vanilla-cinnamon, and banana-butterscotch (among some recent choices). If you get them to go, be sure to ask for the little containers of clotted cream and fruit preserves. “Really, really good and fresh,” sighs dippedberry–who unlike many other hounds is no fan of the soups, salads, and sandwiches that round out the light menu.

Nuray recommends Once Upon a Tart, especially for its fresh berry and cheddar-dill scones.

Two other favorites: Dean and Deluca–try the chocolate chip, urges erin–and Balthazar.

Alice’s Tea Cup [Upper West Side]
102 W. 73rd St., near Columbus Ave., Manhattan, NY

Alice’s Tea Cup II [Upper East Side]
156 E. 64th St., near Lexington Ave., Manhattan, NY

Once Upon a Tart [Soho]
135 Sullivan St., between Prince and Houston, Manhattan, NY

Dean and Deluca [Citywide]
multiple locations

Balthazar [Soho]
80 Spring St., at Crosby St., Manhattan, NY

Board Links: Scones

Bargain Bread

At the Oroweat outlets around town, you’ll find more than day-old bread. Says monku, the outlets also have fresh products that the retail stores didn’t take that day. Fresh bread is only delivered to supermarkets Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday-Friday (commercial bakeries are closed on Sunday and Wednesday). They stock Bob’s Red Mill whole grain products as well as buns and loaves of bread. Oroweat also owns Entenmann’s, so some of the outlets offer both products. But Surfas these places are not…some compare them to Hostess outlets.

Oroweat Baking Co [Culver City-ish]
9501 Culver Blvd., Culver City

Oroweat Baking Co [South Bay]
1766 Sepulveda Blvd., at Cabrillo, Torrance

Oroweat Baking Co [East San Fernando Valley]
4320 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank

Oroweat Bakery Thrift Store [Pasadena-ish]
1101 Mission St., South Pasadena

Oroweat Baking Co [East LA-ish]
480 S. Vail Ave., Montebello

Oroweat Baking Co [San Gabriel Valley]
4030 Temple City Blvd., Rosemead

Oroweat Baking Co [West San Fernando Valley]
21423 Strathern St., Canoga Park

Entenmann’s-Oroweat Baking Co [West San Fernando Valley]
5029 Kanan Rd., Agoura Hills

Oroweat Baking Co [South OC]
1220 E. Howell Ave., Anaheim

Oroweat Baking Co [Inland of LA]
8991 Rose Ave., Montclair

Oroweat Baking Co [Inland of LA]
10555 Magnolia Ave. # A, Riverside

Entenmanns Bakery Inc [North OC]
10751 Bloomfield St., Los Alamitos

Oroweat [OC Beaches]
9106 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach

Oroweat [South OC]
24451 Alicia Pkwy. # C9b, Mission Viejo

Oroweat Bakery Outlet [Inland of OC]
170 S. Tustin St., Orange

Oroweat Bakery Outlet [South OC]
33208 Paseo Cerveza # A, San Juan Capistrano

Board Links: Orowheat Outlet?

Salmon With a Dairy Chaser

At the new Cambrian Plaza Farmer’s Market (Wednesdays, 4-8 p.m.), one of the best booths is the one run by Red River Smoke House, which smokes a range of fish at their Half Moon Bay smokery. The little tub o’ magic here is their smoked salmon and cream cheese spread. It’s full of bits of smoky salmon that are actually visible to the naked eye. “The predominant flavor is that of fish with a cool dairy chaser,” says Ken Hoffman.

These guys are regulars at farmers’ markets throughout the Bay Area.

Cambrian Park Farmers’ Market [South Bay]
Camden and Union Aves., San Jose

Red River Smoke House [Peninsula]
205 Yale Ave., Half Moon Bay

Board Links: Red River Smokehouse—top flight Salmon spread

Go West for Dinner with a View

The latest designer steakhouse, or one of the latest (it’s hard to keep track), West has an impressive location atop Hotel Angeleno, by the 405. Yes, the view is basically of the freeway, but all those colored lights actually look pretty when you’re not stuck in traffic below. So try to get a window seat.

For a steak place, the most unanimous raves are for the pastas–porcini gnocchi and fresh ravioli stuffed with juicy, flavorful short rib meat.

A lot of the appetizers sound good-not-great, but white anchovies on crisp celery with blanched almonds stand out. Burrata with char-grilled peppers is lovely.

As for steaks, the verdict is mixed. tokyoastrogirl (who was invited for a free meal) says her 20-ounce, bone-in ribeye with chile rub was one fine piece of meat (roast chicken pales by comparison), but no hint of chile anywhere. MikeLewis75 had the porterhouse, and says the quality and seasonings are nice but medium-rare came a bit too charred. diningdivala found both the sage-rubbed veal chop and the steak pretty bland. In the end, non-steak dishes seem more appealing.

For dessert, the molten chocolate cake (surrounded by what seem to be pink peppercorns coated in chocolate) is a winner. Fondue, which takes 15 minutes, is okay, but peach tartlet with mint confounds almost all who encounter it.

The biggest props of all are for service–courteous, accomodating, quick to right any wrongs.

West Restaurant [Wealthy Westlands]
in Hotel Angeleno
170 N. Church La., Los Angeles

Board Links: WEST restaurant- review w/ photos

All Raw, All Vegan … and All Good

The big surprise of Cafe Gratitude is that an all-raw, all-vegan restaurant can impress the hell out of everybody, even the decidedly non-vegan Melanie Wong. All hounds are unanimous in their praise of Gratitude’s crackers. They’re delicious and crispy, especially the red crackers with flax seeds. The thick-cut, brown cracker out pumpernickels most pumpernickel breads. These crackers show up in a lot of dishes. The “I am happy” platter consists of hummus with crackers; the “I am present” platter is the cheese of the day (like, for instance, soft cashew cheese) with apples, olive tapenade, crackers, and toast. Agrees david kaplan, the crackers are absolutely terrific. His favorite dish for pure cracker enjoyment: bruschetta, where crackers are topped with tomatoes and other nibblies.

Their guacamole is luscious and beautiful; salsa is zingy and fresh. Another favorite: crimini mushrooms, stuffed with soy sauce-flavored nut paste. The dish with kimchee and vegetables over rice or quinoa is great, and displays their willingness to make things properly spicy.

Desserts are the biggest surprise of all; they’re unqualifiedly tasty. Lemon pie is satisfyingly tart; soft-serve ice “cream” is full of the natural sweetness of dates and a touch of vanilla. Best of all: a creamy key lime pie, vibrant with lime, over a fine date and nut crust.

Not so great: dull tapenade; bitter, stringy kale and seaweed salad; and underspiced, mushy falafel. And Caesar salad is a failure. You try making a Caesar salad without anchovies. Or cheese

And a final word of warning, from Melanie: be careful about some of their drinks, if you’re not used to a high-fiber diet. We don’t want anybody to get hurt out there.

Cafe Gratitude [Mission]
2400 Harrison St., near 20th St., San Francisco

Board Links: “I AM ABUNDANT” . . . Cafe Gratitude, San Francisco

The Great Books Program, Alcoholics’ Edition

Great books on cocktail making?

Gromit says he’s read every cocktail book of note, and his favorite by far is “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century,” by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. It doesn’t attempt to be a complete compendium of every possible concoction; there are, in fact, relatively few recipes. But it offers a deep understanding of what makes a good cocktail. In spite of its non-comprehensiveness, this is the best choice for a new mixologist to grok the true classics of cocktail.

“The Joy of Mixology,” by Gary Regan, is hardcore, and definitive, says JeremyEG.

“Esquire Drinks” is a thorough introduction to cocktails and how to make them. It’s got plenty of new cocktails, but manages to avoid the “juvenile abominations being passed off as adult beverages today,” sniffs warrenr.

“The Craft of the Cocktail,” by Dale DeGroff is a beautiful book, with nice pictures, cocktail history, and recipes for cocktails both classic and trendy.

“Cowboy Cocktails,” by Grady Spears, has interesting versions of standards, and cool garnishes and munchie recipes, too.

“The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” by David Embury, is one of the seminal texts on mixology, says Tom Swift.

Best Cocktail Book?