The Richmond Food Security Society hosted a series of Basic Food Skills classes on three consecutive Monday nights, from November 15th to the 29th, at Garrat Wellness Center, from 7-9pm. The cost for all three workshops is $25.
The mandate of the Richmond Food Security Society is to support the growing and consumption of local foods in Richmond. The Society has identified that the lack of culinary skills to cook food at home to be one of the bigger obstacles to community food security.It is hoped that as more people feel comfortable around the kitchen, the more cooking, using fresh, preferably local ingredients, will happen. The goal is to eat healthy and reduced consumption of processed or boxed food which are usually high on salt and fat.
The Basic Food Skills workshops were conducted by Chef Ian Lai. Ian teaches school children to connect with the earth, the community around them, and agriculture at large. Students learn to grow, monitor, harvest, and eat nutritiously on a weekly basis. Their garden activities integrate the complete food cycle – from seed to table, and from table to soil, in the form of composting. This Terra Nova Schoolyard Society was founded by Ian in 2006 and is a non-profit, community-based garden project.
In the first class, Chef Ian Lai guided participants through Knife Skills: how to choose a knife and maintain it; and how to properly chop and prepare foods. Students will then use their skills to cook a grain dish which will be covered in the next post.
Ian brought along his professional knife kit for demonstration. It is his travel kit. Ian quoted in the workshop “My knife is my knife”; not even his wife can share it. I guessed chefs are passionate about their most precious cargo which is their knives and kitchen tools.
Ian shared with us that his most favourite knives are his paring knife and a Japanese style thin blade knife. He said a good knife should have metal extended all the way to the handle. One must feel comfortable holding and using the knife when choosing a knife. Ian suggested to bring a carrot when shopping for knives and one must try out the knives before buying them. The knife should balance well on your hand and neither front blade or the back handle is heavier.
Ian also suggested that one must have a knife block to store the knives to prevent chipping.
Some of the participants brought their knives for Ian to share on what is the best application of them. Knives with thicker top are good for …cutting heavier items like big chunk of meat. For eg. a broad bladed cleaver with good weight is good for chopping through bones, chopping root vegetables, flatten dough for making dumpling or slice meat into thin layer like scallopine. Thinner blade knives are good for slicing vegetables.
Ian then introduced us to the tools we need to sharpen and maintain the sharpness of the knives. A sharpening stone is for sharpening knives while a sharpening steel is to maintain the sharpness of the knives. There are two types of sharpening stone, water based and oil based. Now, I know why my knives are not sharp even I sharpen it with a sharpening blade every now and then. I used the wrong tool.
Ian told us that stainless steel knives are difficult to sharpen but they maintain their sharpness well. Carbon steel knives sharpen easily. However, one should not cut acidic food like lemon with carbon steel knives as it will make the knives smell like rust.
Ian demonstrated to us how to sharpen a knife using a sharpening stone. A 800 grit 2cm thick stone is recommended. The coarser the surface of the stone, the more metal it will take away from the blade. For home use knives, sharpening is recommended every 3 to 4 months. A stand for stabilizing the sharpening stone would be ideal (cost about $40) but you can use a wet towel to stabilize the stone too. Ian suggested that a sharpening stone will cost about $40 and it’s a life time investment and well worth it.
Generally, water stone has finer grits while oil stone has coarser grit.
There should be no children around the kitchen when you sharpen a knife and full concentration is required. To sharpen a knife, wet the stone with water or oil, depending on the type of stone. One must have a good grip on the knife and pull the knife back and forth the stone, applying pressure to it. A good sharpening will require about 20 minutes of work.
Ian thought us the burr method in sharpening knives which is you sharpen one side until you feel a burr on the blade. Ian described it as the feel on your skin after you shave for a few days when hairs start to grow. Then you sharpen the other side until you feel the burr again. One important note is that you must sharpen the blade at the same angle for both side.
For novice sharpener, there is a gadget (shown above) to help you maintain the angle of your knife. It probably costs around $12.
Once you get a burr on the second side, you just need to switch sides and sharpen for a few times and switch back and forth until you dont feel the burr anymore.
One more thing, when sharpening knives with a curve, you have to curve the movement across the sharpening stone.
Once you’ve got a sharp knife, you just need to maintain the sharpness with a sharpening steel for the next 3 to 4 months until the next sharpening. Ian emphasized that you have to hold your knife at the same angle as you sharpen the knife. He prefers to do it by slicing the knife on the steel away from the body for safety reason. The average price of a sharpening steel is around $25.
The final part of the knife skills workshop is how to use the knife properly and safely. Ian demonstrated to us how to cut celery into small cubes and chopping parsley. For both the job, Ian used a rocking motion to chop the thinly sliced celery and a bunch of parsley. Noticed the front of the knife is always in contact with the chopping board and Ian only lift the back of the knife to do the chopping and it’s never raised above the knuckle of the other hand which he holds the vegetables.
As for slicing carrots, the knife has to be raised but it is never raised above the knuckle of the hand that holds the vegetables. Everyone got to try out the slicing and chopping skills as we prepared the ingredients for a grain salad which Ian will be making in the introduction to grains workshop that followed the knife skills workshop. One thing Ian pointed out is don’t bother with the end piece as you can always save them to make stock.
Last and not least, one must have a good cutting board. Bamboo board is good as it does not absorb water.
A few tips handling knives:
When passing a knife to another person, always place it on the counter for the other person to pick it up.
When you walk with a knife, for e.g. bringing it to the basin for washing, always hold it in a way that the knife in pointing to the floor.
When transporting a knife, wrap it in towel and place it in an empty paper towel roll or wine bottle container.