Shallots, Leeks, and a Really Sharp Knife

Thank goodness Patti Small likes knives.  After watching practitioners of the knife sharpening trade disappear faster than cobblers, I’ll be forever grateful Patti merged that love of knives with another love for working with her hands into a business called on the edge Knife Sharpening.

If my rag tag collection of knives could talk, they’d tell you they’re grateful for her career choice too.  Patti knows her way around kitchen knives, and I now have some great sharp edges to work with.

A profile of Patti is in the works and will be up on Local In Season shortly.  Today I’m all about my newly sharpened knives.

For us cooks, ingredients are important.  A decent heat-conducting pan is important.  But rounding out the kitchen trinity must be a good, sharp knife.  I have four good, sharp ones that I think of as my go-to knives: a 10-inch slicing knife, a 7-inch santoku, a 6-inch chef’s knife, and a 6-inch utility knife.

We have plenty of other knives in the house, but many of them go unused by me – proof that one doesn’t need a knife for every different job, but rather one knife that does several, like the utility knife.

Knives going unused may also prove that what fits one hand may not fit another.  When I pick up an 8- or 9-inch chef’s knife, my hand feels completely out of balance with its weight and the knife becomes unwieldy.  I reach for the smaller chef’s knife and the problem is solved.

Don’t select the knife you think you need to have; instead, buy the one that feels good in your hand.  When you have decided on the type of knife you want (whether chef’s or santoku or slicer or other), go to a cutlery store where you can try that style in many different brands.  You’ll be surprised how different they all feel.  And you’ll know immediately when you have found the one that best fits your hand:  you won’t want to put it down.

Once you have your terrific knife, or two, or four, keeping them sharp and usable becomes key.  You will have heard a million times that a dull knife is a dangerous knife, and that is true.  But a dull knife is also a useless knife, making kitchen work far more difficult than it needs to be and symbolizing potential unrealized.  A dull knife is a kitchen buzz kill.  Eventually, compensating for a useless blade will sap you of any joy you find in cooking.  And that is very, very sad.

Thus, Patti Small’s one-woman revival of the precise art of hand sharpening kitchen cutlery to their proper angles (and doing this at community farmers’ markets) is both noteworthy and important.  Support her and others engaged in the same hand craft by seeking them out and bringing your knives to them for sharpening.  Tell your friends about your find.  Chances are they have dull knives that would love some tender, loving attention.

I gave my sharp knives quite a workout last week, putting them through their paces on some members of the onion family: shallots and leeks.  Believe me, without good knife edges, thinly slicing 8 plump shallots for pickling and trimming up some fibrous layers from the leeks before braising would have been misery.

Quick Pickled Shallots (for serving with grilled steak or garnishing soft corn tacos)

  • 1 cup thinly sliced shallots
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. salt

Using your expertly sharpened knife, slice enough firm shallots to make one cup.  Place the slices in a quart-size glass dish and set aside.

Bring vinegar, water, and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan just until sugar dissolves.  Add salt and pepper and remove immediately from the heat.  Pour this over the shallots, shake lightly to distribute, and cover.

Refrigerate until well chilled.  Remove shallots from the pickling liquid with a slotted spoon or a fork to serve.  (Recipe may be doubled.)

Braised Leeks

  • 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 good-size leeks
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pat of chilled butter

Trim four leeks by first removing the root end and the leek’s outer layer, which may be dried out or blemished.  Next, follow up the white and pale green part of the leek with your hand.  Once you reach the spot where pale green meets the dark green fibrous part of the layer, stop.  Take your knife and cut in a circle around the outer layer right where pale green becomes darker, and remove the dark green part.

Working on the inner layers in the same fashion, continue trimming off all the dark green until you have reached the interior of the leek and are left with only the white and pale green part of the vegetable.

Cut each trimmed leek in half lengthwise.  Rinse under gently running water, separating the layers a bit to release any dirt or sand trapped inside.

Heat enough of the olive oil to just coat the bottom of a large skillet.  Add the leeks, cut side down.  Leeks should fit in the pan snugly but without overlapping.  Cook these gently, without turning or stirring, over a medium to medium-low heat for a few minutes while they soften.

When you can pierce the wide bottom of the leek with the point of a knife and the point slides without too much resistance, add the chicken stock.  Turn the heat up to medium/medium-high and bring the stock to a simmer.  Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, maintaining a gently simmer, and cook for a few more minutes until the leeks are tender all over.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Remove the leeks carefully to a serving plate and sprinkle with a little salt and a few grinds of black pepper.

Turn the heat up under the stock remaining in the pan and begin to reduce to liquid by three-fourths, stirring occasionally and watching the pan.  Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in the cold butter.  Taste for seasoning and add a little salt if necessary.  Pour the reduced and thickened liquid over the leeks and serve.

Braised leeks make a nice side dish with any grilled meat, but their delicate flavor pairs especially well with salmon cooked any way.

On to the North Shore Weekend Picks…


Beginning tonight, it’s all about Amesbury Days here at home.  And will be through July 8.  The festivities kick off Thursday at 5:30 with the Amesbury Block Party, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and held on the green between the public library and the Congregational church on Main Street.  The Block Party is all about food, games, food, music, food, beer, and food.  Come on over and sample what Amesbury has to offer between 5:30 and 7:30.

For a schedule of all Amesbury Days events between now and July 8, you can’t do better than reviewing this list provided by the Newburyport Daily News.

From the rest of the consortium:

Over at Lynn Happens, Seth suggests you check out these fun activities here.

Rob and Laura, the Two Palaverers, have some great ideas for your holiday weekend here.

©2011  Jane A. Ward