Sharp Knives and Coconut Vegetable Curry

Photo Copyright © Louise Crosby

Photo Copyright © Louise Crosby

I took a knife-sharpening course the other week, at Knifewear, a knife shop in my neighbourhood. After two hours of struggling to maintain the correct angle and correct pressure on the blade, and getting a bit soaked in the process, my Mac “Mighty” is scary sharp and I pretty well have all the tools I will ever need to keep it that way. If I practise, that is.

When I took the Basic Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu a few years ago, we were issued a set of Wusthof knives, including a large chef’s knife, a paring knife, a boning knife, a fish knife, a cleaver and a long, serrated knife for cutting cakes horizontally. I found the chef’s knife unwieldy in my small hand, so when the course was over, I went out and purchased my Mac knife. At about $150, it’s at the lower end of the Japanese knife world but is still a great little knife, smaller and more comfortable than the Wusthof. I’ve been using it every day since.

What did I learn in two hours? That sharpening stones come in different grit, like sandpaper, starting at 220-400 grit (the coarsest) and going up to 10,000 grit (the finest). According to the literature we were issued, non-Japanese knives, such as the German Wusthof, should not be sharpened on grit higher than 1,000, whereas Japanese knives can be taken to the limit for that “silky smooth edge.” Stones can cost over $100 each, so you want to make sure the ones you choose cover several bases. I bought a 400 and a 1,000 to get me started and if I turn into a total knife nerd, I can go back for more.

The technique is tricky at first. It’s all about getting and keeping the proper angle of the knife (15 degrees for standard Japanese) as it is moved up and down along the stone. A trick with stacked nickels will help get the right angle. Consistency is the key: if you ease up on the pressure or change the angle ever so slightly, it will show on the knife edge. The right side of the blade is sharpened first, then the “burr” (a little curl that forms at the blade edge) is removed with a few strokes on the stone. Then the left side is done. The whole procedure is then repeated on a finer stone and, in the end, the knife edge is run up and down the honing rod. All the while, protective rubber caps need to be worn on your thumb and fingers to avoid sharpening them as well, and the stones need to be kept wet with water from a squirt bottle.

Sharpening is a useful skill to learn, but what’s also fun at Knifewear is checking out the Japanese knife collection, everything from the $100 Tojiro DP, made of VG10 stainless steel, to the $1,600 Hinoura River Jump, made of white carbon raw steel folded by hand, so special that only six are made per year.

There are rules for caring for good knives. For example, always wash them right after use, and wipe them dry; never leave them in a puddle of water in the sink. Store them in a knife block or on a magnetic strip, never throw them into a drawer with other knives and utensils, and never put them in the dishwasher.

A sharp knife will help you precision-cut the vegetables for this Coconut Vegetable Curry, adapted from Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey, by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij, the husband and wife team behind the Vancouver restaurants Vij’s and Rangoli. Vij’s recipe calls for 2 pounds of peeled and diced celery root, but I substituted chopped red bell peppers and green beans for livelier colour, and cooked the beans separately to avoid overcooking.

The end result is a spectacular dish, all creams and reds and yellows contrasting beautifully with the green of the rapini and the beans, and the tomato-curry mixture mellowed by the rich coconut milk. It is best served on steamed basmati rice. Asafoetida powder is available in Asian groceries.

Coconut Vegetable Curry
  • 1 pound green beans
  • 1 pound red bell peppers
  • ⅓ cup cooking oil (I used grapeseed)
  • ½ teaspoon asafoetida
  • 2 cups pureed tomatoes (4 medium, or use canned)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cayenne (or to taste)
  • ½ tablespoon turmeric
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large cauliflower (about 2 pounds), cut into medium florets
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 7 ounces rapini (without tough bottom stems)
  1. Snip the green beans and cut into 2-inch lengths, then cook in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, run under cold water in a sieve, and reserve. Chop red pepper into 1-inch pieces.
  2. In a large shallow pot, heat oil on medium-high for 45 seconds. Sprinkle in asafoetida and allow it to sizzle for 30 seconds. Carefully add tomatoes, then stir and add salt, cumin, coriander, cayenne and turmeric. Sauté for 5 minutes, or until oil glistens on top.
  3. Add water, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stir in cauliflower, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add red pepper and cook for 3 minutes. Pour in coconut milk, then bring back to a boil and stir in the rapini and reserved green beans. Cook for 1-2 minutes, while stirring, then turn off the heat. Serve.
  • Serves: 6 to 8



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