My friend Rod, blogger extraordinaire, remembers opening a gift from his wife a few Christmases ago and "tearing up at the thoughtfulness of that present." Was it an engraved pocketwatch? A book of poetry? A family heirloom?
Nope. It was kitchen knives. And to tell the truth, I was a bit misty myself as I read his wish that "she could take these knives back and give them to me all over again." There is no tool more delightful and useful to wield than a high-quality knife. On the other hand, there is no experience more frustrating than, say, trying to mince an onion on a glass chopping board with a dull piecea junk.
Sales abound now, post-holiday, and in the links below you'll find excellent deals with which to stock up for this year's weddings, showers, housewarming parties and even, if you're good at waiting, next Christmas.
So, where to begin? In order of importance:
1. A Santoku knife. If you can only afford one right now, buy this one -- If you can't, save up and buy it as soon as possible! Its cleaver-straight edge hits the board flat, so you can mince finely by bearing down over and over again without the rocking motion most chef's knives require. The little divots on the side keep food from sticking to it, so you can keep chopping as long as you like without stopping to clear the blade. Make sure it's high-carbon stainless steel in one piece from handle to tip, which ensures greater durability. (Many, like the Henckels in the above link, have a plastic handle that makes the knife easier to grip; rivets attach it to the blade.)
2. A paring knife. Although a Santoku can do just about anything, a small knife is useful for delicate tasks, such as halving cherry tomatoes or peeling pears. Again, a high-carbon stainless knife, in one piece, is the best choice; cheaper ceramic versions are just as sharp, although they're much less durable and will snap if twisted when, say, removing an avocado pit.
3. A pair of shears. Not a knife, you say? You're right -- it's really two knives, and a good set of shears will live up to that fact. Use them to snip herbs from your garden, chop up tomatoes right in the can, and even cut the legs and wings from a chicken. Treat them with as much care as you do your knives, and you'll be rewarded with many years of sharpness.
4. A good sharpener. One of the best party tricks I've ever seen was when a guest removed a dish from the cover and sharpened a knife on the bottom rim, which was unglazed porcelain. To prove it had worked, he held a sheet of paper in one hand and the knife in the other; one vertical slash left a clean cut, where before there had been raggedy edges. In pursuit of this greatness, we have owned a number of sharpeners over the years, from electric to steel, but my favorite is about the size of a computer mouse and just as easy to use. Simply draw your blade through the "coarse" steel notch a few times, then finish in the "fine" ceramic notch.
5. A chopping board. This clearly doesn't count as a knife, but a bad one can easily ruin your carefully-chosen tools, so pay attention! Never, ever chop on glass or stone; plastic is acceptable, but flimsy (I use one for meat, since they're dishwasher-safe and easy to sanitize.) Wood is the best, and end-grain the best of the best, since it won't split or crack the way a plank will.
As with just about every kitchen tool, each of these comes in deluxe versions that cost more than the whole list put together (which is under $200, by the way, for the options I've selected.) If you're a novice, start at the top with one great knife, and you'll soon be back to add to your collection.