Holiday shoppers please take note: I do not want another Tommy Hilfiger sweater or a pair of True Religion skinny jeans I can’t fit into this Christmas. Nor do I want a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad or the latest smartphone. My life and mind are already too cluttered. For relaxation—therapy, actually—I retreat to the kitchen. There’s a Zen-like component to meal prepping that helps turn my smallish kitchen into a sort of meditation zone, albeit it one filled with food smells rather than incense. And so, if you want to buy me something for Christmas, make it something I can eat or cook with.
If you’re gift shopping for a cook this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve done some of the legwork for you. I’ve perused most of the cookbooks, tried most of the new kitchen gadgets, and eaten my way through all of the trendy gourmet goodies so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. Here is a list of can’t-miss gifts that any cook would love to find under the tree on Christmas morning.
What molecular gastronome doesn’t want to be the next Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz? Well, with a Molecular Gastronomy Starter Kit ($64.95 from ChefsResource.com), you’ll be making fruit-juice caviar and stratified jelly towers before you can say elBulli! The kit includes a demo instructional DVD with recipes; tools such as pipettes, silicone tubing, syringes and measuring spoons; and, for the chemically inclined, food additives such as agar-agar, soy lecithin, xanthan gum and calcium lactate. In no time at all—and without the expense of attending a fancy culinary academy—you’ll move from slicing and dicing into spherification, gelification and emulsification.
Of course, sous-vide cooking is the current culinary rage, and with the SousVide Supreme 10-Liter Water Oven ($399.95 at Sur la Table), you can replicate the results of top chefs’ vacuum-sealed, slow-heat, sous-vide cooking right in your own kitchen. There is also a smaller, 8.7-liter version available for $299.95.
Germs. They are a potential thorn in the side of every cook. You didn’t really just cut up that raw chicken on a wood cutting board, did you? Well, you can say so long to bad bacteria and harmful germs with a nifty gadget called the Pocket Purifier ($19.99 at PurelyProducts.com). Without getting into too much humdrum science and technicalities, the Pocket Purifier uses a 4-watt germicidal ultraviolet light which is said (and there are loads of tests to back up the claim) to deactivate the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, including those that cause colds and flu, salmonella, mold, fungus and MRSA (staph). You simply wave the Purifier over the object you’d like to decontaminate—kitchen cutting surfaces, knifes, dishes, computer keyboards, telephones or whatever—and it kills 99.9 percent of nasty germs (don’t ask about that other .1 percent).
One tool that has become indispensable in my kitchen this year is Circulon’s Symmetry Chef’s Pan ($39.99 at PotsAndPans.com). It’s deep enough to do soups, stews and braises, but also perfect for sautéing and frying, including deep-frying and stir-frying. This versatile pan is quite sturdy—made of hard-anodized aluminum with a magnetic stainless-steel induction plate—but also lightweight, and conducts heat very well. Best of all, cleanup is a breeze, thanks to Circulon’s “Food Release System” nonstick surface. I use mine at least two to three times each week.
Quinoa has become fashionable in American restaurants and homes as one of the healthiest and tastiest carbs—a whole grain that’s full of amino acids and high in fiber and vitamins. But quinoa can be boring. Well, Roland Foods (RolandFoods.com) has launched a line of flavored quinoa ($3.44 for 5.46 ounces), made with natural flavoring ingredients like sea salt, celery, garlic, tomato and such. And, cooking them is as simple as boiling water. Flavors include roasted garlic, garden vegetable, black bean, toasted-sesame ginger and Mediterranean—a delicious stocking-stuffer idea.
For something just as scrumptious, if not quite as healthy, there is uncured Smoked Duck Bacon ($12.99) from D’Artagnan (DArtagnan.com). It’s made from all-natural Moulard duck breast and is a great pizza, pasta or salad topping, or perfect just for breakfast, with a poached egg alongside.
I’m a longtime fan of Wusthof knives, and a great gift for any cook would be the new Wusthof Classic Epicurean Handle Knife and Cutting Board set ($129.95 at Williams-Sonoma, 602 E. 500 South, 801-359-0459, WilliamsSonoma.com), featuring a 6-inch utility knife with high-carbon steel blade and handle made of commercial-strength Richlite wood-fiber composite. To keep my knives sharp, I often turn to the convenient Wusthof Handheld Four-Stage Knife Sharpener ($29.95), which sharpens both knives and scissors and has separate sharpeners for standard and Asian knives. For the traditionalist, the King Japanese Knife Sharpening Stone ($29.95 at Sur la Table, 10 N. Rio Grande St., 801-456-0280, SurLaTable.com) will keep kitchen knives and even your Samurai sword razor-sharp with just a little elbow grease.
Cookbooks are a Christmas no-brainer. But instead of giving the latest from Batali, Ray, Lagasse, Fieri or whoever is this season’s celebrity-chef sensation, why not give the gift of a cookbook that is really useful. Ruhlman’s Twenty ($40), by food journalist Michael Ruhlman, is such a gift. Instead of merely another collection of recipes you’ll soon tire of, Ruhlman’s terrific book teaches the fundamental concepts and techniques behind thousands of delectable dishes. It’s sort of a master course in cooking for the home chef. The core of the book is 20 techniques, which range from poaching and sautéing to the use of butter as a cooking medium, and the power of acid to provide contrast and brighten dishes. Along with those 20 techniques are 100 recipes and excellent photographs that serve to illustrate and reinforce the technical lessons learned. The recipe and technique for butter-poached shrimp with grits, alone, is worth the price of Ruhlman’s Twenty. I know that this fine book is going to become one of my most food-splattered, as I’m certain I’ll return to it again and again through the years to come.