Holiday Gifts For The City Cook
The holidays are arriving when many of us are feeling cautious, and maybe not very celebratory or generous. But let's think about this for a moment: can you remember a time when you wouldn't more love the delight of receiving a gift?
I've put together some ideas for holiday gifts for the home cook so you can give that same delight to someone else. Most of my suggestions are modestly priced and include practical things, some of beauty, some you can share, one to eat, a nod to Brooklyn, but first, some poetry.
Poetry for the Wine Lover
To speak of a wine's future
is to speak of our own desires,
how we hope as we age
that we'll become more
harmonious, less acidic,
that our tannins will mellow.
We recognize that right now
we have a burst of flavor,
an energy, a liveliness,
but also a harshness
which later may soften
until we're more balanced,
easier to appreciate.
Hold onto us
we'll get better.
Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers is a small book of about 50 poems -- all of them somehow about wine -- written by Joseph Mills who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts when he's not touring vineyards or drinking wine (he's also written "A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries"). The poems are sometimes funny, often wry, and many are very touching. One about his father and a bottle of Champagne saved for a lifetime but never drunk is poignant. $12.00 and available at Amazon.
Give it to a wine lover for whom you're too intimidated to choose a bottle or who eschews those cute wine gadgets. Even if their collection fits in a small rack instead of a cellar, most wine lovers are passionate not only for the taste of wine but also its romance.
To Market To Market….
We're all trying to carry reusable shopping bags, but whatever they're made of, when filled, they're heavy. If you know someone who needs help getting groceries home, Sur la Table has two solutions.
The "Hook and Go" Urban Shopper unfolds 8 hooks that are like a coat rack to carry bags that weigh up to 70 pounds, helped along with rubber wheels and a rubber front foot to keep it upright. It folds up for easier carrying to the store. $59.95.
If you want something more contained, the "Reisenthel Folding Grocery Trolley" is a canvas wheeled shopper that comes in 5 colors. It zips up into itself into a lightweight 12 1/2" by 2" size for easy carrying when you're on your way to the greenmarket or grocery store, but when opened, it expands to a generous 28 3/4" by 13" by 9". $19.95.
Mari's New York makes what very possibly could be the world's best and most stylish brownies. I first tasted Mari Tuttle's brownies at last summer's Fancy Food Show where they were a standout among the thousands of over-hyped and trendy products. They're made by Mari Tuttle whose business card gives her title as "Brownie Babe."
These brownies taste fabulous -- profoundly flavorful, perfect texture, sophisticated yet a truly satisfying rich chocolate. Flavors include Classic (or Classic with Nuts), Caramel Sea Salt, Coconut, Thai Coffee, Heat, and Blonde Bombshell.
Mari's background and earlier career as a design director in fashion and package design means her brownies come in a chic and modern box that includes a custom letterpress gift card (at no extra cost). The result is an old fashioned sweet presented in a 21st century package. It's exquisite.
You can only buy Mari's New York Brownies at her web site, MarisNY.com. They're not cheap but we're talking choice. Prices start at a half-dozen for $19.00.
Cookbooks and Foodwriting
Cookbooks always make a great gift and this season there are new titles from many of our most popular authors. Ina Garten, Mark Bittman, Giada DeLaurentiis, Jamie Oliver, and Paula Deen all have new books and if you know one of these authors is a favorite, you'll make someone very happy.
Not sure of favorites? A cookbook that re-invents itself every year is The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2009 by Christopher Kimball's gang at America's Test Kitchen. It's listed at $35.00 and as in past years, is a large format hardcover book with both color and black and white photographs. The book is a selection of 200 of the nearly 1,000 recipes developed last year for the Test Kitchen's magazines, books and PBS television program. This year's edition includes four ways to make friend chicken wings, new ideas for cooking cheaper cuts of meat like pot roast, burgers, pulled pork and ribs, and regional dessert favorites like Texas sheet cake, tunnel of fudge cake and apple slab pie.
Know someone who loves to bake, especially for kids? Harvard Common Press has published a sweet and celebratory paperback called The Birthday Cake Book by Dede Wilson. It's $19.95 and has 50 one-of-a-kind birthday cakes that are made from a core selection of cakes and icings, with recipes that go from the basic to the fancy. There are lots of color photographs, sources for ingredients and decorating tools, and clear instructions that will make you want to have every day be someone's birthday. Give the book with a package of fancy themed birthday candles or a cake decorating turntable (there are sources for both in the back of the book)
If you want a gift for someone who is looking to learn more about food culture, origins and history, the University of California Press has recently published two books that may work. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir is by Amy B. Trubek, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the University of Vermont (and previously at New England Culinary Institute). Her book recounts a personal food journey to California, France, Vermont and other places to explore the relationship between the taste of food and where it comes from. $29.95 hardcover.
Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman, is a collection of ten essays by French, German, Belgian, American and British historians that give a detailed and chronological history of taste from prehistoric times to today. Essays include "Hunter-Gatherers and the First Farmers" by Alan Outram, "Feasting and Fasting, Food and Taste in Europe in the Middle Ages," by C.M. Woolgar, "The Birth of the Modern Consumer Age, Food Innovations from 1800" by Hans J. Teuteberg and "Dining Out, The Development of the Restaurant," by Elliott Shore and six others. The book is somewhat scholarly but completely accessible (368 pages with many color photographs and images) and much of it is fascinating and fun. $39.95, hardcover.
Both Beautiful and Useful
If you know someone who loves to entertain and is often moving food and dishware from a small kitchen to a small dining area, a tray can be a welcomed gift. I've always loved shiny and colorful lacquerware but have been put off by its cost. But Pearl River, the Chinese import store on Broadway in SoHo, has beautiful "Two-Tone Lacquer Trays" in two sizes (14-inch square or 16" by 12") for $44.50 each. They are water resistant so you can put a wet drink on them. They're available in a variety of colors, including such vibrant color combinations as fuchsia/lime and aqua/black. You can visit the store at 477 Broadway between Grand and Broome Streets or shop their website, PearlRiver.com.
Adding Flavor to a City Kitchen
A bag of sel de fleur, the sea salt from the coast of France that is harvested by hand, is a treat almost any city cook would love. Bags and jars of specialty salts can be found at Dean & Deluca, Citarella, Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table, and increasingly at many grocery and specialty markets. Give a little bag of salt plus a salt dish, which can be as simple as a white porcelain ramekin or a vintage ashtray given a new use. The salt costs usually less than $20.00.
Brooklyn Pride, Version 2.0
Last year we discovered the Brooklyn kitchen towel, made by Cat Studio and still sold at A Cook's Companion in Brooklyn Heights. This year we've found another Brooklyn kitchen item that we also love, this time at Fishs Eddy. These are ceramic salt and pepper shakers with a cityscape illustrated on all four sides -- you get to see the whole scene, including the Brooklyn Bridge, by putting the salt and pepper side by side. $9.95 for a pair available at Fishs Eddy's store at 889 Broadway (at 19th Street) or on their website, FishsEddy.com (we've added a link below).
A Gift to Share
If you want to give a cooking gift that you can share with a friend or someone special, think about a cooking or wine class for two. Many of New York's wine and cooking schools have single-session classes on a huge variety of topics. For example, Astor Center does wine and cheese tasting, working with the folks at Murray's Cheese. Single classes usually cost somewhere between $65 and $125 per person, depending on how precious the food or wine may be. See our list of favorite cooking schools and also our recent article about wine schools.
Many city kitchens don't have drawer space yet we can’t resist adding to our collections of tongs, spoons and spatulas. If you know someone who has more stuff than place to put it, sometimes a beautiful ceramic holder can be the solution. The tiny Greenwich Village shop Le Fanion imports and sells the most gorgeous French country pottery and earthenware. There are also coffee mugs, and covered jars for mustard, sugar or jam. I would covet anything from this shop and I don't know anyone who wouldn't. Prices start at moderate and the friendly shop loves people who browse.
Favorite New York Kitchen Stores
This year more than ever before, please try to visit and shop from a local New York merchant. Our city is lucky to have splendid cookware and tabletop merchants and they all would love your business, even if you're only buying a new wooden spoon or kitchen towel. Our favorites include Broadway Panhandler, Gracious Home, A Cook's Companion, Brooklyn Kitchen, Tarzian West, and Zabar's. For tabletop we also love Moss, Pearl River, Yves Delorme, Global Table, La Terrine, and Le Fanion. See our database for store locations, websites and telephone numbers.
Would you like a few more ideas? You can listen to three of New York's favorite merchants for additional suggestions. Visit the Audio & Podcast section of TheCityCook.com for interviews with Jennifer Baron, owner of A Cook's Companion, Bonnie Slotnick of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, and Alan Palmer, co-owner of Blue Apron Foods. Each of them have ideas for kitchen tools, cookbooks and food that would make most home cooks swoon.
While it may seem a cliché, this year more than ever, remember that it is the thought that counts. So if gifts are not in your budget, make a meal for someone you love. It's the best gift of all.