Holiday Gifts For Your Favorite City Cooks
If you have a few home cooks on your holiday shopping list these could be the toughest gifts to buy. If it's a new cook who needs everything, or someone who is always enthusiastic about the latest trend or gadget, it's a challenge to choose from the thousands of pots, pans, tools and gadgets out there. If you're buying for someone who is very particular and already well tooled, it's even harder. Add to that our small city kitchens -- anything we get better be worth making space for.
So we went looking for help on what is new, classic, compelling, useful, or just plain fun for the cooks on my own gift list. I headed to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to spend some time with Jennifer Baron, the wonderful owner of A Cook's Companion, one of New York's best-loved kitchen and cookware stores. Jen opened her store in 1997 and continues to keep many of the city's home cooks well equipped and cooking happy. A practiced and knowing home cook herself, she also keeps up with changing food trends and is particularly expert in judging quality and value.
Before you head to her store, visit ACooksCompanion.com and sign up for Jen's monthly newsletters that are filled with tips and seasonal recipes, as well as ways to get the best use out of our kitchenware. The website also has an archive of past issues which is very useful reading.
My gift hunt at A Cook's Companion was fun and inspiring and you could give me any of these (except the Lodge, which I already have) and I'd be very grateful.
Vitamix is the gold standard for smoothies, puréed soups, and for making many recipes for which you might otherwise need a food processor or blender. They come in a range of sizes, power, and prices in the $250 to $600 range. Jen advises that you try to gauge whether your gift recipient is going to store the machine in a cabinet or on the counter because the models vary in height and won't always fit just anywhere.
I don't know any home cook who wouldn't love to refresh their paring knives and Wusthof, the German knife company, makes a 3.5-inch one for $29.95. For cooks who like to make roasts, there are beautiful Wusthof carving sets, each with a large fork and carving knife, at prices that range from $99 to $275. French cutlery company Laguiole produces some of the most coveted steak knives (which don't have to be limited to cutting steak); a set of six knives comes in a beautiful wooden box for $250. With a serrated edge, they'll keep their edge forever -- they'd be a gorgeous and special gift.
If you want to give someone cooking knives, such as a chef's knife or specialty knives as for boning or filleting, I strongly recommend that you give a gift certificate so that your recipient can choose their own. Knives are very personal and it's best that they're chosen by the person who is going to use them.
Lodge Cast Iron Grill Pan
I use my Lodge square cast iron grill pan, now well-seasoned from years of use, at least once a week. It doesn't replace my 12-inch cast iron fry pan but serves a different purpose, but frankly I use it more often, especially for cooking meaty fish like tuna, swordfish, or halibut, to broil steaks and chops, and to put appetizing grill marks on plain chicken breasts or chunks of bread for crostini. Use it on top of the stove or in the oven. In my kitchen it's one of my most-used pieces of cookware. Price is $32.95 and it will last forever.
Staub French Oven
The 6 quart enameled cast iron French oven is a kitchen staple, as well as a major investment. While Le Creuset is very popular, if you're going to splurge on a big kitchen gift, instead take a look at the ones made by Staub. I love that they have a black interior (the Le Creuset ones are white but get stained immediately and then always look dirty); can be used either stove top or in very hot ovens; and come with two knobs for the cover, one that is plain and another that is a charming and oven-proof metal rooster. Plus they are simply stunning.
When I was at A Cook's Companion just before Thanksgiving, there was a special promotion on the 6-quart French oven in a beautiful shade of deep mahogany-brown: $199 instead of the regular price of $429. I was sorely tempted to make of gift of it to myself.
Is it a gimmick or are these here to stay? It might be too soon to tell but carb-phobic friends of mine who crave pasta swear by them. These are cutting tools that let you turn a potato, or zucchini, or beet, or carrot or other vegetables (or fruits) into a spaghetti-like spiral. A sign of their popularity is the new crop of spiralizing cookbooks and websites that have popped up that are all-things-spiral.
It's not a high expense to give someone the spiralizing experience. Oxo, the folks who make easy and safe kitchen tools, makes one that is simple to use, well-priced at $14.95, and all you need is a strong upper arm to twist your vegetables into the blade. Other models are made by Gefu for $29.95 and Microp for $14.95. All three are small and easy to store, unlike many larger models that require a countertop set-up.
Pasta or Pizza Kits
If someone you know wants to get started at making their own pizza or pasta, you can put together a kit of the basic tools that they'll need. Add a cookbook, a can of tomatoes, and a request for a dinner invitation.
For pizza, get them a pizza stone: Old Stone Oven makes a 14 by 16-inch rectangular one that will provide some maneuverability when positioning the dough. $49.95. Add a cheese shaker for $3.95, a peel (the tool that slides the pizza in and out of the oven) for $30, and a three-pound bag of King Arthur pizza flour for $9.00.
For dreams of fresh pasta, King Arthur also makes three-pound bags of pasta flour, also for $9.00. Put it together with an adorable little drying rack made by Gefu that will hold someone's just-made tagliatelle for $14.95. Or for ravioli lovers, include a cutter for $4.95.
If you've tried to use silicone potholders or mitts and found them clumsy and thick, the FingerMitt is different. It comes with two mitts -- one for the left hand and one for the right, the silicone is thinner and more flexible so that you actually get a good grab on what's hot, and they don't fall off your hands. Jennifer said that she likes to use them when actually handling food, as when you're trying to pull a still-hot roast chicken apart. Dishwasher safe. $15.95 for the pair.
Made in India out of natural or vividly colored cotton string, these handsome, thick-but-supple woven squares serve dual purposes as potholders or trivets to protect your counters from a hot pan. Washable (although I'd air dry them after pulling them back into shape when still wet). $9.95.
Mise en Place Cups
Sure you can use small glass bowls or little soufflé cups for your mise en place (pre-measured spices, minced garlic, teaspoons of fresh lemon juice, etc.) but what if you could also just pinch your little dishes and decant them? A set of 6 adorable and colorful little Mini Pinch cups made by Core Kitchen are, at about 2 1/2-inches, big enough to be useful, stable even when empty, dishwasher safe, and being silicone, you can just pinch the edge to create a spout. About $14.
Okay all you kale lovers out there, who doesn't dread the task of having to cut off the leaves of Tuscan or curly kale from their thick stalks. With the Zipstrip kale stripper made by Chef'n, you simply stick the end of the stalk into the right size hole (you'll have a choice) and give it a pull. And voila -- your kale leaves are ready to cook. The little plastic cutter that will take up almost zero room in your drawer also has holes to strip herbs like rosemary or thyme. Dishwasher safe. $7.99.
After visiting A Cook's Companion or your favorite cookware store, you can also head to one of your city's best food merchants and consider a luxury ingredient, something that most of us never buy for ourselves. Like a bottle of deep green Tuscan olive oil from a small producer, or cans of the best DOP San Marzano tomatoes, a bottle of truffle oil and bag of organic popcorn to make a posh snack, or a tin of precious sel de Guérande, hand harvested on the coast of Brittany. Who wouldn't love that?