It’s hard to believe, but this column marks my third annual devoted to gifts for the foodies in our lives. I say “our” but in actuality what follows are mostly gifts I fantasize about receiving. In essence, they represent the best of what I encountered in 2011.
The latest way I show my Jersey pride came in the form of a Christmas gift I received last year from one of my daughters, an attractive wooden cutting board in the shape of New Jersey, with a small carved heart where, in my case, Princeton falls. Many other states are available, as well as some European countries and even truly exotic places like Brooklyn. The boards are sold on etsy.com by AHeirloom, and cost $40. Be warned: they must be ordered two weeks in advance.
Personally I think the board is too nice for cutting vegetables so I use it, fittingly, to serve my favorite Jersey cheeses. This year these can include the holiday cheese plate from Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, which includes three of their raw milk cheeses, totaling one pound, on a disposable bamboo platter, adorned with dried fruits and (optional) nuts, all tied up in raffia ribbons. It costs $29.99 and should be ordered at least one day in advance by calling 609-219-0053.
Another of last year’s gifts (this time from a generous niece) allowed me to delve, at home, into the world of what is commonly called molecular gastronomy. The Cuisine R-Evolution Molecular Gastronomy Kit consists of a slick DVD demonstrating (wordlessly) how to make more than 50 recipes using five naturally derived texturing agents such as soy lecithin, sodium alginate, and xanthan gum — packets of which are included in the kit — along with such tools-of-the-trade as a syringe and plastic tubing. I devised more than one fun and tasty dinner party around them, making such delights as Crunchy Bloody Marys and Coconut Fondant with Liquid Almond Spheres. There is also a molecular cocktail kit, and each is available for about $60 at amazon.com.
If learning to cook a four-course meal from a top restaurant chef is at the top of someone’s wish list, then you can’t do better than the four-week cooking classes of Shane Cash, the executive chef at Rat’s at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. One session runs on Monday evenings in January; the other on Tuesday evenings. Classes are limited to 12 students and sell out fast. Cost (including tastings and wine pairings) is $325. For complete details call 609-584-7800.
On the other hand, if cookbooks are the passion of your favorite foodie, for the third year in a row I’m recommending the latest in the seasonal Canal House Cooking series, cooked up right in Lambertville by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer. They produce three each year (available singly and by subscription), and just out is the first of three, titled La Dolce Vita, that will be devoted to Italian home cooking. Titles are $19.95 each; a year’s subscription is $49.95. Check them out at thecanalhouse.com.
For those who prefer dining out to dining in, the 2011/12 Zagat New Jersey Restaurants guide (14.95) is out, and I feel only slightly sheepish about recommending it, since I am one of its editors.
Also for the restaurant-goer on your list are gift bags from Elements restaurant in Princeton. One includes a $50 gift card as well as chef Scott Anderson’s herb finishing salts (chile and ginger), a half-pound of Elements coffee blend by Small World Roasters, mini biscotti, and a six-inch whisk, for $69. The other, at $159, includes a $100 gift card, all of the above, plus treats from sommelier Justin Kuruvilla, featuring a “cube” ice cube tray, foie mousse, a .375 liter bottle of Maculan Dindarello dessert wine, and other goodies.
And don’t forget: a gift certificate to whichever is your recipient’s favorite splurge restaurant will make you number one on that person’s list next year. If that price tag is too hefty, how about a gift certificate for Bent Spoon ice cream? You say your recipient lives too far from the Princeton store to indulge? Then a can of their rich, European-style hot cocoa mix will do the trick, or one of the cool, Jersey-centric Bent Spoon T-shirts, which my daughters routinely gave as gifts to their far-flung college friends, who now wear them all over the world (check out the Bent Spoon’s bulletin board in the store for photos).
For additional edibles, seek out the hyper-local Princeton, Hopewell, and Hillsborough honeys, made by Bamboo Hollow, at the Whole Earth Center ($7.50 for 16 ounces), and the handmade, 100 percent natural chocolate truffles and cordials from the Painted Truffle, which I spotlighted in my November 9 column. Add spice to your favorite cook’s life with gift sets from Savory Spice Shop, which recently opened on Spring Street in Princeton. Pre-packed themed sets from 4 to 12 jars start at $20. A few examples of the selections: Seafood Lovers, Fire Eaters, Pizza & Pasta, and Garden State, but you can also assemble your own custom assortment. Accoutrements like nutmeg grinders and books (“Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference”; “Healing Spices”) are stocked, as are seasonally appropriate frankincense tears and myrrh gum.
Every summer I attend the Fancy Food Show, and two of this year’s primo edible finds were the award-winning spiced sour cherry spread from the Gracious Gourmet (the line is carried by Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center) and the handmade goat milk caramels from HappyGoat, which really do taste of goat milk and come in terrific flavors like coconut-lime. Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table — check their websites — both stock HappyGoat.
But the single product that most won my heart was the grow-your-own mushroom garden from Back to the Roots. You grow up to a pound and a half of pearl oyster mushrooms indoors, directly out of a brown cardboard box, in about 10 days. The growing medium is 100 percent recycled coffee grounds. (Not just any coffee grounds, coffee beans with an impeccable pedigree. The Oakland, CA-based company uses Peet’s.) All you do is mist the opening a few times a day — the mister is included in the kit — and watch ‘em grow. The kit is available at more than 300 Whole Foods markets nationwide and at backtotheroots.com, where it sells for $19.95. (Order two kits and shipping is free.)
Follow Pat Tanner’s food blog at www.dinewithpat.com.