Everyone has at least one serious cook or gourmand on their holiday gift list. Herewith are my suggestions for this year’s batch of all things fun, informative, innovative, useful, and delicious in the world of food and dining.
Cookbooks. Celebrity chef memoirs and food world treatises are always a safe bet, so I regret to say I wasn’t very impressed with this year’s output. You’ll find no Food Network stars or food world behemoths on my list, although they’ve all been busily scribbling away. No Frank Bruni and his bulimia. None of the juggernauts like Rachael Ray and Alice Waters. Basta! to Anthony Bourdain. Not even the latest in the Michael Pollan oeuvre makes my cut. (Unless, that is, your recipient hasn’t read any of his previous food policy books. In that case, go with “In Defense of Food,” which came out in paperback last year.)
Not that you won’t find some of these luminaries represented in this year’s no-brainer choice: Best Food Writing 2010 (Holly Hughes, editor; Da Capo Lifelong Books). The latest edition of this reliable anthology features excellent representations of well-known and lesser-known writers and bloggers, including (ahem) Frank Bruni and Alice Waters.
Any serious lover of French food and wine will want to read “Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France.” The softcover version (Bloomsbury) of Michael Steinberger’s 2009 masterpiece is out, and a more insightful and caring analysis does not exist of why and how France lost its stature as the center of the worlds of gastronomy and winemaking.
As for this year’s batch of cookbooks, look no further than Lambertville, where once again I am recommending any of the Canal House Cooking books by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer (“Banking on Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice,” U.S. 1, August 5, 2009). The latest in the series of seasonal cookbooks they issue from their studio/kitchen on the banks of the Delaware Canal in Lambertville three times a year is volume No. 5, “Fall & Holiday: The Good Life.” Each volume manages the seemingly impossible task of exceeding the previous one, so an ongoing subscription would truly represent the gift that keeps on giving. If you must limit your generosity to one book, though, this latest is a gem. Take a peek inside at www.thecanalhouse.com.
Speaking of generosity, big spenders will score big with the groundbreaking, six-volume, 48-pound, 2,400-page, 1,000-plus recipe behemoth that is “Modernist Cuisine” by Nathan Myhrvold. Unfortunately, publication of this definitive volume on what is commonly called molecular gastronomy has been delayed until March. So your recipient will have to make due with a photocopy of the cover, while you amass the $625 list price (a mere $500 at Amazon).
Kitchen Equipment Du Jour. While we’re on the subject of big spending, what adventurous modern home cook would not covet his or her own sous vide machine like those found in the most forward-thinking restaurants? At $450 the SousVide Supreme is a budget-buster to be sure — and it doesn’t even come with a vacuum sealer, which is required for this method of cooking foods vacuum-sealed in plastic in a slow-cooked water bath.
A more low-tech gadget is on my personal wish list: the as-seen-on-TV Euro-Pro Ninja Master Prep. Seriously. Yes, I scoffed at the claim that this modestly priced “food and drink maker.” It replaces a regular blender, food processor, and stick blender. Then I read the reviews, all of which say it exceeds the overblown claims! Features include interchangeable bowls and a four-part blade that results in uniform cutting and ice crushing. Santa, are you reading this? It retails for $60 but you can find it for $39.22 at Amazon
Gift Certificates. Perhaps the foodie on your list prefers human interaction when it comes to enhancing his or her cooking skills. Gift certificates for hands-on classes exist for every level of interest and skill. Holly Slepman of West Windsor’s Life Beyond Ramen Noodles offers classes “for beginners on a budget” for up to six guests in the recipient’s own kitchen for as little as $10 per person (West Windsor-Plainsboro News, wwpinfo.com, May 14, 2010, “Easy As Pie: Cooking Outside the Box”). Each 90-minute class can focus on a specific dish — say, Buffalo chicken cutlets with smashed potatoes and blue cheese dressing — or a theme, like 15 Meal Ideas from One Rotisserie Chicken. For details, call 609-213-0329 or E-mail email@example.com.
The kitchens at the Miele showroom on Route 1 north in South Brunswick are the site of classes for adult groups ranging from 6 to 75 people and are especially suitable for parties or team building. For $110 per person, teams learn to make two recipes each, after which the group sits down and eats their output in the cafeteria of this Michael Graves-designed building.
Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar. One ingredient we home cooks can never have enough of is premium olive oil.
The newest shop in this category is Carter & Cavero, a gallery-like olive emporium at 27 Palmer Square West, carterandcavero.com. It features more than 30 shiny metal casks with spigots, each containing a distinctive oil from Italy, Spain, Greece, or California, all of which are available for sampling either by sipping them straight or by dipping them into bite-size pieces of baguette.
At Taste of Crete, tasteofcrete.com, the year-old Greek specialty foods shop in Hillsborough, proprietor Esther Psarakis keeps bottles open of her two house brand extra virgins, including an organic version I am particularly fond of.
Early this year Greg Evans of Tuscan Hills in Kingston, tuscanhills.com, launched his own private label Italian oil, which is always available for tasting. The thousand-year-old Tuscan olive trees from which it is made are organic, and the olives are picked by hand and cold pressed immediately into a grassy and peppery yet smooth oil.
Carter & Cavero also features a dozen or so balsamic vinegars, ranging from traditional balsamic from Modena and white balsamic to a dizzying selection of fruit-flavored ones, such as fig, tangerine, and pomegranate. They start at $13 for 200 ml bottles. Sample packs of three cost $43.95.
Which brings me to my food find of the year, although one not available locally: balsamic vinegar “caviar.” On a recent trip to Montreal I stumbled upon jars of these glistening, liquid-filled black beads in a specialty food shop. The tiny spheres have nothing to do with fish eggs, other than similarity of color, shape, and size. I bought the jar and began sprinkling the glistening black pearls everywhere — atop deviled eggs, scrambled eggs, salmon fillets, oysters on the half shell, tomato halves, baby greens.
Christine Le Tennier, a native of Brittany who started out in the seaweed business, introduced her Flavor Pearls — in 30 varieties, yet! — at last summer’s Fancy Food Show. The closest flavor to mine is the vinegar & shallots, but there are many intriguing options, such as hot chili, pink grapefruit, and truffle, at www.finesaler.com: $17.50 for 1.75 ounces. (The beads are so lightweight that 1.75 ounces will go far.).
TV chef Michael Chiarello’s Napa Style line of kitchenware and specialty foods includes Ottimo! Olio Aceto “Pearls,” vinegar pearls sitting in flavored oil. The idea is that you mix them together just before serving as a bread dipping sauce or salad dressing, or spooned over steak, chicken, or fish. Each of three varieties costs $15 for a six-ounce jar or $39 for the set of three. Flavors include roasted garlic oil and balsamic vinegar, smoky paprika oil and sherry vinegar, and basil and balsamic. Available at www.napastyle.com.
No matter which direction you go in for your foodie gifts — books, appliances, gadgets, classes, or edibles — these suggestions are among the tastiest.