It’s time again for my annual, highly subjective list of best gifts for the food and drink lovers in your life, as well as those you’re hoping to develop into food and drink lovers. Following are a baker’s dozen of the most intriguing gadgets, appliances, books, comestibles, and imbibables (surely that’s a word?) I’ve encountered over the last year. I’ve included list prices, but many items can be found for much less online and locally.
For the kiddies (and who isn’t one?): It’s not just because I’m a restaurant critic (for New Jersey Monthly) that I was charmed by “All Four Stars” ($17), a book for 8 to 12-year olds by Tara Dairman. The hook? “Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)” It helped that it was also an Amazon Best Book of the Month and Editors’ Pick for middle graders. You can bet every child on my list is getting a copy.
There’s no such thing as too many sweet stocking stuffers, so I recommend throwing in a bag of Jelly Belly’s new Disney flavor, which features characters from “Frozen.” The so-called icicle mix looks like frosty, sparkling jewels in tones of pale blue, silver, and purple, and one-ounce bags can be found just about everywhere for a pittance.
For the serious cook: How on earth did it take this long for someone to come up with a good, affordable, easy-to-use sous vide machine for the home kitchen? The “Anova Precision Cooker” ($179), which won over the tech team of the New York Times, is sold out until early January, but the company will send a gift card stat. It’ll be worth the wait for that someone on your list just itching to master low-temperature, water-immersion cooking using a circulator and plastic bags — just like all the top chefs. This one even connects to your Smartphone.
Talk about the gift that keeps giving! A CSA (community supported agriculture) membership in an organic farm will have your recipient sending thanks your way all during the 2015 growing season, while you can pat yourself on the back for supporting a local farmer.
CSA programs have evolved over the last few years to be much more flexible and convenient. No more having to drive to the farm at a preordained day and time to retrieve a weekly haul of (sometimes too much of the same) produce. Some plans offer smaller, more flexible “market shares” instead of “farm shares,” and many have multiple off-farm pick-up sites and several days each week to do so. (Honey Brook Organic Farm, for example, has more than 30 pick-up locations, including two in Pennsylvania.) Other organic farms offering a kaleidoscope of CSA options: Chickadee Creek, Great Road Farm, Honey Brook Organic, and Z Food Farm.
For the serious (and not so serious) gourmand: Since it opened in November, Kim Rizk’s Jammin’ Crepes cafe on Nassau Street in Princeton has been packin’ ’em in. Gift items here include a booklet of five gift certificates, each worth $5, to spend on the shop’s sweet and savory crepes, soups, salads, baked goods, or even eight-ounce jars of Jammin’ Kitchen microbatch jams made from local fruit ($9).
Need to bring a show-stopping dessert to a holiday party? The 20-layer crepe torte ($45) comes in two flavors: their housemade, all-natural hazelnut spread or lemon and local apples. Tortes must be ordered 48 hours in advance.
“Hannahbells” are handmade, award-winning artisanal cheeses the shape and size of thimbles. A friend gifted me with a package of 15 or so pieces that she picked up at Brick Farm Market in Hopewell, and I was smitten ($6.50; call for availability). The little darlings have a shelf-life of four weeks, come in four flavors, and are also available online from the source: Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Massachusetts.
Here’s a best-kept secret: Jose Andres Foods’ Spanish provisions. Last Christmas, knowing that I worship this DC-based celebrity chef, my daughter Alice gave me a generous selection from his line of olive oils, jarred vegetables, and tinned seafood. They’re sourced from Spain’s best small producers and are pricey but worth it. Much of the line is available at Despana on Nassau Street in Princeton.
For the imbibers (and who isn’t one?): The December 10 issue of U.S. 1 featured my story about the opening of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in Hillsborough, complete with a report on an associated wine tasting. (Hard job, right?) But instead of opening the three bottles he had brought with a regular wine cork, owner Gary Fisch used the Coravin 1000 wine access system. This opener-preserver uses a hollow needle to penetrate a wine bottle “without removing the cork.” Thus, the wine does not oxidize, and fine wines continue to age in the bottle. The opener retails for $299, including two argon gas capsules. A two-pack of argon gas refills is $20.
If the Coravin 1000 exceeds your budget, how about a stocking stuffer of festively colored Rabbit Wine Stoppers? No one can have too many (or maybe that’s just me). For years now I’ve been singing the praises of those other rubberized stoppers with a slit in the top that come with a separate plastic doohickey for pumping the air out. They work OK, but it’s often hard to know when you’ve pumped enough, and it means that the act of opening one bottle involves many moving parts: foil cutter, corkscrew, pump, and stopper.
Recently, friends gave me a set of Rabbit stoppers that seal wine airtight without the pump. You simply push one into the uncorked bottle, and you’re done. They work like a charm, are easy to clean, and inexpensive: a package of two lists for $4.99, but you can find them cheaper — and in four-packs — all over.
I sure hope my gin-and-tonic-loving friends aren’t reading this, because they’re all getting TomR’s Tonic ($15 for 20ml) this year. This syrup concentrate is the brainchild of Tom Richter, a New York City bartender who lives in Plainfield and writes a beverage column for Edible Jersey magazine. Unlike those clear, sticky, sweet national brands, this organic elixir is deep amber in color and contains no high-fructose corn syrup or synthetic quinine. It derives its flavors from real cinchona bark (quinine), citrus, herbs, and cane sugar, and is available at CoolVines in Princeton for $11.
Cookbooks, a perennial favorite: “Jewish Soul Food: from Minsk to Marrakesh, More than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today’s Kitchen” ($35). This latest offering from best-selling cookbook writer Janna Gur has an important Jersey connection: Nirit Yadin of East Brunswick, a fixture on the central New Jersey food scene, collaborated with Gur, a long-time friend who is also founder and chief editor of Israel’s leading food and wine magazine. The book’s 100-plus recipes reflect the Diaspora that has coalesced in modern-day Israel, giving voice to an exciting new multicultural cuisine.
“Prune” by Gabrielle Hamilton ($45) is the first cookbook from this feisty daughter of area restaurateur Jim Hamilton (Hamilton’s Grill Room). She’s a local girl made more-than-good: award winning chef, restaurateur, and author (her first book is the acclaimed memoir “Blood, Bones & Butter”). Her quirkiness and unique talent shine in every recipe in this book named after her New York City restaurant, which is in turn named for her childhood nickname.
“Love Me, Feed Me” ($25) by Judith Jones. Admittedly, you need to have people on your list who really, really love their dogs for this oddball entry from the famed editor, now in her 90s, who made Julia Child a household name. (Did you know she also rescued “The Diary of Anne Frank” from the rejects pile?) It comprises recipes for you and your dog to share. Jones’s rationale is that modern doggie parents want to give both themselves and their charges fresh, nourishing, tasty meals — and that it’s also more economical and less wasteful.
Happy shopping and happy holidays!
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.