Ready or not, it is time once again for my recommendations on the gift books, tools, ingredients, and luxury foods and drinks for the serious gourmands and cooks on your holiday list. Let’s start with books.
Last year I was hard-pressed to recommend more than one cookbook; this year I have had to severely edit my picks. One unexpected one is Maria Speck’s “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” subtitled “Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More” (Ten Speed Press, $30).
With recipes such as honey-nut granola with olive oil, sweet zucchini bread with mint, and Mediterranean mussels with farro and white wine, it is no wonder the book was named to top lists of the Washington Post and the New York Times (twice) and won this year’s the Julia Child Book Award.
Another award-winning chef and author is Maricel Presilla, co-owner of Hoboken’s Cucharamama and Zafra restaurants. She was named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic this year by the James Beard Foundation. Her 900-page magnum opus, “Gran Cocina Latina,” debuted in October (W.W. Norton, $45), and I predict it will garner major awards in 2013. The book is the result of more than three decades of travel to every Spanish or Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America and the Caribbean on the part of Presilla, who has a doctorate from NYU in medieval Spanish history. The result is a landmark work that contains not only 500 meticulous, authentic recipes covering everything from empanadas, tamales, cebiches, and soups and stews to sweets and drinks (all updated for the modern American kitchen), but also engrossing stories of the people, places, and social history of this important cuisine.
As long as those award-winning Canal House gals, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer, keep producing excellent cookbooks “by home cooks, for home cooks” from their Lambertville atelier, I will continue to recommend them. But you don’t have to take my word for it, just read the testimonials for this year’s output, “Canal House Cooks Every Day,” by the likes of Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Hamilton and Hersheimer call this tome “big, fat, and delicious,” and so it is, with 250 new, seasonal recipes, 130-plus photos and illustrations, 12 essays (e.g., foraging for wild mushrooms), and a cheery red cover. Suggested retail is $45, but a sneak peek, slightly discounted price, and free gift wrapping are available at www.thecanalhouse.com.
Not a cookbook but an enthralling bedtime read is “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” by Bee Wilson, a celebrated British food writer and historian. In a lively, engrossing manner she shows how, in her words, “the history of food is the history of kitchen technology,” — and an ever-changing one that began with fire and ice. (Actually, Wilson points out that knives predate the discovery of fire.) Drawing upon history, science, and anthropology, she argues that the implements we use to prepare and consume food wind up changing our societies — and always have.
Her argument for why the wooden spoon has maintained its unequaled place in kitchens even in this age of plastic and metal is as lyrical as it is convincing. I guarantee that your foodie friend will never look the same way at, nor take for granted, such mundane objects as egg beaters, microwave ovens, chopsticks, and, of course, forks.
I asked Doug Dixon, a technology consultant, author, and speaker whose Princeton-based company is Manifest Technology (www.manifest-tech.com), for a tech geek’s suggestions for foodie gifts. I was not surprised when this former Sarnoff exec named Nathan Myrvold’s book, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” which I recommended last year.
Dixon characterizes this six-volume, 2,400-page groundbreaker as “the classic geek approach to cooking — experiment, analyze, report” while employing “science-inspired techniques for achieving astounding new flavors and textures by using tools.” He points out that the set is now reduced from $625 to only $446 (!) at Amazon. Those of us with tighter holiday budgets might consider instead Myrvold’s latest entry, “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” at Amazon for $103.60.
Gadgets with true nerd appeal, per Dixon, include the iSi mini cream whipper that employs NO2 cartridges (both sold at Williams-Sonoma and other local kitchenware shops, approximately $55 for the whipper) and the Brookstone Aero Wine Aerator (approximately $50), that works in 30 seconds and has a built-in LED light. He also highly recommends two eats: First Field Jersey Ketchup (www.first-field.com), a locally made and locally available product that I have touted before (U.S. 1, July 21, 2010), and Your Choice Brands Granola (www.yourchoicebrands.com), which donates 100 percent of after-tax profits to charities selected by customers. It is, Dixon shares, a “growing type of company based on a philanthropic business model,” and adds this disclaimer: “I’m related to them.”
While we are talking edibles, you might want to pick up on the emerging trend of single-estate olive oils. Last Christmas my daughter enrolled me in the Nudo Adopt an Olive Tree program in Italy (www.nudo-italia.com). The result was two seasonal deliveries of a variety of Nudo oils, including some from my personally adopted and numbered tree. This year, the Nudo adoption program entails four deliveries, at $49 each, but you can also shop for individual cans on the website.
Another kitchen staple, salt, continues to evolve. I was particularly taken at this summer’s Fancy Food Show with gift packs with geek appeal from the gourmet sea salt company, The Spice Lab (www.thespicelab.com). Assorted salts come inside cork-topped test tubes set into wooden bases in a variety of sizes and price points. There are even specialized collections, such as the Chili Head, Hawaiian Aloha, and BBQ Smoked Salts.
The company also makes Himalayan salt shot glasses, and I was personally intrigued by grains of their rare Persian Blue Diamond salt, which I had never encountered before. (It looked bluer in real life than it does on the website.) For the do-it-yourself types on your list, I was also impressed at the show by Joe Bellavance, whose Average Joe Artisan Bread Kit (www.breadkit.com) allows home bakers to produce professional-quality loaves.
Let’s leave savories and talk sweets. Since the moment they debuted I have been a fan of Duchy Originals. That’s the line of environmentally conscious biscuits and cookies founded by HRH Prince Charles, who also holds the title of duke of the Duchy of Cornwall. I’m partial to the original savory oaten biscuits, but at the Fancy Food Show I was smitten as well with the Highland All-Butter Shortbread, plain and flavored with stem ginger or Sicilian lemon. They make a great hostess gift or stocking stuffer, at $5 to $6.50 on Amazon.
Fans of vintage cookie molds will swoon over the gorgeous, all-natural Queen City Cookies (www.queencitycookies.com), based in Cincinnati. Not only are the sweets handmade from scratch, but the company supports numerous local charities. Each classic springerle cookie — in scores of designs and sizes — is nestled in a custom box and tied with a satin ribbon. Or you can buy bags of pachyderm-shaped cookies in assorted flavors for $7 for 6.5 ounces.
Of course, chocolates are a perennial favorite. Donna & Company (www.shopdonna.com), based in Kenilworth, has been racking up awards this year, the latest a silver for her truffles from the International and Luxury Chocolate Salons. Diane (not Donna!) Pinder is the chocolatier and founder, and she has also won assorted bold, silver, and bronze awards for her Donna Toscana brand.
Her small-batch, hand-crafted artisanal wares include seasonal chocolates. For winter, there is a five-piece box with one each of pumpkin caramel, tiramisu, cranberry orange, vanilla honey, and eggnog, for $15. Other holiday options: a chocolate holiday wreath and honey and port wine mission figs enrobed in chocolate. All (and more) are available on the company website, although you’ll also find some of her wares at Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center.
Those looking for even more exotic chocolates should check out Delhi-based Chockriti (www.chockriti.com). Their French-style truffles and bon bons are spiked with the traditional flavors and spices of India. “Choc” stands for chocolate, of course, while “kriti” is Sanskrit for work of art. The winter assortment includes cardamom coffee, chili chocolate, Earl Grey truffle, and chai. To ascertain prices in U.S. dollars, E-mail them and you’ll get the figure, including shipping. They use PayPal. The chocolate maker behind these elegant creations is Pragati Sawhney, a one-time NYC dentist who taught herself the art of chocolate making.
Pat Tanner blogs at dinewithpat.com.