The Gift of Gadgetry
We'll wager these Food writers' wish lists would satisfy the foodie in your life
Without a doubt, the most popular gift I gave last Christmas was a GelPro kitchen floor mat. Every time my sister prepares a meal in the ranch kitchen, she comments on how much she appreciates the cushioning it provides for her rebuilt knees while she's standing and cooking. Indeed, the gel-filled mats relieve the standing stress of knowledgeable restaurant chefs and home cooks alike. The Austin-based company produces its marvelous mats at factories in nearby Leander and Waco. The mats come in different sizes, colors, and finishes in the price range of $100 to $150 and are worth every penny. Anyone who spends much time standing in the kitchen will appreciate this gift forever. Order online at www.gelpro.com. – V.B.W.
Supper Club Gift Certificates
One of the hottest local trends over the past year is the emergence of supper clubs as a component of our diverse culinary scene. Austin chefs and caterers are creating distinctive dinner parties and events at private homes and venues all over town. Many of these meals are in the same price range ($40-$75) as a good restaurant meal but with the added benefit of a complimentary cocktail or the opportunity to bring your own beer or wine. Most of the marketing and reservations are done via websites, e-mail blasts, or announcements on social networking sites, helping to keep things affordable. A gift certificate to any of the following supper clubs would make a delicious present.
Hostess Hannah Calvert sends out an e-mail to her Supper Underground (www.supperunderground.com) mailing list and chooses dinner guests via a lottery system for dinner parties in private homes several times a year.
Locavores Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield present everything from seasonal farm dinners to post-hog butchering feasts and Texas seafood samplers under their Dai Due Supper Club (www.daidueaustin.com) banner.
Hosteria Verde (www.hosteriaverde.com) owner Anne Rutt-Enriquez throws themed dinner parties in such diverse locales as the Wally Workman Gallery, the Caswell House, and the Monarch.
Caterer Gina Burchenal and chef Kristine Kittrell collaborate on seasonal ethnic dinners as the Moveable Feast (themoveablefeast firstname.lastname@example.org), presenting meals in private West Austin homes.
2 Dine 4 Fine Catering (www.2dine4.com) owner Stephen Shallcross has a secret weapon for the Supper Friends dinners he offers every month – the Swoop House, a vintage cottage for private entertaining on the same East Austin property as his catering facility. – V.B.W.
The Smoking Gun
Suggestive of conspiracy theorists, the Smoking Gun is actually an innovative kitchen tool that was an offshoot of the deconstructionist vanguard cuisine of chefs such as Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, or Wylie Dufresne. It is produced by PolyScience, a scientific equipment company that has branched out into gastronomy after realizing how great the demand can be for weird food science tools. The Smoking Gun allows you to cold smoke just about anything, including cocktails, without adding heat. You can buy hickory, applewood, cherrywood, or mesquite sawdust from them (or make your own wood flavorings much more cheaply) or use herbs or spices, teas or coffees, buds, flowers, or any combination thereof.
The device is roughly gun-shaped and sits on an acrylic stand, with a rubber hose that comes out of the base. Place aromatics in the heating chamber, screw it shut to seal, and four AA batteries power the fan that blows the cool smoke through the hose. Imagine cold smoking something in a Ziploc resealable bag or in a Rubbermaid tub; the possibilities for culinary creativity are endless. Order it through the PolyScience store at www.cuisinetechnology.com for about $80. – Mick Vann
Nazareth Olive Oil
Austinite Kraig Bonzek discovered this high quality olive oil while doing engineering work in Israel several years back. He was befriended by a man named Samer, who took him to visit his small village in the Nazareth Valley, in northern Israel outside of Galilee. A main focus of the village is to produce organic extra virgin olive oil from the Souri variety of olive tree, thought to be one of the earliest domesticated varieties. After a tour of the orchards and the processing facility, where massive granite wheels crush the fruit to extract the oil, Bonzek left with a liter of oil for his Austin kitchen.
Friends raved about the flavor, and when his supply quickly ran out and he wanted more, he found that there was no local outlet for Israeli oil. A call to Samer for replacements eventually led to Bonzek importing the oil to Austin and running Nazareth Olive Oil with his wife, Anuva.
Produced using the cold "Royal" process, low-acid Nazareth oil has a vibrant greenish-gold color, with a complex flavor reminiscent of honeyed fruit and mild pepper. It has just the right amount of tanginess to balance its smooth, rich taste. A perfect stocking stuffer, look for Nazareth Olive Oil ($15-18/half-liter) at Tom's Tabooley, Royal Blue Grocery, the MarketPlace & Deli at Lakeway, Whole Foods, and Live Oak Market, or order at www.nazaretholiveoil.com. – M.V.
Chuao Chocolatier's Firecracker
Chuao is a major cacao-growing area in Venezuela prized for the quality of its pods. It seemed only natural for chef Michael Antonorsi and his brother Richard to name their company after their homeland when they founded their innovative chocolate company in 2002. Michael became a certified chocolatier after two years of concentrated course study in Paris, and after establishing their creative chops in San Diego County, the pair has gone nationwide.
The product that has created the most buzz is called Firecracker: a 60% cacao bar flavored with chipotle chile, sea salt, and popping candy. The flavor is richly complex; spicy, smoky and sweet with a kiss of saltiness and the unexpected fizzy burst of the popping candy. It's exciting and delicious. The Modena (dark chocolate with strawberries and balsamic vinegar) and the Cabernet (dark chocolate with Cabernet wine reduction) are exquisite choices as well, but search the online store, and you'll see many flavors that sound tempting. Chuao makes more than a dozen flavors of 8.5-ounce bars ($6) or the smaller 11-gram ChocoPods ($6 for six), as well as a full line of bonbons, truffles, vegan chocolates, and the like. Everybody loves chocolate! In Austin, look for Chuao at Cost Plus World Market, H-E-B, Whole Foods, and Crate & Barrel, or order from www.chuaochocolatier.com or 888/635-1444. – M.V.
Kate's Stocking Stuffer Gadget Ideas
As I recently learned (when I was gifted with one!), no serious cook should try to live without a Microplane zester. Essentially a stainless steel version of a carpenter's rasp, it makes such quick (and bloodless) work of grating citrus zest, Parmesan cheese, and even hard spices like nutmeg, that you will positively look forward to fine-grating. Available at Ace Mart for $11.95.
The BonJour Mini Frother is another winner: you can make milk foam for homemade cappuccinos and hot chocolates every bit as creamy and tall as that made by your favorite barista. This device is a real technological breakthrough! A steal at Sur la Table for $10.
Another innovation is the Danesco garlic peeler. Just place a garlic clove inside this silicone tube, roll on the countertop two or three times, and your garlic is peeled of its papery skin without breaking the clove or getting your fingers sticky. $8.95 at Sur la Table.
The one gadget that gets more use than any other at my house is my pair of kitchen shears. I didn't know I needed them until I got them, but I've barely put them down since. Wüsthof kitchen shears are available at Sur la Table for $19.95; Ace Mart has Mundial Take-a-Part Kitchen Shears for $7.95. – Kate Thornberry
Pilot House Coffee Delivery
"If you really want good coffee," says Robby Jones of Pilot House Coffee Roasters, "it needs to be freshly roasted." And what better way to have a great cup of joe all the time than to have your own roaster deliver coffee beans straight to your door? Each afternoon Jones packs up his Yamaha scooter with individually wrapped packages of beans roasted that morning and delivers them to customers who have ordered online. Unfolding the brown paper packages that wrap the warm, aromatic beans is like having a coffee shop airlifted into your living room.
Jones is a coffee enthusiast who began roasting his own beans five years ago in an air popcorn popper before building his own roaster from blueprints he found online. Initially he gave away his fresh-roasted coffee to friends and family. They loved it so much they encouraged him to start selling it. Rather than go the conventional storefront route, he opened a virtual storefront online, traded his car for a scooter, and delivered the coffee to his customers. Today, roasting and delivering beans is a full-time operation for Jones, who has more than 150 regular customers.
Most of Jones' coffees come from Fair Trade and/or organic beans. Pilot House coffee makes an original holiday gift for connoisseurs who know that coffee loses most of its flavor after it has been sitting around for more than 10 days. A subscription for 2 pounds a month ($22.99/month) ensures that a pound is delivered every other week. And just in time for the holidays, Pilot House has rolled out a series of gift baskets ($19.99-$59.99), which typically include some combination of fresh roasted coffee, coffee accessories, chocolates, biscotti, and Pilot House coupons. Pilot House will deliver to most central Austin ZIP codes. Visit www.pilothousecoffee.com or call 803-0210. – Rachel Feit
'Wine Roads of Texas'
KLRU aces Tom Spencer and Dutch Rall created this gorgeous documentary about the wineries and grape farmers of Texas. Their intelligent interviews, Ray Benson's narration, and Dutch's gorgeous cinematography make it worthwhile viewing for anyone, and it's been shown on PBS stations all over the country. But for Texans – whether they're locals or homesick expats – it's a nice reminder of all the great wineries we have in the Lone Star State. (Full disclosure: The series is based on my book by the same title, and I also helped produce the series, but no one involved in the production of the series makes a penny from it.) All proceeds go to KLRU, and in these tough times, it can use the support. The DVD is available on Amazon, but the station gets the most money if you buy it from www.klru.org under "Shop KLRU." – Wes Marshall
CLAUDIA's HOLIDAY WISH LIST
A Double-Burner-Sized Griddle
No. 1 on my list of kitchen wants this year – preferably reversible. These very useful and versatile utensils are typically made of cast iron, cast aluminum, or carbon steel for even heating. They can be used on the stove top or even on a grill or campfire. Cast iron cookware lasts for years and is usually passed down through generations, improving its cooking capacity through seasoning. Fortunately, preseasoned cast iron or cast aluminum griddles are readily available for purchase, from simple ones (known in Mexico as comales) to fancy enameled ones such as those made by Rachael Ray's new brand ($110) in beautiful bright colors. The reversible feature is a plus, so you can use the smooth griddle side for cooking tortillas, pancakes, or grill-pressed sandwiches, while the ridged grill side is ideal for cooking stove-top hamburgers, steaks, and sausages. Some are slightly sloped so the grease gets directed away from the meat. This also makes them easier to clean. The Lodge Logic Pro (about $70) or the ones from Le Creuset ($160 or so) are lovely, but less expensive options are also available around town. Check out Callahan's General Store, Cabela's, Mission Restaurant Supply, REI, Breed & Co., and the Le Creuset outlet in San Marcos.
Baking Tiles and Pizza Stones
After receiving a bread baking cookbook this fall, I have decided to give artisan bread baking a try. For that purpose, having a set of unglazed baking tiles or a pizza stone would be ideal. Adding them to a standard home oven duplicates the effect of a European-style brick oven since they store up and redistribute heat evenly, which is the key to a good crust. And as we all know, a good crust is the key to everything. These things can be used to bake bread, rolls, crackers, and the best crispy crust pizza. Their heat-retaining properties also make them useful for keeping foods warm without cooking them further. While doing some research, I found that Old Stone Oven baking tiles and stones are considered to be some of the best. The brand's set of six 6-inch-by-6-inch tiles ($36.99 at Amazon) is a good idea since they can be used individually (as in a toaster oven) or together to form a larger surface, but the 14-inch-by-16-inch rectangular stone ($37.99) will do just fine. A wooden pizza paddle to remove the finished product from the oven would make a perfect complement. Most kitchen specialty stores carry pizza stones, so try Faraday's Kitchen Store, Breed & Co., Williams-Sonoma, or Sur la Table. – Claudia Alarcón