The ultimate stocking-stuffer list for the kitchen
Introduction By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Dec. 6, 2002
Shopping for the cooks on your list can be a daunting task these days; there's just so much sensory input -- cookware stores, hardware emporiums, mail-order catalogs, numerous Web sites -- all jam-packed with gift items. What's a conscientious Santa to do? Smart Santas seek professional help, and that's what the Chronicle Food staff has for you. We asked Mick Vann, MM Pack, Rachel Feit, Barbara Chisholm, Wes Marshall, and Claudia Alarcón for some foolproof gadget suggestions in a range of prices, and you'll find their responses below. They've identified their favorite things, mentioned tools that all cooks will appreciate, and offered up their own wishes for a few big-ticket items. Check this list, and you can't go wrong.
Virginia B. WoodA few years back, the hottest new gift item was reusable silicone (Silpat) baking sheets that could go in the oven, and more recently, we've seen silicone spatulas in all sizes and colors. It was only a matter of time before silicone hot pads arrived. I came across these little jewels while teaching a pie class at Central Market recently and absolutely had to have one of my own. The squares of flexible silicone are great for getting things out of the oven or off the stove, won't absorb water, and can be washed in the dishwasher. They come in a variety of colors and only cost $6.99, cheap enough for every stocking or Secret Santa gift. Though I was introduced to them at Central Market, they'll probably be showing up everywhere before long. Speaking of baking, no serious baker should be without a ready supply of baker's parchment. Once they become accustomed to parchment's hundreds of handy uses, they'll wonder how they ever cooked without it. AceMart Restaurant Supply has boxes of 2,000-count half-sheet, pan-size (12 by 16 inches) parchment on sale this month for $33.99 a case. Give every cook you know a few hundred sheets tied in a festive ribbon, and they'll love it.
If you're looking for a more substantial gift for the baker on your list, this year's must-have accessory is the Hearth Kitchen Oven (www.hearthkitchen.com), a kit that turns your home oven into a brick oven perfect for artisan breads and successful roasting. Award-winning cookbook author/baking instructor Peter Reinhart raved about the Hearth Kit when he taught a bread class at Central Market last summer, and I've had one on my Christmas list ever since. Check the Web site for instructions about taking oven measurements, and then choose the appropriate model. They run about $199.
Claudia Alarcón The tool I reach for most often in my kitchen is probably the kitchen shears. They are a wonderful, all-purpose tool. I use them for just about anything, from opening those stubborn vacuum-packed foods to cleaning fish and cutting fresh flowers. They are excellent for the gardener who cooks: You can use them to snip fresh herb sprigs and chop them directly into your recipes, skipping the cutting board entirely and preserving the herbs' essential oils. A really good, expensive pair can cut a chicken in half in no time, but a decent pair in the $20 range will do just about the same, perhaps with a little more effort. Breed & Co. has a pair of Fiskars 7-inch kitchen shears for $12.79, Linens 'n' Things has Farberware 8-inch shears for $8.99 and Henckels Twin shears for $24.99. Make sure you choose a pair with a comfortable handle. The item I don't have but would love: a medium-sized cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, available at Callahan's General Store from $18.99.
However, the most esteemed tool in my kitchen is, without a doubt, my Cuisinart food processor. These kitchen workhorses are a blessing to all of us who enjoy cooking. The many available accessories allow you to do almost anything. I make salsas, pestos, whipped cream, homemade mayonnaise, salad dressings, and even pie dough. You can shred or grate cheeses, chop pecans, and thinly slice cabbage or potatoes quickly and efficiently. They're available in many sizes, colors, styles, and prices from $39.99 to $199.99. If you want to make that special foodie in your life very happy this Christmas, you can't go wrong with a Cuisinart. I am hoping Santa wants to bring me that cobalt blue KitchenAid mixer this year, to complete my kitchen bliss.
Mick VannAsian market knives: My faves are the Kiwi brand from My Thanh Market. There are several types, and I prefer the ones where the blade comes to a point at the front of the cutting edge, in 2- ($4.59) and 3-inch ($5.49) widths. They're thin, stainless, easily sharpened, and flexible enough to filet a fish. My standard gift for friends the last five years, and everyone loves them.
The Peter Petrie Egg Separator from Stupid.com ($11.99): This little jewel features a mug with a goofy face and actual nostrils where the egg white drips out after separating the egg -- looks exactly like snot, and kids go nuts for this when you're trying to introduce them to the art of baking (so do their parents, for that matter). A very practical tool guaranteed to gross out!
A serious-quality knife-sharpening steel (prices range from $25 to $50 for a good brand): The only way to keep your blades razor-sharp and at their safest. With a couple of strokes on the steel you can resurrect even the dullest knife.
Mandoline slicers: These beauties can slice veggies with controlled perfection and precision (and make those groovy waffle-cuts we love so much). Cheap plastic versions are in all of the Asian markets for around $20; Chef's Catalog has a nice composite one with stainless blades for $60, and the high-test, all-stainless French ones go for around $120.
Rachel FeitOne of the best-used toys in my kitchen is the 12-inch Microplane zester. It grates nutmeg to a wispy powder. It grates Parmesan cheese with a flick of the wrist. It zests lemons, limes, and oranges without so much as touching the bitter rind. It's light and easy to use. The blade always stays sharp but is safe for your fingers. Best of all, it goes right into the dishwasher for easy cleanup. At $9.99, this little gadget is an inexpensive way to cook like the pros.
If I were stranded on a desert island with only one cooking gadget, I would want it to be my cast-iron Dutch oven. When I got married, this was probably the least expensive item on my wedding registry. Six years later, it is certainly the most used. Though it might not look pretty or be the latest in cooking technology, it's hard to beat good old-fashioned cast iron for its versatility, simplicity, and efficiency. It cooks great sauces and stews with slow, even heat. It makes delectable pot roasts, roast chicken, and even cakes. In the summer, I use it in our outdoor gas grill to make pilafs, Middle Eastern stews, and Moroccan tajines. The more I use it, the better it gets. Prices range from about $25 to $40. Eighty-five dollars will buy a pre-seasoned Dutch oven. Dutch ovens can be found in almost any store that sells kitchen supplies, in addition to such outdoor supply stores as Academy and REI. Make sure to get a lid, either in Pyrex or cast iron.
Wes MarshallThis year, there is an immense assortment of fun little gifts for the adult beverage fan in your house. What better surprise to find in your stocking than a nice little bottle of champagne? The hottest new trend in sparkling wines is the "mini" bottle, roughly the equivalent of a glass, made by Piper. Drink it straight from the bottle with a straw. In the "why didn't I think of that" category, the Disc Pourer (two for $1) is a little shiny plastic circle that completely prevents drips. Roll it up, stick it in the bottle, and no more red-stained tablecloths. For a lot more money, you can buy the Skagen Decanting Pourer ($29.95), a device that not only prevents drips, but also dramatically improves the flavor of most young wines by injecting a little air as the wine passes through. Kind of like decanting your wine an hour early, only it works immediately. Also for the wine lover, nothing beats a good corkscrew, and the fastest and easiest under $50 is the Pocket Screwpull ($29.99).
The other hot trend is cocktails, and every home should have a good shaker. Prices can vary from cut-rate to classy, but you can find a good one for under $10. For the glassware-impaired, a set of highball glasses and martini glasses make a great gift. What drinks to make? Give the Mr. Boston Official Bartender's and Party Guide (Warner Books, $10.95), and learn how to make everything from "A Day at the Beach" to a "Zombie."
Barbara ChisholmFrankly, I eschew most gadgetry, or what tries to pass itself off as gadgetry these days. I see a bagel slicer, and I think, "Yeah, I've got one of those; it's called a bread knife." And so it goes for the vast majority of small appliances and such that clutters houseware departments and specialty shops. But, oh, where would I be without my garlic press?
I know, we all have a garlic press: It's called a chef's knife, and you smash the cloves on the side of the blade. And that technique works perfectly well, but alas, it leaves your cutting board imbued with the perfume of garlic. Mincing is fine too, but not only is your cutting board permeated, your hands betray your time in the kitchen. But a garlic press! In two seconds you have perfectly prepared garlic, somewhere between a mince and paste. All the juice lands in your dish, too (instead of being partially absorbed by your cutting surface), so your dish may require less cloves. And best of all, your cutting surface and hands and fingers stay their naturally sweet-smelling selves. Sure, the press stinks of the stuff, but since it's only used for that express purpose, it can't contaminate anything else. If you've ever tried slicing apples after garlic on a cutting board, you'll appreciate that. If you're looking to stuff a stocking, stick to the press alone. For a more elaborate gift, complete the theme with some posh pasta, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, some basil, some swanky canned tomatoes, and a head of garlic to break in the press. You'll be thanked with every noodle. Available at Chef's Toolbox, Williams-Sonoma, Central Market, and department stores. Prices range from $12-$20.
MM PackI tend to be a creature of habit in the kitchen, regarding my tried-and-true tools as old friends who automatically know what I want and do my bidding without making me think too much about accomplishing the task at hand. Zoomy new kitchen gadgets generally don't tempt me. Nonetheless, a couple of newish items have found permanent homes on my counter, and I'm definitely hooked. The first is a space-age silicone spatula, which does everything a rubber spatula does, except melt. These babies withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees; just think: no more raggedy tips. Various companies make them -- Le Creuset, KitchenAid, and Williams-Sonoma come to mind -- and they're readily available in kitchen supply stores, Web sites, and catalogs for around $10. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and wild colors. I like purple, but how about red and green ones for holiday gifts?
My other current favorite tool is a KitchenAid peeler that I received as a birthday present. I consider sharp peelers one of life's absolute necessities, and this one totally shuts down any other I've used. In addition to the stainless steel blade that peels and strips like a dream, it has an ergonomically designed enameled grip that's very easy on the hand. Stylishly retro, the peeler comes in red, black, and royal blue. You can purchase it alone for about $10, or -- get this -- it comes in a set with a matching zester, also for around $10. Great peeler, free zester -- such a deal.
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