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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.