My list of 10 Best Gifts for Cooks and Food Lovers helps last minute shoppers buy great presents for the food obsessed; most of the items on the list I’ve used and loved for years. Most importantly, if you act quickly, there’s still time to order most of my recommended gifts and have them arrive before Christmas.
Number 1: Microplane Classic Grater
If the cook in your life doesn’t have a Microplane classic grater, buy this immediately. I’ve never met a bad Microplane tool, but its classic grater is essential for every kitchen; nothing foils its ultra-sharp cutting edges. I’m so spoiled by the Microplane classic grater that cooking without one is an exercise in frustration. It’s perfect for grating cheese, zesting lemons, and pureeing garlic or ginger. Interesting factoid: The Microplane kitchen line came into being when a Canadian woman used one of her husband’s woodworking rasps and discovered it made better citrus zest than any tool in her kitchen.
Number 2: Subscription to Eat Your Books Cookbook Index
An Eat Your Books subscription is my favorite gift for people with cookbook collections; it’s a tool that makes it possible to fully use all one’s cookbooks, not just a favorite handful. Browsing books is my idea of good entertainment, but only when I actually have time. Too often, I don’t have a minute to spare for checking the index of multiple books to find the exact recipe I’m seeking. Without time to hunt through cookbook indices, it’s way too easy to stick with familiar dishes instead of branching out to more interesting foods. Eat Your Books has also indexed many online recipes, making them much easier to find than with regular search engines. It’s well worth the annual $25 annual subscription fee.
With Eat Your Books, I find recipes in seconds, at home on my computer or at the grocery story with my smart phone. Double-checking an Eat Your Books ingredient list while I’m shopping has saved me more than one unnecessary trip to the store. Eat Your Books also helps make use of the ingredients in my refrigerator. For example, tonight I have shrimp, red peppers, and cabbage on hand. I entered these ingredients in the Eat Your Books search engine and found 19 recipes; I’m now trying to decide between Southeast Asian Shrimp and Pork Salad, Grilled Shrimp Po’Boy with Asian Slaw, and Shrimp Tacos. Thank you Eat Your Books! Please keep in mind, Eat Your Books is NOT a recipe site, it’s a master index of the 5334 most popular English-language cookbooks, with new books being indexed nearly every day.
Number 3: Spice Blends from Seattle’s World Spice Merchants
Perfect spicing is key to creating delicious food. World Spice Merchants in Seattle, my favorite spice store, makes it easy for cooks with traditional spice blends from all around the world. With 99 different blends and counting, including ones from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, the US, Mexico, and India, World Spice has it all. Most of the spice blends can be purchased either whole or ground, and are fresh and vibrant as a result of rapid turnover. World Spice also sells hard-to-find individual spices, gift sets, gift certificates, and an inspirational cookbook. Best of all, especially for Alaskans who too frequently have to deal with companies that gouge us on shipping, their shipping rates are very reasonable.
Number 4: Best Cookbooks of 2014
This year two of my three favorite cookbooks turned out to be vegetarian, but with food so full of flavor it satisfies omnivores: Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking by Yotam Ottolenghi and Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts by Aglaia Kremezi. The third book is A Mouthful of Stars: A Constellation of Favorite Recipes by Kim Sunee. I’ve cooked multiple dishes from all three books, and haven’t yet been disappointed. In addition to their tasty recipes, producing vibrant, full-of-flavor food, these books are beautifully designed with wonderful pictures. What I look for in cookbooks are recipes that work, flavors that sing, and a balance between quick and easy recipes for weeknights and more complex recipes for slower days. Plenty More, Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts, and A Mouthful of Stars deliver on all three counts.
Number 5: French Cheeses from Fromages.com
Fromages.com is a French cheese company that ships its carefully selected cheeses all over the world. I’ve ordered from Fromages.com for years, including orders sent to Greece and to many parts of the United States. I’ve never been disappointed in the quality of their cheeses, which have always arrived in peak condition. The cheese selections change with the seasons. This time of year, my favorite Fromages.com cheese is Vacherin Mont d’Or, a creamy rich cheese whose indescribable flavor is enhanced by the spruce bark hoops in which it is packed. Fromages.com sells individual cheeses and pre-selected cheese boards. Especially considering the speedy delivery, shipping charges are quite reasonable.
Cooking food – especially meats and other proteins – to the correct temperature is one of the keys to making it taste good. The Thermapen Instant Read Digital Thermometer is the very best thermometer on the market today. Many other thermometers have passed through my kitchen, but all went in the giveaway box the day my sister gave me a Thermapen. It’s fast, accurate, easy to clean, and has a narrow probe that doesn’t punch big holes in food. I hate cooking without it and would replace it immediately if, heaven forbid, I ever lost my Thermapen.
Number 7: Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans
Rancho Gordo’s heirloom dried beans are hands-down the best beans I’ve ever used. The company contracts with small family farmers in Mexico to grow most of the heirloom varieties on offer. When I started cooking with Rancho Gordo beans, I was surprised by how different each of the varieties taste. Though dried, all beans are fresh from the last harvest; this adds flavor and makes them cook more quickly than supermarket beans. So far I’ve tried 17 varieties of Rancho Gordo Beans – all were great – and look forward to trying the rest (and any new varieties that Rancho Gordo discovers). My current favorites are: Ayacote Morado (creamy purple runner beans), beautiful Christmas Lima Beans (nothing like the hated Lima beans of memory), and Moro (incredible broth). If you’re uncertain of which beans to order, Rancho Gordo has put together terrific gift samplers. For true bean freaks, and I consider myself one, there is an incredible box of 20 Big Ones (twenty bags of heirloom beans) that would make a dramatically wonderful gift. Shipping by USPS (including to Alaska) is $15 for 20 pounds.
Number 8: Classic Greek Cookbooks
I teach and write about Greek cooking, and own hundreds of Greek cookbooks. Unsurprisingly, I’m often asked to recommend the best cookbook for learning how to cook traditional Greek food. The answer is tricky because each region in Greece has its own traditional style of cooking. My favorite overall book is Flavors of Greece by Rosemary Barron because it accurately captures the tastes of the Greek food with which I’m most familiar. For the flavorful Italian-influenced foods of the Ionian Islands (including Corfu, Cephalonia, and Zakynthos), the best book is Prospero’s Kitchen: Island Cooking of Greece by Diana Farr Louis and June Marinos. The seasonal cooking of Crete, made famous by the “Cretan Diet” that gives those who eat it long healthy lives, is best represented in Diana Farr Louis’ Feasting and Fasting in Crete. I’ve owned all three of these books for years and everything I’ve cooked from them has been delicious. I recommend all three without hesitation. (And in a shameless plug, my mostly Greek cookbook, Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska ain’t half bad. Or so I’ve heard.)
Number 9: Bill Buchner’s “Little Veggie” Handmade Knife
With hardwood handles and blades forged from recycled Oregon sawmill band saw blades, Bill Buchner’s hand-forged knives are beautiful to behold and a joy to use. My first Buchner knife was a gift, a “Little Veggie,” and is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Initially, I loved the knife’s unique beauty, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate its sharpness and ability to hold an edge. Properly maintained – I regularly use a steel to keep the edge straight – it stays sharp and is the knife I turn to for cutting vegetables. Its narrow point helps cut through tough onion skins and the blade’s angle helps make precise cuts and narrow slices. I own and enjoy two other Buchner knives, but the versatile “Little Veggie” is the knife I’d keep if I could only have one.
Number 10: Pistachio Torrone from La Buona Tavola in Seattle
Every gift list should include something sweet, and my favorite for the holidays is La Buona Tavola’s Pistachio Torrone Wedge. It’s packed with nuts and is gorgeously green and enjoyably chewy. La Buona Tavola will ship to Alaska in flat-rate USPS boxes, no matter what its website says. And, since you’re already paying for shipping (free for orders over $99), you might want to order some of La Buona Tavola’s other great items. I’m addicted to their White Truffle Cream and Black Truffle Honey, and very much enjoy the Lorenzo olive oils.