Holiday Gift Guide: Things I’m Liking
I started this list, initially called Things I’m Liking, which I’d intended to post…oh, six months ago. Then I didn’t make it back to finish it, and it ended up being one of those files on my desktop that I’d check into once in a while, but never get around to finishing – until now. Using my expertise as a multi-tasker, I decided roll it over into this year’s holiday gift guide. Included are kitchen gadgets I’ve found myself reaching for more than the others, drinking accoutrements, my new favorite way to dial it all out, and a few cookbooks that arrived this fall that particularly interested me.
Bauer Pottery Bowls
I’ve always been a fan of California pottery and collected quite a bit of it when I lived there. So I was intrigued enough when I saw recently some reproductions of Bauer bowls and shared them on my Facebook page. From the brouhaha, I didn’t realize that so many people didn’t buy things made in China, including those who use computers and smartphones. (I also didn’t realize that so many computers and smartphones were made in countries other than China.) However I, too, prefer the Made in America originals and I hadn’t realized that Bauer was back again producing pottery, in California.
I love the beautiful colors and the functional shapes and sizes of Bauer Pottery, which is just as beautiful as the vintage stuff. I am saving my dollars (and luggage allowance) for a set of their Made in America mixing bowls, but am happy with the four bowls that I have for the time being. Every time I look at them, I smile. Note that if you live in Southern California, they have occasional factory sales and often do seconds sales on their website, too.
Quirky Cord Catcher
Probably my favorite little purchase this year was this Quirky Cordies desktop cord catcher. I use a laptop and as anyone who uses a laptop knows, as soon as that cord gets unplugged, it goes flying off the desk with the strength of a whip-wielding dominatrix. And I have the bruises (on my fingers) to prove it. Or else it flees to behind the desk to the most inaccessible place you can imagine and you have to pull out the desk to fish it back out. True, there are worse problems once could have, but what else can you solve one so effectively for less than $5? (I got mine at The Container Store where I see they are on sale for $2.99, price subject to change.)
Tovolo Ice Cream Tub
People frequently ask me what kind of container I store ice cream in. When I wrote The Perfect Scoop, I was churning out so much ice cream that went to a restaurant supply store in Paris and bought a big crate of plastic containers, which I still use to this day. However as technology changes, newer materials have seen the light of day (and the light of my freezer), and I’ve taken to using the Tovolo ice cream tub. I scored mine at TJ Maxx and it’s a nice size and shape, although they also make a long, narrow one if you’re the kind of person that likes to take a lengthy, leisurely scoop. Haven’t tried that one, but I’m happy with my canister.
The Gourmet Cookbook
A very seasoned cookbook editor, who has seen and edited hundreds of cookbooks, told me she swore by The Gourmet Cookbook. The magazine had an excellent test kitchen and many of the recipes have become classics that people turn to over and over again. For those who miss the much-missed culinary magazine, The Gourmet Cookbook includes many of the great recipes in one generous volume, edited by Ruth Reichl. The book is out of print but can be found at used book sellers and online. Mine has a few drips and stains on it, likely from someone else before me getting some good use out of the cookbook, before (inadvertently) passing it on to me.
Mini Food Processor
One of my least-favorite kitchen activities is getting out, and subsequently, cleaning my big-bowl food processor. All those nooks and crevasses where oil, herbs, and nut dust can gather will vex even the most diligent dishwasher. (ie: me) Putting the whole thing in the dishwasher, with five or six parts, takes up half of my machine. Then you have to deal with all the water stuck in the parts that needs to be dried. Stop the insanity! Enter a little mini chopper, I’ve been using this diminutive sibling from KitchenAid (who gave me this machine to try out). I didn’t think I would use it so much, but I can make a batch of tart dough in it, I use it for hummus, and if I need to chop 1 cup of pecans, well, a machine of this size will do it without as much fuss as its bigger brethren.
The Carry On Cocktail Kit
Who cares if people are looking at you? Yes, you’re the crazy (or pretentious) guy in 17C, when the cocktail cart comes down the aisle and order a mini bottle of liquor to stir up your own “craft” cocktail…in the air. These TSA-approved airline cocktail kits may make your flight go just a little smoother, too. The gin and tonic Carry On Cocktail Kit includes a tiny jigger, a bar spoon, a TSA approved-size bottle of tonic syrup, and a swell linen coaster. The Moscow Mule kit swaps out the tonic for ginger syrup. Each kit makes two cocktails, or enough for a round-trip flight. A santé! (Dans l’aire!)
Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds
One of my least-favorite things to do is sit on a plane for hours and hours. (Even if I have a cocktail kit with me.) Almost as soon as the plane takes off, I count the minutes until we land. So I do whatever I can to make the time on the flight pass as comfortably as possible. For years, I’ve been using noise-cancelling headsets. Planes make a lot of noise which you don’t really hear until you put noise cancelling headsets on. Being a cheapskate, I never wanted to shell out for the Bose ones, so went with a bulky Sony pair, which cost a fraction what the Bose ones cost. But these Bose noise cancelling earbuds are a game-changer. You plug them in and life around you drifts away. Far, far away.
For one thing, airlines are constantly downsizing what you can take on the plane and my regular headphones took up about one-third of my carry-on. These little fellas slip into my jacket pocket with barely a bulge. But even more important, when I tried them on in the store, I could not get the wallet out of my pocket fast enough. The world changed and I never heard sound so clearly before. Even if you’re not a frequent flyer, these are unparalleled for reading and concentrating, as distracting noises fade away the second you switch them on. Yes, these are pricey, and I scoured the internet looking for a deal on cyber-Monday. (Bose doesn’t do sales.)
However…I was at one of their factory outlet stores in the U.S., and although they weren’t discounting them either, they were selling factory reconditioned ones for $179. Yes, that seems like a lot. But if you do the math, taking 3 to 4 round trip overseas flights a years, dividing the hours spent in the air – well, you can do the math. (While you’ve got your calculator out, factor in that it’s only a matter of time before they start charging you for having spare space in your carry-on, too.) All I know is that I’m 100% hooked on these earbuds.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
My first response when I got a copy of The Food Lab, was – well, I won’t say the words because I don’t want my mouth washed out with soap, but it was an explicative (ok, it was Holy S&%t) because I was blown away by the heft and the incredible amount of fascinating information in this book. J. Kenji López-Alt has been at the helm of The Food Lab, as part of the Serious Eats website. He is one of the people who is currently “winning” at the internet, by providing reliable information and recipes with explanations about how and why things work the way they do, as well as offering an occasional smack-down, too. In short: He’s my kinda guy.
He won our hearts by busting a bunch of myths about cast iron cookware (yup, it’s okay to wash that pan with soap), and won my heart by saying that it’s okay to stop treating cassoulet as a museum piece with a list of ingredients that you will be damned if you vary. (Spoiler from me: It’s peasant food, a dish to extend bits of leftover or preserved meat and poultry, with beans, which aren’t originally French, but came from the New World. So it evolved, and will continue to evolve.) In The Food Lab, Kenji lets us all know in a six page treatise (with pictures) that brining a turkey in liquid isn’t actually the way to make it more flavorful. Just so you know, for next year.
A seasoned pro at defending his theories and positions online (#blogger), Kenji lays it all out in this comprehensive 958 page book with over 1,000 color photos. The book is so massive and packed with information that he didn’t include baking, which Kenji says isn’t his forté. (Recommended for that is Bakewise by Shirley Corriher.) But for hours of good reading and hundreds of well-tested recipes, many which turn misconceptions about cooking around – like why it’s okay to press down and smash a burger on the grill, for example – The Food Lab will answer all those questions. And give you lots more to think about…and cook.
Bialetti Moka Pot
I have a confession to make: It drives me a little batty when people put a coffee pot on a scale to make coffee and tinker over water temperature. I know, I know. Precision yields a consistent cup. I must be a rube because sometimes I want to say: Can someone just bring me a cup of coffee? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t get all the hoopla. Sure, I’m thrilled that people are upping their cup of coffee game. But it should be made with an unclenched sphincter.
A number of people are loyal to their Aeropress coffee makers for travel – which someday, I will give a go – but I like the all-metal, timeless look and feel of the Bialetti. I’ve tried cheaper moka pots, but unlike imposters, the originals (and I use plural, as I think I own one in almost every size) don’t leak or drip. Plus I like the gurgling noise when the coffee is done that tells you when it’s ready. It means my day is going to start off on the right note.
Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food
When I wrote My Paris Kitchen, I was a little concerned that I had too many personal stories in the book. Of course, there were plenty of recipes, but I also included tales about Paris, why and how I cook and shop, and a few curious stories told from the perspective of my kitchen in Paris. Joanne Weir tells the story of her life as a cook, through her travels and other culinary adventures, in Kitchen Gypsy. And I got hooked it as soon as I started in on her story.
I worked with Joanne at Chez Panisse, an era she writes about (and there’s a story about me, with an old picture), as well as her travels to France, Italy, and Morocco. Joanne is the author of one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, From Tapas to Meze, and Kitchen Gypsy is another tour du monde of international recipes, sprinkled with stories about how she learned to cook, what it took for her to get her job at Chez Panisse, and her time getting schooled by the great – and controversial – Madeleine Kamman. (The New York Times once called her “ungenerous.”) I’m hoping to share a recipe and more from this book on my blog shortly. But until then, if you want to dive into Joanne’s book, it’s one that I currently in the middle of reading. If I can ever take it off my nightstand, I’ll bring it into my kitchen.
I’m late to the game, but discovered these great British enamelware dishes and pans when I was in Ireland last year. I am drawn to anything sturdy and classic, which is why I was drawn to Falcon Enamelware. Even the kitchen cooks I met in Ireland were using these for holding food, which mean they stand up to rigorous conditions.
I bought a stack of them in various sizes – most were pretty cheap – and I love them. (Prices are slightly higher elsewhere due to shipping and duties.) They’re lightweight so you don’t have to heft them around the kitchen and they’re ridiculously easy to put away because of their weight. Another bonus: They can go from kitchen to table easily. You can get them direct from their website, where they list stockists around the world. (In Paris, they sell some sets at Merci. La Trésorie sells Meunder-Email, similar ones, made in Germany.)
Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking
Someone said to me that eating at Zahav would “change my life.” After my meal there, I found that to be true and couldn’t wait to get Michael Solomonov’s book, Zahav, which he wrote with his business partner, Steven Cook. The publisher took a quote from my post about the restaurant, which was shortened to a length that didn’t quite convey my enthusiasm for the actual book, which is now filled with bookmarks for recipes that I’m planning on giving a go.
The recipe and technique for Solomonov’s justly famous hummus is in here – which is the dish that changed my life (the Turkish-style with melted butter is my favorite), as well as do-able recipes for things as elusive as halvah and konafi, along with many of the vibrant salads and other dishes that are found in Israel and the Middle East. The flavors from Zahav literally explode from the pages of this cookbook, which also tells the story of Michael Solomonov’s challenging life, and how addiction and loss fueled him on to be the gifted cook and chef that he has become.
Red Boat Fish Sauce
If you think you know fish sauce, think again. And if you don’t know fish sauce, Red Boat fish sauce is the one to try. This first-press fish sauce is made from wild anchovies that have been aged for over a year. It’s one of those things that once you taste it, you won’t buy the other stuff – that’s usually made from fish other than anchovies – again. Rather than smelling fishy, it’s deeply fermented scent bring out something primal in me, and I’m not even Vietnamese. I just love this stuff. It’s available in a few countries around the world, on Amazon, and on their website.
This is Camino
I was once taken to task for recommending a cookbook that I hadn’t tried any of the recipes from. To me, a good book about cooking doesn’t just hand you a bunch of recipe and formulas and let you have a go at ’em. It teaches you something. It might be about a new approach to cooking or baking, how to shop for ingredients (and why that’s important), or teach you something, like the The Zuni Café Cookbook does, by just turning and reading the pages. I’m a better cook after reading that book, as well as This is Camino, by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain.
Just reading a paragraph in This is Camino will teach you something. Not just things like “remove the butter from the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking so it’s room temperature,” (which I hope most of you already know!), but Russell talks about how to use everything in your kitchen and waste nothing, to why local foods taste better, which most of us also know, but he is so serious about that, and using things up, that even the drinks on the cocktail menu use leftovers from their pastry kitchen.
When I saw a galley of the book before it was published, I was astonished and called it my favorite cookbook of the year. It’s not because I know Russell Moore, the chef/owner, from working with him for many years at Chez Panisse, where he worked before he opened Camino. But because I sat down and read nearly every word in the book: Once I started scanning the pages, I was completely captivated and kept reading. This is a radical book, less about how to make a batch of cookies or a pot of soup, more about how to use odds and ends in your kitchen and from your garden. You’ll think about food differently after reading This is Camino, just like I was changed after reading The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook back in the 1990’s.
I know from many of your comments that people are frugal cooks, and don’t like to toss anything that can be used. Russell writes about how a certain frugality was critical to the philosophy and success of the restaurant. Six months after their opening, there was a financial collapse. Rather than laying off cooks, with their spare time, they preserved foods (and came up with the now-famous recipe for Herb Jam), as well as all sorts of other dishes made from things like ultra-ripe fruit, and their homemade vinegar, which is something that I’ve been saying to myself that I’m going to try someday. At some point, I’m going to do it but in addition to that Herb Jam, I’ve been eying the recipe for grilled fig leaf ice cream – which I’ve had and it’s excellent – as well as several of the intriguing cocktails that rounds out This is Camino.