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Great gifts for people who like to cook (and eat) October 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Jen of Nyack Backyard (http://www.nyackbackyard.blogspot.com/) started me thinking recently about how I got hold of the high-quality olive oil I used in a delicious salad dressing I was introduced to at the supper club last Friday. (See my earlier post “Fabulous easy salad dressing” and you can try it, too!) Jen and I were chatting about how expensive any olive oil is these days, much less good olive oil, and how tempting it was to just use the store brand to save precious grocery money. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use the store brand, and I didn’t have to pay good money for a luxury I could ill afford. That’s because I’d gotten my extra-special extra-virgin organic olive oil as a present last Christmas.

Our friend Ben and I have found that people, including our nearest and dearest, are often at a dead loss as to what to get us for pretty much any occasion. They know we have bazillion books, CDs, plants, and so on, so even though they know we love them, they’re afraid to get us any in case we already have them. We’d love it if someone volunteered to buy us a flat-screen TV to replace our ancient computer-screen-size model or pay to have our little cottage, Hawk’s Haven, repainted, but for some reason this hasn’t happened. So we were getting some rather strange gifts until I had, in the immortal words of a friend’s mother, a rush of brains to the head.

It all started when my father confessed that he and his girlfriend had no clue as to what to get us last Christmas. Trying to avert the arrival of yet another piece of exquisite antique jewelry that I have absolutely no place to wear, or another bizarre-looking “designer” sweater for our friend Ben, it suddenly occurred to me that what we really needed were really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar—things we felt guilty about buying but used and loved—and a really good paring knife. OFB, desperate to avoid the arrival of more designer clothing, hastily agreed. For once, we were actually thrilled to open our gift package at Christmas.

Our good friend Rudy had long since come to the same conclusion. A frequent visitor, he knows that Hawk’s Haven has about all the “stuff” it can hold, and he feels the same way about his place. So a few years back, he started giving us local apples, fruit butters, and jellies, a bottle of wine, and some locally made chocolates for Christmas. We were delighted. My brother and his family have sent us cheese from the Trappist monks at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky (www.monks.org) for Christmas for years, and we do the same for them (with, of course, more appropriate gifts for the kids). 

We think food makes a great gift, especially when you take something a person loves and kick it up a notch (to borrow a phrase from Emeril) to something they’d consider a splurge. We buy and love dried apricots here, but would not dream of getting the super-pricey glaceed Australian apricots, even though I adore the plain glaceed apricots and the dark-chocolate-dipped version is Ben’s idea of heaven. I think this year I’ll ask my father and his girlfriend to get us some for Christmas along with more olive oil. Yum!!!

Fancy mustards, hot sauces, spices, and olives are all high on our list of “please give” treats, as are exotic seasonings, salts and peppers, pesto, and tapenade. If you, like us, love hot sweet pickles and haven’t had a chance or the inclination to can your own, a few jars of Wickles hot sweet pickles from Kettle Kitchen would be a great gift to put on your hint list. Know some folks who are nuts about nuts? They’d probably love some roasted or honey-glazed cashews, plump pecans, pistachios, almonds, or hazelnuts (or all of the above). Good nuts are another of those pricey luxuries all of us love and most of us find it hard to justify. (But please, if you do give nuts, make sure you’re giving the best. And no peanuts! Folks who love peanuts can afford to buy these “nuts” themselves, so they’re not as special.)

There are a few foods that can be tricky, though, so proceed with caution in these cases. If you know true coffee and tea lovers, they’re probably ultra-picky about exactly what kinds of coffee and tea they enjoy. Rather than just grabbing an expensive box or bag and assuming it would make a welcome gift, you might want to talk with them about their favorites first. If they love a good black tea, a box of Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Red, or Ty-Phoo tea should send them into ecstacies. But if they’re diehard Earl Grey fans, even the best black tea will miss the mark. Similarly, if they love cinnamon or hazelnut coffee, try to find a high-end version, but don’t gift them with a bag of Starbucks French roast and assume they’ll be delighted.

Cheese is another one: Some people love an ultra-sharp, flaky-dry Cheddar, but can’t stand an equally pungent ripe Camembert or Brie. Some people prefer orange Cheddar, while others insist on “white.” I love the nutty taste of Jarlsberg cheese, but know people who loathe it (gasp). Good cheese is another pricey luxury item that cheese lovers would be delighted to find under their tree, or as a birthday or guest gift. But best to ask first as to what kinds of cheese they prefer. There is, with cheese particularly, we’ve found, truly no accounting for taste.   

Food is always a hit with pretty much everybody, but it isn’t the only thing that makes a great gift for people who like to cook as well as eat. You all may recall that our friend Ben surprised me with a beautiful handmade ceramic garlic keeper as a souvenir of our recent trip to Pipestem Park Resort in West Virginia, a wonderful reminder of good times from the nearby Tamarack Craft Center. Just yesterday, I found a marvelous terracotta mushroom keeper, made in Italy, at a consignment shop for $2. (I’m keeping this one for myself, but what a great gift! Like garlic, mushrooms are very unhappy in the fridge.) I saw that they also had a lovely little dip bowl and matching spreader, and had to resist buying that as well. (Great gift idea! Who’s going to buy a dip spreader for themselves? But they’re actually useful. No huge knives crashing out of the dip bowl.) And there was a terracotta holder for a wine bottle that would have kept it at the correct temperature at the table (and prevented rings on the wood or tablecloth).

When our friend Ben and I were vacationing at Pipestem, we saw other things at the local crafts shops that got me thinking: A wooden stand to keep cookbooks open and upright so you could read a recipe easily while cooking. (I know these are available in clear plastic as well, so the plastic shields the cookbook from splatters while also holding it upright.) A handmade wooden box for recipe cards (you should see the size of mine—it’s actually a roll-top!). If you know your friends love wine, besides gifting them with their favorites, you can always give them attractive wine corks (often with themed ceramic tops) or functional bottle openers (at a kitchen store recently, I saw a French bottle opener that looked like a squid). Oh, and speaking of alcoholic beverages, how about a special local seasonal beer or ale for an aficionado, or a favorite liqueur (another expensive treat) or pricey vodka, gin, bourbon, or rum that they probably wouldn’t allow themselves to buy?

There’s also the little matter of cookbooks (Ben, close your eyes). [OFB runs screaming from the room, trailed by cries of “Silence, no!!! No more cookbooks! No more cookbooks!!!” growing fainter as he fades into the distance.] People who love to cook tend to love cookbooks. Next time you’re at their place, cast a covert eye at their cookbook collection and see what types they seem to like best and note what they already have. Then, next time you’re at the bookstore (or used-book store), look over the selection and see what would make a nice fit with the books they already have. I’ve found some incredible cookbooks on the sale racks at the front of bookstores, so don’t overlook the discount books. And of course, the selection at used-book stores is often just amazing.

If you want to gift a cookbook lover with something they’re sure to cherish, write some of your own favorite family recipes on recipe cards and present them at Christmas or another occasion. What a thoughtful gift! And while we’re on that subject, if you have any to spare, gifts of your own home-canned veggies, fruits, or specialties would definitely be cherished, as would baked goods. Give cookies, bars, candies, or cake in a festive tin and folks will remember you and your thoughtfulness every time they see it! 

Other cooking-related gifts spring to mind. Wooden or (our favorite) bamboo cooking spoons. A classic ceramic bowl or a set of stainless steel bowls. A colander or salad spinner. We found (and bought) an ingenious handmade wooden knobbed device at a crafts center in Asheville with three spikes at the bottom, to be used to immobilize a piece of cheese while you cut it. Great idea! Speaking of which, one of my favorite presents of all time was a handmade maple cutting board, a gift from our dear friend Cole. I use it every single day. A salad fork and spoon, pasta tongs, a nonstick silica mat for a cookie sheet, an attractive apron and/or mitts and/or potholders and/or kitchen towels and/or trivets… the list is endless.

What about folks like us who love to garden as well as cook? Food-bearing plants are always a great choice. Herbs like rosemary, chives, bay, or scented geraniums; spices like cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, and ginger; citrus like lemons and limes (no inedible citrus like kumquats, please); figs and olive trees; variegated hot pepper plants; coffee and tea plants; even (if they live in a mild climate or have a greenhouse) bananas and pineapple can make fabulous (and fabulously appreciated) gifts. I know of several companies that offer these plants, either individually or as gift assortments, including Logee’s, Stokes Tropicals, White Flower Farm, and Smith & Hawken. I’m sure there are plenty more! Hmmm. Now that I think about it, maybe we’ll ask for a few more of these to fill out our assortment… 

So keep your eyes open, see what your food-loving friends and family need, see what they like. Then go for it! What do you think would make great food- or kitchen-related gifts? Please tell us. Christmas is right around the corner!

      ‘Til next time,