I recently exchanged a series of messages with fellow TMC Barrett in Chicago about Christmas presents for spouses and other holiday matters. Barrett told me that his in-laws complain that he is difficult to find presents for. Now this I find inconceivable. Firstly, anyone who has an established hobby - cooking, biking, constructing models, whatever - is obviously a sucker for every little gadget that comes along. Our good friend Barrett is something of a geek (as even he will allow, I hope) which means that the gadget advantage is even more pronounced. You are worried that he already has the gadget you found for him? Well, there are so many out there that the odds are he doesn't. As all our readers must know, the marketing departments of all foodie-gadget makers are constantly coming up with the newest fads for us, ever changing.
So, to help Barrett's in-laws, as well as any other friends or family of foodies out there who are at a loss at Christmas time, I have scoured my kitchen looking for the most useful little gadgets I have found over the years. These are the ones that actually get used; more later on the failed experiments.
At the top of the post is my favourite garlic press. Okay, it's true that most of the foodies on your list will already have one. However, the odds are good they won't be happy with it. I went through three garlic presses before I spotted this one at my brother's house one Thanksgiving and made a not-so-subtle bid to get one for Christmas. Bless him, he came through and I love it. It's made by Henckels (the knife-makers) is solid, has no paint that will flake off and cleans easily because it has two removable inserts (giving different grades of pressed garlic - fine and coarse). Best of all, the press mechanism goes all the way down to the base of the press, meaning every tiny last bit of garlic is extracted. The garlic press I threw away on receiving this one stopped a few millimeters from the bottom, leaving a big chunk of unused garlic to my great annoyance. The one before it had paint that flaked and the one before that broke in my hands one day. A good garlic press is worth more than its weight in gold.
This is a present I bought myself recently, and it was a real indulgence but so far I love it. It's a mini-grater and slicer, suitable for garlic or nutmeg or little pieces of cheese or whatever you like. You determine whether you are grating or slicing and which setting by placing the feeder on the appropriate side and sliding it over the part of the tool you want to use. (Grating and slicing are on either side, and then there are variations in width/holes.) It's easy to use, easy to clean and fun! If I want thin slices of garlic, I just roughly chop the cloves, toss the pieces in the feeder and run it over the slice area. I normally use the nutmeg grater that comes with my nutmeg (a flimsy tin scraper) but when you need a LOT of nutmeg, you can prop this baby over a small bowl and grate much more efficiently. It goes in the dishwasher and even if it didn't would be extremely easy to clean. Perfect for a stocking!
Whenever I browse a cooking magazine or a specialty cooking shop I check out the lemon reamers and I sniff in a superior way. I have to say that nothing on earth beats a simple old-fashioned wooden reamer. You can have your fancy onces that are placed over a bowl and filter out the seeds. You can show off with a beautiful white porcelain hand-held one (and they are beautiful to behold!). But for my money, nothing beats the old wooden one. Okay, you have to fish out the occasional seed it's true. But this is much easier to clean and to store than the plastic straining ones. You can hold it over any kind of receptacle, not just a bowl of a set size. The ceramic white ones are lovely to look at but porcelain doesn't have the edge that your wooden one does and don't efficiently ream. The wooden one is cheap, it's efficient and it's easy to store - what more do you want?
Spatulas. You may think I'm crazy here, but bear with me: these are special. I used to buy cheap white spatulas at the supermarket. And then, being somewhat slow-witted, I would ruin them one by one, using them on hot frying pans or sauce pans getting the last bit of soup or sauce. The cheap ones melt. Fact. These spatulas are made by Le Creuset and are guaranteed not to melt at in insanely high temperature. (No, I don't remember exactly how hot, but they have not failed me yet.) The proof of their worth is the fact that I bought one out of frustration one day (having melted my last cheap one the day before) and found after a couple months that I loved it so much I needed another. That way, if one is in the dishwasher you still have a clean one. So your foodie already has a good spatula...you can never have too many. When you make a wonderful sauce, you really, really want to get every last drop out of the pan. Trust me.
So those are the specifics I found for Christmas shoppers out there. Other tips I would give include: wooden spoons (you can never have too many in these days of non-stick pans), unusual sauces and spices, interesting pepper mills, pretty terrines and custard cups (a lot of cooks see these things as too "frivolous" for self-gifts, thus perfect for Christmas gifts).
Then there is my favourite: chopping boards made of exotic woods. We started a collection of beautiful chopping boards when on our honeymoon in Australia, and I've been adding to them ever since. They are so pretty that I don't use them for chopping, but serve cheese on them. Each one holds 2-3 cheeses and so the platters can circulate your table and no one can hog the whole cheese platter.