By Don Chow
When Candace asked me to come up with a top 10 list of gifts for the foodie, another friend of mine coincidentally forwarded me a foodie-themed “holiday gift guide” from Lou Lou magazine.
While I found the all-metal cork screw pig, thermal all-metal coffee beans (presumably for blind baking pie shells with), and snow globe salt and pepper shakers quaint, I had to ask myself a question. What kind of guide would I write? Save for the likely decorative tagine dish and cappuccino machine, everything Naeme El-Zein of Lou Lou suggested would not fit in the kitchen I share with my wife.
You see, while I am a food enthusiast, I am one who is learning how to cook. I am learning how to eat. I am learning how to appreciate food. There is a difference between foodies who love food for its inherent entertainment value and foodies who actually want to learn about what they eat and drink.
There are grey areas, but my treasured kitchen gadgets are very practical. You will not find anything endorsed by a Food Network chef in my house. You will not find anything animal-shaped in my kitchen. I appreciate tools that are durable and multipurpose.
If you have a serious cook (or baker) in your life, one who buys cookbooks to read cover to cover, the kind with more words than photos; one who cringes at watching feckless food celebrities like Guy Fieri (I cancelled my cable subscription 8 years ago); or one who will invest time into the dishes he or she attempts; this guide is for you.
Whole spices can be very expensive, especially if they are organic. Depending on the spice, like floral true Ceylon cinnamon (not more pungent cassia, which we call “cinnamon” in North America), can only be found in specialty shops or online suppliers. They can cost anywhere from $14/100 g to $140/100 g.
Not ground, whole spices last longer in the pantry, preserving their flavours and aromas. When you start grinding your own spices for rubs (including cures or dry brines) and blends like curry powder, garam masala, five spice, and seven spice, you will smell and taste the difference whole spices make.
The friends I love dearly don’t bother bringing me back touristy knickknacks when they visit far flung corners of the world. They gift me salt and spices.
When I cook, I reach for those spices and remember the friends who thought of me.
Dry Cured Charcuterie and Cheese
The best birthday gift I ever received was notification that dear friends were coming over, a grocery card to buy ingredients with, and a timeline to work with.
If your foodie loves to cook or entertain, they have likely served or been served a charcuterie board. The elements they linger over tend to be buttery prosciutto, spicy chorizo, or something savoury like copa. These are all dry cured meats. They also covet the runny stinky cheeses, especially blues.
So, my suggestion, fetch-eth thee a wicker basket (craft stores sell these in spades) and visit your local cheese monger. Then, find a supplier for local dry cured charcuterie. Try to buy whole pieces like whole sausages or larger cuts of meat. They last longer.
Assemble your basket and find a good wine to accompany.
Foodie cooks will appreciate the guilty pleasures they can indulge in. Moreover, they will realize the indulgence can be shared.
Good Kitchen Gear
Ask cooks or chefs what they cannot live without in the kitchen. Savoury cooks will point to silicone spatulas, heavy duty metal tongs, spoons, and treasured knives. Pastry cooks will point to accurate digital scales, stand mixers, and digital thermometers. Cooking is about instinct. Baking is a science. Few do both.
Got a cook to shop for? Usual suspect gifts are silicone spatulas with heat-proof handles; good quality wooden spoons, usually bamboo; durable general purpose hardwood cutting boards and/or plastic (poly) boards for raw meat/fish; hefty kitchen tongs with good springs (Dollar Store specials are great for serving with, not cooking with); double meshed metal sieves and/or a chinoise for draining braises, sauces, or stocks; hefty metal mixing bowls; and multi-ply cookware, essentially pots and pans with alternating layers of aluminum and stainless steel, which conduct heat well, but remains non-reactive.
If your cook uses an electric range, consider an infusion burner, which are now available in department stores for under $100. Unlike electric, which heats the pot to heat the food, induction burners manipulate magnetic fields to heat your food directly. Only, make sure magnets stick to your cooks’ cookware.
If you are buying your cook his/her first knives, a 8-10″ French (Chef’s) and a paring knife will do. Spend as much as you can afford. Your cook will use these multipurpose knives for everything, from chopping vegetables to de-boning meat and filleting fish. Try to purchase carbon steel as this material keeps its edge longer. If your cook has knives, look at honing steels, knife rolls, scabbards, and sharpening stones.
Got a baker to shop for? Look at accurate digital scales to measure ingredients with (good baking recipes measure by mass) and insta-read probe-style or infrared-style thermometers. Candy and oven thermometers make good gifts too. Baking is all about chemistry and maintaining temperatures in which “stuff” happens. For instance, puff pastry rises at 400 F. Oven lights lie!
A generous gift for a baker is a stand mixer, a heavy duty work horse that will make his/her life easier. Better yet, if you choose your make and model well, there are myriad attachments for future gifts. I adore the ice cream maker attachment I received last Christmas.
Good Serving Gear
Your foodie cooks will need to serve the dishes they make. Consider serving-ware like multi-purpose bowls, tray-style plates, or platters. Consider glassware or stem-ware.
Your foodie baker will need something to carry cakes or cupcakes in from point A to point B. Look at holders and carriers that lock with latches and can be cleaned easily. They need not be expensive.
Linens and Table Settings
Don’t laugh! Your foodie cook is probably too busy researching how to cook farmed yak to consider the dinner table. Linen napkins, table cloths, and the like are something he/she likely forgot.
Dinner mats keep the mess down.
Heat-proof racks or pads wear out quickly, so new ones will be appreciated.
Coasters protect the finish of the dining room table.
Oven Mitts and Aprons
I know amateur cooks who go through aprons in 6 months!
Oven mitts get burned and are quickly unusable, especially if your foodie cook has an outdoor grill.
If you have to buy those novelty aprons, like the one my wife gave me that reads, “Will Cook for Sex,” buy a practical one to go alongside.
Your foodie cook will eventually learn because he or she doesn’t wear chefs’ whites, a fresh apron covers up everything! Chefs’ whites (or blacks) are double breasted and “reversible.” Most culinary professionals pride themselves on keeping theirs clean, but, when they have to leave the kitchen, they switch to the clean side. I just grab a new apron!
My food blogging colleague Jodie Lariviere (@simplyfresh) of Simply Fresh Ottawa put together a list of cookbooks to gift people this holiday season. She being a cookbook reviewer/promoter, I defer to her expertise.
The caveat I want you to part with is this. Not all foodies are made the same. Find out what kind you are shopping for. If he or she is like me, I appreciate gifts that help me gift others good food.
foodiePrints was born during the 2006 Christmas holiday as a result of a successful platter of biscotti for an office potluck. After being bombarded with requests for the recipe, Don decided to post it online. In the following months, Don began posting pictures and writing about his adventures in cooking, convincing his future wife Jenn and her university school friends that a bachelor was perfectly capable of surviving on his own.
Upon her return to Ottawa, Jenn and Don soon started writing about their dining experiences in the city, exploring the local culinary scene, sharing their love of cooking, and supporting the community through various charity and fundraising events. Over the years, new friends have joined foodiePrints, including Claire, wine blogger, and Toronto correspondent Abby.