Stymied by what to get the fussy foodie in your life?
Take this bit of advice — we all have more than enough aprons (kitschy, frilly, manly, profane and otherwise) that we don't wear; bottles of decorative vinegars consume valuable kitchen real estate and are so '90s; and with only two hands we can use only so many pot holders.
If you want to please a picky cook, look for gifts that solve problems and make work easier, or at least make it easier to love the work. Here are some suggestions that may make this year's holiday gift hunt a little less stressed.
— When headed to someone's house for dinner, anyone can bring a bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers. To make an impression, head to the grocer and get a stalk of Brussels sprouts, instead. A stalk of sprouts (usually 2 to 3 feet long) has a rustic beauty and is easily dressed up with a ribbon or a wrap of tissue paper. The stalks are in season, cost just a few dollars and your host gets to eat the sprouts the next day.
— Sprouts not your thing? Form a large cone out of butcher's paper or heavy-duty wrapping paper. Fold and tape the bottom of the cone, then fill it with pecans and walnuts (in the shell). Top the nuts with a wedge of Parmesan cheese and a nut cracker.
— For the foodie with a techie bent (and an iPhone or iTouch), consider getting an iTunes gift card. Sure, they can download some tunes to jam to while whipping up dinner, but there also are numerous apps that make cooking easier and more fun.
Spend some time searching iTunes and assemble a list of suggestions for your recipient. While there are the obvious food and wine pairing apps, and recipe and grocery list options galore, there also are handy programs such as Convert ($2.99) from Tap Tap Tap.
This graceful app lets you convert units of just about anything, from distance and dollars to weight and volume. No more guessing about how many fluid ounces are in a cup (eight) or how many teaspoons are in a pint (96).
— Hispanic food is where it's at, but if you don't speak the language venturing beyond chain restaurant offerings can be intimidating. Which makes Lourdes Castro's new pocket-style dictionary, "Eat, Drink, Think in Spanish" (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) so helpful.
Like most translation dictionaries, Castro's is divided into English-Spanish and Spanish-English sections. It will have your foodie navigating Hispanic markets with ease.
Utility over beauty
— Like measuring cups and wooden spoons, no kitchen can have enough towels. Skip the decorative ones found at most homes stores; they are pricey and not all that absorbent. So-called flour sack towels, the variety used in many professional kitchens, are a better choice.
These thin but large cotton towels wipe clean and absorb well. They are available at a bargain price from many online retailers, including Amazon.com, which sells a 12-pack for $22.39.
— Most home cooks don't have good knives. And those who do often don't take proper care of them, which includes regular sharpening. Do you favorite cook a favor and get a gift certificate for knife sharpening. (Some hardware shops and many online specialty stores offer this service. Prices vary widely, but can start as low as $4 per knife.)
— Or give them a good knife. To give your foodie a real edge, check out the Miyabi line of Japanese-style knives from Zwilling J.A. Henckels. These ultra-sharp knives are beautifully balanced, hold their edge well and sport an unusually long but comfortable handle.
Prices vary by style of knife, but you can expect to pay between $100 and $200 for the larger chef-style knives.
— This one may get me in trouble, but I'm a firm believer in involving children in the kitchen. And that includes giving them their own knives at a very young age (my son got a 5-inch chef's knife for his second birthday).
Teaching children how to safely use a knife can be easy. When my son first got his knife, he had to follow one simple rule — if one hand is on the knife, the other had to be at his side and off the cutting board. It made it virtually impossible for him to cut himself.
This approach doesn't initially teach proper knife skills (having one hand at your side doesn't allow for holding the food being cut), but it fosters confidence working with knives and food. Three years later, my son is a pro who can hold his food and cut at the same time.
If you are going to give a young child a knife, grip and length are important. I got my son the Rachel Ray Furi Gusto Grip Li'l Edgy 5-Inch Santoku Knife ($28.99 online), which has a brightly colored, sticky silicone grip. It's a good length and won't slip out of his hand.
— Not ready to arm your toddler with a knife? There are plenty of working cooking sets and utensils marketed especially for children. Playful Inc.'s Playful Chef Kit, for example, includes a variety of kid-size tools, an apron and recipe cards colored coded to the tools.
The kits, available in two sizes, come in a backpack for storing the gear. The sell for about $37.99 online.
For big spenders
— Got a cook who simply must have the latest and greatest? Think they'd mind waiting until the day after Christmas?
Check out All-Clad's new line of stainless cookware. Called Stainless with d5 Technology (for the five layers of stainless steel and aluminum from which they are made), these heavy-duty pots and pans sport the usual solid All-Clad elegance.
Those five layers make for exceptionally even cooking. There was a noticeable improvement even over All-Clad's own earlier stainless steel cookware lines. The outer layer of steel also has been crafted to work with induction (magnetic) burners.
The pans are available from Williams-Sonoma. Expect to pay about $800 for a 10-piece set. Individual pans start at $99.95. But in a decision that simply boggles the mind, they won't be available until Dec. 26.