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Gifts for the Kitchen: Dehydrators, blenders, slicers, scales, cookbooks and more for this holiday season

11/30/2016

Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher, America’s greatest food writer, best explained why food gifts trump all others.

“First we eat, then we do everything else,” she said.

There are innumerable other reasons for their preeminence, beginning with versatility. Practical food gifts cost as little as the price of a packet of seeds ($1) that have been carefully tended all year and preserved with pickling love, to a top of the line Viking gas range and oven (about $4,500). Obviously, one could spend much more, but those are two examples that the people I interviewed for this story put on their wish lists.

In that group of chefs, restaurateurs, writers and food lovers, the most frequent suggestions were predictable — food/cookbooks and restaurant gift certificates. The former will be discussed in detail later. The latter tended to be specifically sentimental with traditional restaurants dominating hot new joints. The five most coveted destinations, in order, were 801 Steak & Chop House, Tursi’s Latin King, Noah’s, Baru 66 and Centro. Two people said they like to give restaurant gift certificates to places with which they share memorable experiences with the giftee. Good advice. Food and memory share geography in the human brain. One person said he likes to give his wife restaurant gift certificates “so I am guaranteed a date.” img_4233

While my interview pool liked tradition and sentiment in their restaurant choices, they leaned toward newer stuff for their home kitchens. Melissa Kaliner watches the food industry for a New York City public relations firm. She told us that the trending categories for hot products now reflect more sophistication among home cooks. She particularly cited food dehydrators, which she said are finding shelf space in major department stores nationwide.

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“Consumers are looking for new ways to make healthier snacks at home,” Kaliner noted.

She said that dehydrators realized large sales growth in 2016, and she expects that to continue in 2017.

Des Moines super chef George Formaro (Django, Centro, Malo, Zombie Burger, Gateway) told us that dehydration is absolutely essential for french fries.

“Without dehydration, they stay crispy hot four minutes maximum, not five,” he said. “People like to buy fries to go at Zombie Burger, so we remove moisture before we cook them, and that gives them considerably more time to stay crisp and hot.”

Kaliner recommended Excalibur’s 5-Tray Digital Controller at around $300, and also Excalibur’s 6-Tray Stackable Dehydrator at $40.

Kaliner also expects blenders to continue hot growth, for similar reasons.

“People continue to look for ways to live healthier lifestyles,” she said.

Kaliner touted Omega’s 3 Peak Horsepower Blender as top-of-the-line at around $250. She said that sous vide machines — used at both G Migg’s and Bistro Montage in the metro — are becoming more popular. So, too, are variable temperature tea pots as more people are converted to green teas, where the water should not be as hot as with black tea. She touted Sansaire’s sous vide machine at around $200 and SMEG’s tea kettle at about $190.

img_4232She said that stainless steel and non-stick cookware should be strong next year, and slicers are also more popular than ever, particularly Art + Cook’s 13-piece super slicer, a personal favorite at around $10.

Teresa Adams-Tomka of Kitchen Collage in East Village believes that cast iron is trending more popular than traditional non-stick cookware.

“People worry about non-stick,” she said. “Cast iron, when it’s properly tempered, can become virtually non-stick. Lodge brand cast iron is tempered before it’s shipped to us.”

She carries a wild choice of sizes in cast iron pans, ranging from $10 to $76. She also carries a huge selection of Le Creuset cookware. This state-of-the-cast-iron-art line from Fresnoy-le-Grand, France, is enameled in bright colors but includes $360 pots and $325 pans. Kitchen Collage also carries an extensive line of state-of-the-art wine glasses from Riedel in Kufstein, Austria. These crystal goblets come in dozens of sizes appropriate to bringing out the best of particular varietals. They cost around $40 each, but bargain prices can be found in sets of four or more.

Adams-Tomka says the biggest trend she is noticing is downsizing. People just don’t have as much room for stuff in their kitchens and pantries. Empty nesters downsize when the kids leave home, and young people just don’t have much space either. She showed us a lot of different tools that fit in the palm of the hand and cost as little as $10 — Microplane’s small zester, OXO’s hand-sized spiralizer, and OXO’s vegetable pasta maker (which cuts vegetables in the shape of spaghetti). She said that OXO’s enclosed grater “eliminates the accidental inclusion of personal DNA in your cheese.” You cannot cut your fingers.

Adams-Tomka also said that scales are becoming popular, as more cooks use recipes that count grams rather than ounces. She said that older customers like OXO’s Good Grip $15, which makes opening jars easier. It made a lot more sense to me than the $20 battery operated RoboGrip I have seen on TV commercials recently.

Adams-Tomka agreed with Kaliner that blenders are a hot gift item, calling them her No. 1 electrical appliance. She said that OXO and Breviller lead the industry in research and innovation, and they are often the brands providing the “next big thing.” She also said that her best-selling cookbook for six years in a row is “Power Foods,” by Martha Stewart.

“I just don’t carry many cookbooks anymore,” she said. “The Internet took over that business.”img_4236

A stroll through Valley West Mall’s Kitchen Collection opened my eyes to a number of bargains. I found things there for considerably less money than they sell for in local supermarkets. The store also stocks all kinds of tools I had never heard of — Big Bass Oiless Fryers for $80, Rapid Ramen Works for $5 (the box said it works for mac & cheese, rice and eggs, too), stainless steel banana hangers for $7, and marble rolling pins at $12 and up.

That store also had some appliances that are not as popular as they were 50 years ago — waffle makers, heavy meat grinders ($15), pasta machines ($20) and Presto electric griddles ($23). They were all considerably less expensive than they used to be, too.

At Younkers, a sales lady told me that she has asked her family to give her a Nutri Ninja for Christmas. That store has a large line of these state-of-the-art blenders in the $130-$160 range. She asked to remain anonymous, worrying she could get in trouble speaking for the store.

Formaro said he covets a Uuni Portable Wood Oven more than anything else. They range in price between $120 and $1,600. He also wants Modernist Cuisine’s special edition baking steel. Those sell for $120 on the British Company’s website.

“Even though I have many types of ovens to choose from in my work life, I still make pizza often at home,” he said. “These new baking steel griddles are perfect for high-heat hearth-baked pizza.”

Blooming Gourmet Cathy Wilkinson Barash said she doesn’t believe that much in kitchen gadgets.

“As long as I’m wishing, though, I’d like a Wüsthof Classic 8-Inch Cook’s Knife. (Those German knives cost $80-$100 on the Internet.) I’ve never had a really good chef’s knife, and it’s about time I did. I have MS (Multiple Sclerosis), and using such a ‘well-rounded’ knife as this would make all my slicing, dicing, chiffonading much easier,” she admitted.

Cookbook publishing is out of control. A couple years ago, I read an article titled “The top 25 new vegan cookbooks of the year.” It is not possible for anyone to be aware of all the new cookbooks, yet dozens of publications publish “Top 25 lists.” All of the recommendations mentioned here appeared on multiple such lists from places like New York Times, Los Angeles Times, London Times, London Observer and websites for Epicurious, Eater and Amazon.

First, though, I am frequently asked what cookbook a father should give to a daughter or son as a first cookbook. My answer is Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” or James Beard’s “American Cookery” for more scholarly children. Those books have been around for 75 and 45 years, respectively. Not much has happened to the basic art of cooking since they were new. Newspapers do not live in the past, though. Here are our favorite new food books of 2016.

“Mozza at Home”

by Nancy Silverton and Carolynn Carreño

Nancy Silverton’s Los Angeles restaurant, “Mozza,” is one of America’s very best. This book, though, is not so much about the restaurant’s famous dishes as it is about Silverton rediscovery of her love for cooking at home. How practical. Her recipes for braised oxtails and date-anchovies salad dressing are keepers. The book is strong on buffet style home entertaining, too.

“Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan”

by Naomi Duguid

Toronto’s Duguid is one of the world’s best food and travel writers. She has won the James Beard Foundations best cookbook award twice. Her “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” is a classic. This book seduces readers with its home grown spices. For instance, most of the world’s saffron — the emperor of spices — comes from the regions she covers. Mint, dill, parsley, cilantro, dried rose petals, sumac, lime, pomegranate and honey are all stars in these recipes. Cinnamon, cardamom and other sweet spices weave their way into savory dishes as well as desserts. The book’s 125 recipes cover pilafs and breads and the grilled meats of Persian cuisine, from feasts to simple meals. She also provides travel stories and historical and cultural context. Fabulous photos are by the author and food photography pros.

“Cuba!”

by Dan Goldberg, Andrea Kuhn and Jody Eddy

Now that travel bans to the island have been lifted, Cuban food is trending hot. The book’s 75 recipes range from Cuban fried chicken and tostones stuffed with lobster and conch, to squid-ink empanadas and mojito cake with rum-infused whipped cream.

“Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China”

by Fuchsia Dunlop

In the fourth century, Zhang Han abandoned his post in the north of China because he was no longer able to endure without the water shield soup and sliced perch of his native Jianghan. Ever since, according to the United Kingdom’s premier writer on Chinese food, “thinking of water shield soup and perch” has meant “to be homesick” in Chinese. This book focuses on Jiangnan. This lower Yangtze region that includes Shanghai is the rice basket of Asia, full of fish as well as fresh produce. The region’s cuisine is delicate yet complex. Dunlop writes that no chef has ever wanted to leave Jianghan. Standout recipes include the famed dongpo pork, lion’s head meatballs, oil exploded prawns and clear steamed sea bass, Shanghai braised pork and eggs, and Suzhou breakfast tofu. Wild rice stems, lily bulbs, celtuce (whose thick stalks have a celery-like flavor) and fox nuts (a chickpea that grows in fresh water) all feature. Fear not, all can be acquired on the Internet now.

“How to Bake Everything: Simple Recipes for the Best Baking”

by Mark Bittman

The former New York Times restaurant reviewer doubles down on his previous best seller “How to Cook Everything.” This new book follows the model of the original and covers not just sweets but breads and international treats as well. Sidebars contain advice on the advantages of milling nut flours at home and the importance of cooking with children. There are low downs on gluten, flour types, sweeteners, fats and oils, dairy options and types of chocolate. Flowcharts, lexicons defining baking terminology, and recommendations for tools and a baker’s pantry are also included.

“Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors”

by Diana Henry

Simple must have a different meaning in Diana Henry’s native Northern Ireland than it does in Iowa. Kashmiri chiles, saffron, grape must, tamarind, pomegranate seeds, fresh mint, dill, parsley and sour yogurt all feature in these recipes. Henry’s recipes include flavors from the Middle East, Morocco, Scandinavia and India along with techniques and ingredients (‘Nduja, salmon roe, harissa) pulled from other cultures. Recipes for sweet potatoes with yogurt and cilantro, white bean gratin, and lamb chops with dates, Feta, sumac and tahini star.

“Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner”

by Ashley Christensen

Poole’s restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, not only launched Ashley Christensen but also Iowa’s Matt Steigerwald of Lincoln Café fame. In this first book from Christensen, the North Carolina native collects recipes from Poole’s Diner that range from comfort foods to sophistication and from easy to labor-intensive. Among the recipes are turnip green fritters with whipped tahini, heirloom tomatoes with crushed olives, crispy quinoa, white anchovy dressing and challah bread pudding with whiskey apples and creme fraiche.

“The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem”

by Marcus Samuelsson

The great Ethipopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson’s latest cookbook sets forth the idea that modern Harlem is rife with cultural multitude. He bears out that notion with recipes as diverse as ham hocks with mustard greens and arepas. His signature fried yardbird, perhaps America’s finest fried chicken, is included. ♦

 

 

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