This holiday season’s gift guide contains a book by a real-life hero chef who built an empire by valuing his busboys, a set of nifty ceramic stoneware oyster shells, atasty tequila and “the last knife you ever buy.”
BOOKS FOR THE COOK WHO LIKES TO READ
“L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home”
By David Lebovitz (Crown, $27)
It’s easy to think that David Lebobvitz is living a dream life. Cooking, writing about food, giving chocolate tours and living in Paris. But that old saying, ‘nothing worth having is easy.’ comes to mind when you read his latest book. It’s a memoir about buying and renovating his Paris home. If you ever dreamed of having an apartment in Paris, this book is required reading. As horrible as parts of it must have been to live though, David tells the bittersweet tale with a sense of humour, insight into the French culture, and memories of delicious and unexpected recipes like how to make Croissants aux Amandes (almond croissants) at home (spoiler alert: they are made from day-old croissants who knew?). But the best thing about this book is that David writes as he talks so it is like having a long conversation with a good friend. Equal parts honest, intriguing, distressing, entertaining, funny and appetizing. Pour yourself a glass of French wine, grab a nibble and cozy up to a great night with a great book.
By Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa (Atria Books, $30)
This year, many new food memoirs by chefs, bloggers and food writers were published. I read a stack of the books and was struck by how tedious and self-indulgent so many of them are. Maybe memoirs by the very nature of the genre are self-serving.? And, then I sat down to read a memoir by the most famous of all the authors, Nobu. Most people know Nobu as the highly acclaimed chef proprietor of 47 Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants, and six hotels around the world with partners who include Robert De Niro.
I was instantly struck by how humble and inspiring his story was ‚Äî or rather, how simply and humbly he presented his story and his life philosophy. Nobu is one of the good guys who has become famous by the old-fashioned tenets of being a family man, hard work, passion and perseverance even in the face of adversity. Forget about reading self-help books for motivation and guidance. Read Nobu and experience a real-life hero who built an empire and a good life by valuing his busboys as highly as his executive chefs. This is inspiration by example.
For Cooks Who Like To Drink
French Duralex Picardie Tumblers
Drinking glasses are very personal. They have to feel good in your hand, look good and be durable. I like my glasses to be sturdy, functional and elegant. That’s a lot to ask, but the tempered glass tumblers from Duralex check all the boxes. They are the epitome of good design and the French company has been in business since 1945. You can use the glasses for hot or cold drinks and they store easily because they are stackable. Thanks to shatterproof construction, if broken, the glass becomes small chunks instead of jagged shards so cleanup is safe and easy. The glasses are microwave and dishwasher safe, impact and chip resistant and lovely to use.
I especially like that they come in eight sizes from 3.1 ounce to 17.62 ounces. The original French tumbler is the Picardie design and it is the only style available in a set of 18. It is a great gift for anyone who needs new glasses, or for the student or graduate moving into his or her first apartment. The set of 18 ($69.95) includes six of each, small (8.75 ounce), medium (12 ounce) and large glasses (17 ounce). They are perfect for milk, juice or a cocktail, iced coffee or tea, water and anything else that you care to drink. I also like the smaller 4.4 ounce size for espresso and sipping bourbon and tequila neat. They can be ordered separately to complete your set at https://www.surlatable.com .
Grand Mayan Tequila
The first time that I saw Grand Mayan Ultra Aged Tequila was about 10 years ago. I was at a liquor store in Los Angeles and I was struck by the beautiful hand-painted ceramic decanter. I gambled and bought the bottle based on looks alone and boy, oh boy, was I rewarded. The colour, aroma and smooth taste rival my favourite aged bourbons for choice sipping. Deep with nutty caramel, vanilla and blue agave notes, this is tequila that you sip neat. The deep dark colour comes from a blend of 3, 4 and 5 year-old tequilas that have been aged in American and French oak casks. The Ultra Aged takes 10 years to produce from agave plant to bottle.
The Ultra Aged has a younger sibling, the award-winning Grand Mayan Silver. It is triple distilled resulting in a crystal-clear spirit that is the cleanest silver tequila that I have ever tasted. The sparkling fresh 100 per cent blue agave tequila is perfect for drinking over ice with a splash of citrus or mixing into almost any cocktail. It also comes in a very handsome black and white hand-painted ceramic Talavera bottle created by Mexican artists honouring the history and tradition of Mexico.
From my first taste of Grand Mayan a decade ago, I have had my eyes open for that bottle but I couldn’t find it outside of Los Angeles ‚Äî that is until now. Luckily for the rest of the country, Grand Mayan is now distributed nationally by MS Walker and at http://www.binnys.com . The cost is $100 for the Ultra Aged, $70 for the Silver.
Little Book “The Easy” Blended Straight Whiskey
Fans of Booker’s bourbon will love Little Book. It was released in October from Freddie Noe, son of 7th Generation Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. I am a personal fan of Booker’s and a huge fan of American whiskey, so I couldn’t wait to taste Freddie Noe’s first release in the Little Book series. The new limited-release whiskey is Little Book “The Easy.” It is aptly named as it goes down easy. Smooth and rich and perfectly balanced, it is destined to become a fast favourite. Freddie drew inspiration from the classic components of bourbon to create his first-ever whiskey expression. It features uncut and unfiltered Kentucky Straight Bourbon blended with corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and malt. As Freddie takes on an expanding role in the family business, Little Book is a nod to what he’s learned so far from the generations of distillers before him especially his grandfather, legendary distiller Booker Noe. Little Book “The Easy” is available nationwide for $79.99 for a 750-ml bottle and at http://www.binnys.com. If you miss it, take heart because the distillery plans to release a new expression every fall.
FOR COOKS WHO LIKE HANDY TOOLS
Loftin Oyster Shells
I like to grill oysters on the half shell which makes for both a pretty presentation and failsafe grilling. The tough shell protects the delicate oysters from the hot fire, tampering the heat and transferring it through the shell. But, if you are not very comfortable with shucking oysters, or can’t find whole oysters in the shell, then I have a gift for you!
Loftin Oyster Shells are made from ceramic stoneware. The life-like oyster shells are handmade from high-fire ceramic in Louisiana where oysters reign. Best is that they are uniform with flat bottoms which stop the shells from rocking on the grill. The beautiful re-useable shells will hold one large or two smaller oysters. So, all you have to do is buy the shucked oysters and get grilling! I like their motto which is ‘all shell, no shuck.’ You can buy the oyster shells by the dozen on their website and start making all your favourite restaurant oyster recipes at home. Their oyster grilling tong is especially helpful for taking the oysters off the grill. Suggested retail is $69 for a set of 12 shells and $18.49 for the tong/lifter at http://www.loftinoysters.com
Ninja Intelli-Sense Kitchen System
This machine surprised me and made me a new fan of Ninja products. As anyone who knows me knows, I love a good gadget! And, when a friend told me about the Ninja Intelli-Sense Kitchen System, I knew that I had to try it. And, now I can’t stop talking about it. It is so smart. There is one base (think brain) and four attachments that will blend, chop, make individual smoothies and spiralize. In effect, this one appliance replaces my food processor, my smoothie machine, my blender ‚Äî and my hand-cranked spiralizer ‚Äî that didn’t work well anyway.
But that’s not all, the Intelli-Sense base recognizes which of the four vessels you attach to it, and automatically displays the corresponding settings specifically designed for that vessel. For example, when you attach the processor, the touch screen on the base gives you options for four different functions (puree, dough, chop, dips). When you make your selection, the base adjusts the speed and torque of the motor to suit what you are making. It’s genius, or at the very least, very intelligent! But that is not all, the design feature that makes this appliance heads and tails above the rest is that the blender and the processor have four blades stacked at varying levels to process everything at once. It does all the hard work for you. No more pushing the food from the top to the bottom or manually turning the machine on and off while you distribute the un-processed food. It goes for $199.75 at https://www.ninjakitchen.com .
Sous Vide Joule
I just decided to sous vide my steak for dinner tonight. It may sound like a big project but it’s not. I have started to think of my Joule sous vide circulator by Chef Steps, as a fancy slow-cooker that makes cooking dinner and entertaining easier. Add warm water to a Dutch oven, insert the Joule, turn on the Joule with the phone app, add your food and cook. It’s that simple.
The Joule is shorter than other circulators which makes storing it a breeze. And, the bottom is magnetic so you can put it in a pot and it stands upright ‚Äî and stays upright ‚Äî without needing to clamp it on the side. You put your food in a heavy-duty re-closeable plastic bag ‚Äî vacuum sealing is no longer a must ‚Äî and attach it to the side of your pot with a chip clip. The Joule runs with an app that is so intuitive that you don’t need to be tech savvy to use it. You search for the food that you want to cook, choose a degree of doneness and the size of the food, i.e., a 2-inch thick steak, and turn it on by phone.
One added bonus is that with sous-vide cooking, it is next to impossible to overcook your food. I use my Joule mostly for cooking meat that I will char on the grill just before serving and poached eggs. Yes, if you only bought it for poached eggs, that would be enough! I first became enamoured with sous vide when I discovered that you can place a raw egg (in the shell) in the water and 45 minutes later, you crack the shell and out comes a perfect poached egg. I make eggs like these at least once a week for topping avocado toast or eating for breakfast. Once you do it, you will be hooked! The Joule comes in two finishes, stainless for $199 and white for $179 at https://www.chefsteps.com/joule .
FOR THE COOK WHO HAS EVERYTHING
Gift certificate for Institute of Culinary Education
The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) is the heart of New York City’s academic culinary world. It is unique in that it has both a robust and award-winning professional program, and recreational program. It is the school where so many well-known chefs and food writers and editors attended, and or taught. I taught recreational classes at ICE for many years and most of the photographs in my column are now prepared and shot at ICE. When I taught, many of my students came to my classes with gift certificates that friends and family gave them. I always thought that it was the best gift of all, an experience that they could enjoy with or without the gift giver, and take home new recipes and new skills that they will have for a lifetime.
ICE has been in business since 1975 and houses the largest program of hands-on recreational cooking, baking and wine education classes in the world. More than 26,000 people visit ICE each year to learn and experience everything from wine tasting and mixology to hands-on cooking and eating. With 12 state-of-the-art kitchens in lower Manhattan, ICE is able to provide classes both day and night, 355 days a year. For a list of classes and to register, visit https://recreational.ice.edu . The minimum amount for gift certificates is $100.
Town Cutler knife sets
Galen Garretson wants this to be the last knife you ever buy. The former chef always loved knives, even as a kid. After tiring of the restaurant kitchen life, he worked as a butcher and became an expert knife sharpener. In 2011 he opened up Town Cutler, a shop selling and sharpening knives in San Francisco. Two years later, he sold his first handmade Town Cutler knife and says that there was a lot of trial and error to making that knife. Those trials paid off. Today, his collection of handmade knives are functional art pieces. I fell in love with the heavy feel and sleek look of the knives. These knives are a cut above.
To understand the quality of the steel and the quality of the wood handle, you just need to hold the knife. It is the difference between the feel of a custom-tailored piece of clothing and off-the-rack clothing. Equally beautiful are the soft leather knife rolls and scabbards (blade covers). This fall, he opened his second location in Chicago and sells his beautiful knives, scabbards and knife rolls through his website.
For the holiday, Town Cutler is putting together two kits, one For the Chef with an 8.5-inch chef knife, scabbard, palette knife for plate decoration and leather knife roll ($450). And one For the Butcher which includes a 6-inch Hankotsu knife (favoured by butchers), scabbard, palette knife and leather knife roll for $450. Got to https://towncutler.com
Cast Iron care kit by Lodge
I love all things Lodge cast iron, but they can be a little tricky to clean. Now that all of their cast-iron pans come pre-seasoned, it makes cast-iron accessible to every cook, beginner to master chef. The properties of cast-iron make it a cinch for searing, crisping and baking. A good friend has a pan that is so well seasoned that he even cooks eggs in his cast-iron pan. But after every use, you have to wash your pots and pans, and that is when it becomes tricky with cast iron. You are not supposed to use harsh soap, metal scouring pads or the dishwasher because that will destroy the layer of seasoning that makes cast-iron cookware “non-stick.” So, Lodge has packaged a Seasoned Cast Iron CARE KIT for cast-iron cookware ($26). Inside the kit are use and care tips, a pan scraper, scrub brush, seasoning spray, and a silicone hot handle holder as a bonus. You can give this to your favourite cook as a stocking stuffer or add it to a Lodge cast-iron pan for an extra-special gift. I am partial to the 10-inch cast-iron chef skillet for $25.50 and the 10.5-inch square cast-iron skillet for $32. Go to http://shop.lodgemfg.com/prodcat/indoor-accessories.asp
Meat thermometers by ThermoWorks
ThermoWorks has been in business for more than 20 years and is serious about its thermometers. They make a variety and my favourite is the Thermopen. It’s the barbecue and chef community’s choice of instant-read thermometer because it is fast, accurate and the foldable probe makes it easy to carry. All it takes to be a believer is opening the box and seeing the individual “Certificate of Calibration.” Every Thermopen comes with their own individual certificate that is filled out by hand, an extensive instruction booklet with real-time tips and a serial number to track your Thermopen. These added value features underscore that you’ve purchased a professional instrument, not just a gadget.
The foldaway thermocouple probe is strong but thin and goes into meat quickly and efficiently without leaving large holes for juices to escape through. I love that it folds into the plastic body, and is thin, and I would buy it for those two features alone. But the fact that it is fast and accurate seals the deal. It can read the internal temperature in 2-3 seconds. Thermopen ($99) is handmade in England and comes in your choice of 10 colours at http://www.thermoworks.com/Thermapen-Mk4 .