Friday, January 22, 2010

What's Cooking? Gifts for Cooks

This was first published in the December, 2009 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier.

Gifts For Cooks

I still remember the look of horror the first time I asked my husband for a kitchen tool for Christmas. He’d heard the stories about husbands who bought vacuum cleaners for their wives and spent the next three months sleeping in the garage.

It took a long time to convince him that cooking implements – at least for me – are like new toys. Vacuum cleaners and leaf blowers are still off limits.

A basket of flours (yes, I spelled that right) would be an interesting gift for the baker in your life. For the bread baker, King Arthur’s organic bread flour has just been introduced, adding to the ridiculous range of flours they sell. Some are available at the local grocery stores, but if you’re looking for Italian or French-style flours or more unusual grains and blends, you’ll probably need to shop online.

If your baker is more interested in the sweet side, how about some unusual pans for cakes, cupcakes and muffins? Nordicware has an amazing array of Bundt pans ranging from the traditional shapes to cottages and sports arenas.

For smaller cakes, the Backyard Bug Pan bakes up bugs and butterflies in a pan that’s shaped like a leaf. The underside has decorative veins on the leaf that would make it an interesting decorative piece when it’s not in the oven.

Did I mention that Nordicware pans are nonstick and heavy enough to bake evenly? And if you don’t like bugs or Bundt pans, the company makes a huge variety of pans to fit anyone’s personality or party needs.

On the savory end, how about a cookbook and some unusual cookware to go with it? Before there was nonstick and before stainless steel, there was clay. While modern metals are a wonderful thing, sometimes you can’t replicate a traditional dish without using a traditional cooking vessel.

In Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, Paula Wolfert explores the use of a variety of clay pots, and includes both traditional and modern recipes. While it’s unlikely you’ll want to invest in every clay pot mentioned, for most recipes Wolfert gives several options. One of the most common is the Spanish cazuela, a round, straight-sided earthenware vessel that can be used in the oven or on a stovetop. Besides using it for the recipes in this book, it makes a nice serving dish or baking dish for any of your other recipes.

The book and a cazuela would be a great combo gift for your adventurous cook. But beware. Not all the recipes in the book recommend a cazuela, so expect to find other earthenware pots on next year’s shopping list.

How about a few stocking stuffers? Microplane has a variety of graters and zesters to fill any cook’s stocking. Or is your cook a little clumsy when it comes to grated knuckles? Microplane also makes a cut-proof glove that makes grating a more fearless experience. It’s also great when using a mandoline.

Not sure what tools your favorite cook needs? How about unusual spices or spice blends, colored sugars, vanilla and other flavorings, vinegars, olive oils, jams and jellies, or exotic coffees, teas and hot chocolate blends? Avoid the temptation to buy a pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped box at the mall. Instead, shop locally, buy some odd and interesting things, and put it all in an interesting cake pan, basket, serving bowl or baking dish for a unique gift that the cook in your life will love.

Fast And Easy Dip

For a fast holiday nosh, this dip tastes much more complex than you’d guess from its short ingredient list.

Take two parts Greek yogurt (I like Fage Total) to one part finely grated cucumber. Drain the liquid from the grated cukes before you add it to the yogurt.

Add a tiny bit of grated onion, to taste. For two seven-ounce containers of Fage, start with about a teaspoon of the grated onion and work up from there. Add salt, to taste.

Note: This dip can be used immediately, or let it sit in the fridge overnight so the flavors can meld. To make the dip match the theme of other dishes, add herbs or flavorings, as desired.

After publication notes: The dip mentioned above was something I whipped up when I was doing a demo of the Microplane box grater. I also served a carrot cake, which went over well, but I was astounded at how many people were amazed at the dip that I served with pita chips.

I really didn't think the dip was anything special, but since I got so many requests for the recipe, I figured it was worth publishing in the newspaper.

While I usually make my own yogurt, for the demo I didn't want to have to launch into that explanation, so I went with my favorite commercial brand that's now available in most of our local stores.

If Fage isn't available where you live, try another Greek-style yogurt, or just strain any plain commercial yogurt through a coffee strainer or a very fine-mesh metal strainer. When you're starting with a thicker yogurt, you can add ingredients that are a little more watery, and still not end up with soup.

Personally, I like the Fage Total (the full-fat variety) rather than the 0, 1, or 2 percent versions, but feel free to substitute whichever you prefer. But it seems to me that you're using yogurt in place of what might normally be sour cream, so the full-fat version is already a giant step lower in fat. And then you're adding cutting it by adding cukes. So for a dip, it's pretty healthy, even with the full-fat yogurt.

Since publishing this, I've made a few recipes from the Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking cookbook, and I recently bought a Chinese Sand Pot, which I've tested with plain old rice. Pretty soon, I'm be venturing into some more interesting recipes with that pot.