It’s that time of year when you have to participate in gift trading games with people you barely know. There is the secret Santa with coworkers at work, the white elephant with your old college roommate’s friends and the gift exchange with the extended family you see once a year.
You may know that your intended gift receiver is a decent home cook. You catch them on Pinterest at work or listen to them yammer on about Top Chef. Or even worse, they fancy themselves food bloggers and constantly send you links to their posts. Ahem, sorry.
You may be tempted to get them that gadget you saw at Bed, Bath and Beyond- the mini-turbo-chopper-emulsifier-sous-vide thing. Don’t. For a cook, kitchen utensils are a deeply personal thing. What I can’t live without would gather dust in someone else’s kitchen. Last week, I wrote about the necessities of a tiny kitchen. Unless I told you I want it, I don’t have room for it.
But I always have room for high quality ingredients. Most cooks will appreciate gifts of higher-end, but basic ingredients like salt and olive oil. Most of these items are under $10 or $20 and can be found at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or gourmet grocery stores. Below is a list of consumables that will always win a spot in my pantry:
1. Salt: This has become a fascination for food geeks in the last few years. You can find colored salt, which is coarse, naturally pigmented salt. It comes in a rainbow of colors- pink from the Himalayas, black from India and red from Hawaii, among others. You can also find flavored salt with a large range of spice mix-ins. A particularly haute item this year is fleur de sel, a salt that is harvested by hand off the coast of France. With a $15 price tag, I haven’t sampled it myself but I hope to geek out on it soon.
2. Olive Oil: Who doesn’t need olive oil, right? Most people have a standard, reasonably-priced brand they keep stocked. But olive oil comes in a dizzying array of options. It’s the perfect affordable luxury. Everyone’s got an opinion about the best but as long as it’s good quality, it’ll always be appreciated.
3. Wine: I don’t mean the wine that you serve with dinner. I mean the wine you use in dinner. People can be so particular about their drinking wines. But a home cook will always appreciate a couple bottles of inexpensive dry wines for cooking. When a recipe calls for wine, I often find that I don’t have anything I’m willing to uncork for a sauce. A pair of white and red wines would make a lovely gift. Just make sure you specify that they’re meant for cooking. You don’t want to be known as the cheap, tacky guy at the office.
4. Spices: Usually I would say that spices are like utensils- a cook already has what they will use. But sometimes a carefully chosen set of spices can get someone out of a cooking rut. To really make your gift stand out, print out some recipes that correspond with your gift. If you want to do a Mexican theme, you can choose some dried ancho chiles and guajillo chiles for some tasty beef birria. Or you can couple some achiote paste with the recipe for cochinita pibil. Other great ingredients include canned chipotle peppers, ground ancho powder and ground cumin (carne adobada, perhaps?). These can all be picked up cheaply from a Latino market.
5. Truffle Oil: I have exactly one recipe that calls for truffle oil. Yet, if someone gifted me a bottle of this liquid gold, you better believe I would find nine more recipes.
6. Pine Nuts, Walnuts, Pepita Seeds: Pine nuts are famously pricy and yet bring so much out in a dish. Walnuts aren’t just for baking- they make an appearance in salads, roasted vegetables and pastas. Pepita seeds are shelled pumpkin seeds and do so much to thicken sauces and add unami to vegetarian dishes.
8. Saffron: If anyone gave me the world’s most expensive spice, I would cook them a big paella dinner. Then I would get busy in the kitchen making saffron hollandaise, saffron risotto, saffron salmon, saffron poundcake…
9. Vanilla Beans: I don’t bake much so this isn’t a big ticket item for me. However, every baking blog is raving about the benefits of quality vanilla. Don’t get me wrong, I would still find many uses for the little pods.
10. Recipe Gift Bag: This is probably my favorite idea. If you have a recipe that you love or that has been passed down through the generations, it makes for a perfect gift. Write out the recipe on a card and compile all the nonperishable ingredients for the recipe. Wrap in a pretty box or bag. It’s a great way to introduce a recipe. I first learned how to make curry when someone did this for me. Now, it’s a go-to dish and I can’t imagine my life without it.
Ok, what did I miss? What ingredients would you love as a gift?