Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gifts to Cook By

I have now written two blogs of a three-part dissertation on equipping your kitchen. This blog will conclude the topic, timing perfectly with the holiday gift purchasing season. In the first installment I talked about knives, then moved on to pots in the second. In this closing segment I am going to discuss small appliances, perfect little toys - for the big girls and boys! - for presenting under the tree on Christmas Eve.

Just as with knives and with pots, there is a whole plethora of small appliances and gadgets available for our cooking havens, some of which you will absolutely need, some which are nice and helpful to have, and some which you will likely almost never use. Many of us have at one time or another given in to the temptation of buying a very task-specific small appliance because we thought it would be such a cool thing to have, only to use it once or twice and then, the novelty having worn off, relegated it into that hard-to reach cabinet high over the refrigerator and it's existence soon forgotten. In our case, it was the pasta machine. Years ago, knowing Brian loved to make his own red sauce for pasta, I thought it would be fun to make fresh pasta to go along with it. It was indeed kind of fun (and messy!) the first time. Alas, after two or three uses, it hasn't been touched since. That pasta machine joined our kitchen in 1997, which illustrates the reality of how much it has been put to use. Truth is, dry pasta is a much easier substitute and very nearly as good. Still, I do keep waiting for that day when we're snowed in by a blizzard, with the notion of spending a romantic day in the kitchen, him making sauce and us making the pasta together. That idealistic opportunity has yet to present itself.

Among the top six small appliances which are likely to be put to work regularly in your culinary preparations are the coffee maker, the food processor, the stand mixer, the blender, the citrus juicer and the indoor grill/panini press.

The coffee machine will in all likelihood greet you every morning to give you that proverbial shot in the arm to get you going for the day. There are a variety of models on the market, from single cup-at-a-time brewers to programmable machines that, at a designated time, automatically grind the coffee beans and then brew the pot of coffee. I have one of these, the Cuisinart Grind and Brew, and I could not survive a single morning without it. The benefits are that when you emerge from your slumber cave after hitting the snooze button on your alarm eight times, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee will magically beckon you into the kitchen and you didn't have to do a thing but set it all up the night before. Brewing the coffee which was just ground from the whole beans seconds ago will also yield the freshest possible coffee you can brew at home. Some of these coffee machines even come equipped with water filters. If you appreciate a fine cup of java, I would recommend one of these higher end machines. If you are purchasing one as a gift for the coffee lover in your life, add a couple of big mugs which match the person's home decor or color preference and a couple of bags of high quality coffee beans to christen their new toy with, and you will put a smile on even the face of the grumpiest of non-morning persons.

A food processor can be an excellent sous chef. It makes short work of slicing vegetables, mixing up dips and salad dressings, making fresh bread crumbs, even making doughs and grating or shredding cheeses. Stick to the top names in small kitchen appliances, such as Cuisinart or Kitchenaid. I have a Kitchenaid model which came with a variety of blade attachments for various tasks, as well as two different sized prep bowls. I also have a mini food prep version of the Kitchenaid which sports a three-cup work bowl. Believe it or not, I have been known on more than one occasion to have all three bowls and three or four blades end up in the dishwasher after preparation for one big meal or party! Remember that the more attachments and bowls the unit comes with, the more versatile your 'helper' will be.

A stand mixer, perhaps more typically known as 'a Kitchenaid' due to the fact that Kitchenaid is simply the prominent name in mixers, is a must for anyone who bakes. This little machine is a workhorse in your kitchen, able to whip cream, beat eggs, form doughs and mix batters. It allows the cook to multitask, as you can start whipping the cream for your dessert topping and walk away to pull the chocolate mousse out of the refrigerator and get that coffee machine going. Another nice thing about the Kitchenaid brand of stand mixer is that over time you can collect various attachments which are available for the model, allowing more versatility in the machine's use. And the colors, oh the colors! Kitchenaid mixers are available in just about every color you can imagine to strike your fancy and decorate your countertop.

A blender will get plenty of exercise both in the hottest days of summer and the blustery months of winter. In the summer, a blender is a valuable addition to your bar as you blend up some daquiris, frozen margaritas and pina coladas. It can also contribute to healthier breakfast choices as it transforms some orange juice, lime juice, strawberries and bananas into the perfect smoothie. In the winter, a blender is a must for creating soups. Be sure to stick with a higher end model, as you do not want a blender's motor to burn out after one season of ice crushing. I like Kitchenaid, Cuisinart is fine too; just be sure to purchase a blender with a powerful motor. If someone has a blender on their wish list this Christmas, add to it a pair of unique margarita glasses or a set of soup bowls and they'll be eager to fill those up with their first blender concoction.

Many recipes, such as drinks, salad dressings and marinades, call for significant amounts of lemon juice, lime juice or orange juice. This is where a citrus juicer comes in handy. When only the juice of one lemon is needed, then a hand-held reamer is just fine and easier to clean afterwards. However, when a recipe calls for a half-cup of lemon juice, that's a lot of squeezing to do! Even if this is your method of relieving stress, you'll then have to deal with more added stress of having to pick out all of the seeds from the juice! A juicer simplifies the task by allowing you to press down on a lemon half, the juice gets extracted - and the seeds strained - and comes out of a handy little pour spout right into your measuring cup. Leave the artificial Kool Aid lemonade mix on the store shelf, now you can make authentic lemonade without the physical strain of squeezing out all those lemons.

Okay, some of you may argue with me on the panini press. Truth is, I love paninis and so requested a panini press as a gift one Christmas. Brian bought me the Cuisinart version which comes with two different cooking surface plates and functions not only as a panini press, but also as an indoor grill and a griddler. I never thought I would use this machine as much as I do. I have made quite a few creative paninis on it (as has he), but I also find it a much better alternative to the broiler for grilling beef steaks and fish steaks indoors. That said, I probably use this appliance at least once a month, often times more than that. I have also made pancakes on the griddle plates and the results were better, more even cooking, than on the stove top griddle pan.

While the little helpful gadgets could provide enough topic for an entire blog in and of themselves, as they so make great stocking stuffers, they too deserve some praise. The absolute necessities in every kitchen include measuring spoons and measuring cups. Measuring spoons should be able to fit into a slender spice jar, and every kitchen should possess at least two sets, one for dry ingredients and one for liquid. Measuring cups should include both individual plastic 1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4 cups for measuring out dry ingredients as well as the Pyrex glass graduated cups for use in measuring liquids. Wooden spoons of varying sizes, as well as silicone utensils such as spatulas, tongs, whisks, and the like are also must-haves. Other useful gadgets which will likely be used frequently include a garlic press, microplane grater for zesting citrus fruits, vegetable peeler, jar opener, melon baller (a great multi-tasker, by the way, also useful in removing cores from halved apples or pears, seeds from halved cucumbers or plum tomatoes, etc.), ice cream scoop and bottle opener. For these items, I prefer Kitchenaid or Oxo Good Grips. I have an Oxo vegetable peeler which is ten years old and still able to peel the tough skin off of a butternut squash with relative ease. Every home cook also needs a set of glass mixing and food prep bowls in varying sizes.

There are other appliances, and gadgets, which an individual cook might enjoy, but are not must-haves for everyone. These can present excellent gifts when paired with some accompaniments. For example, if someone loves to make homemade pizzas on a regular basis, a pizza stone might be something that will serve them for many dinners to come. Present one with a durable pizza wheel and a pizza cookbook and they will be eager to start planning their next pizza party. Your film buff friend who lives in front of their DVD player would probably appreciate a popcorn popper, complete with a popcorn serving bowl, some gourmet popping corn, and a movie guide from the book store. Your sweetie with the sweet tooth may melt when you present her with an ice cream maker, an ice cream recipe cookbook, an ice cream scoop and a set of gourmet ice cream toppings. Believe it or not, I'm sure that there is that someone out there who actually would use that pasta machine every Sunday. If you know this person, wrap that up with a set of pasta bowls and a pasta cookbook, or a pasta pot with the strainer insert, a wooden spoon, a garlic press and a cheese grater.

In closing, as you contemplate which wine you plan to uncork at the holiday meal, I leave you with a suggestion for the wine lover on your gift shopping list. Last Easter, I was presented with a 'rabbit' as a gift. The Metrokane Rabbit is a wine bottle opener which makes the uncorking process effortless. I had seen advertisements for this nifty little gadget in cooking magazines and shrugged them off as an unnecessary frill. Then last winter I was visiting a friend and she proceeded to uncork a bottle of wine in no more than five seconds with no straining or grunting involved whatsoever. I was amazed and realized that I had now seen the light. Admitting my error in judgement, I then requested one and I have so appreciated it ever since. If someone on your "nice" list enjoys a bottle of wine, I highly recommend purchasing this little toy for them, perhaps with a couple of trendy wine glasses and a guide to wines. This little gadget also makes a perfect-sized stocking stuffer. If the wine lover happens to be you, well, tis the season. Treat yourself! I'll even justify it for you: a glass of wine a day is exactly what the doctor ordered anyway, for both mental health and heart health. Then uncork a bottle of wine for that Christmas Eve or Hanukkah toast and "Cheers!" Happy Holidays!

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