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A potpourri of unusual holiday gifts for your favorite chef
(CNN) -- If the days to Christmas are ticking down with you still wondering how to get the right gifts for your food-oriented friends, there are plenty of options available via the Internet.
For the chef, or would-be chef, there is this year's "must have" cookbook: "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller (Artisan), $50 -- For the real food lover or the would-be chef this is the book of the year. Beautifully rendered and lavishly photographed, this book could easily go on your coffee table. But that would be a waste.
Keller is a perfectionist whose vision of what food should be has made the French Laundry in Yountville, California, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the nation. Keller believes in strong flavors delivered in small doses. He also believes in mixing elements that usually aren't served together.
A meal at the French Laundry will begin with a cornet, an ice cream cone, filled with tuna tartare. It will then proceed through as many as seven courses.
The book has the actual recipes used at the restaurant. There are no compromises, not substitutions offered, and no short cuts. Many of the recipes are complex, but they are not that difficult. Anyone willing to look for the best ingredients and take the time to cook them properly will end up with an amazing reward.
The "must have" book about restaurants and cooking that isn't a cookbook: "Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury Publishing), $24.95 -- A chef tells all in this wacky tome.
Bourdain is full of himself, but anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant will tell you he's deadly accurate about what's happening on the other side of the kitchen door. He'll leave you with no doubt that you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday and never order chicken salad in a restaurant ever.
Aside from the funny, goofy, sometimes outrageous stories, there is some good advice such as what knives to buy, what to look for in pots and pans, which food items are musts in any pantry, and the importance of stock and how to make it.
The perfect "open me early" present: "Holiday Food" by Mario Batali (Clarkson Potter), $23 -- Batali brings his enthusiasm for real Italian recipes to this colorful little book about eating for the holidays.
Batali focuses on the Amalfi coast between Naples and Salerno to provide five course menus -- from apertivos to dolci, before dinner drinks to desserts -- in multiple variations for four holiday meals.
But, the little secret of this book is that while many of the dishes are traditionally served at times like Christmas Eve -- they are recipes for dishes that can be served anytime.
One of the most spectacular dishes in this collection is "Braciolona," braised pork roll with ziti pasta. A boneless pork shoulder is spread flat, covered with a filling made of prosciutto ham slices, pecorino cheese, pine nuts and slivered hard-boiled eggs. The shoulder is rolled and tied, browned deeply on all sides, and then braised in white wine, tomatoes, onion and oregano. The braising liquid becomes the sauce for the ziti, and the pork shoulder is cut into slices as the next course.
For fans of the Italian food movie "Big Night," there is a timpano -- this one smaller than in the movie, and as a consequence actually doable, featuring a Neapolitan ragu, Neapolitan meatballs, chunks of prosciutto ham and rigatoni. There are also recipes for classic cannoli and for lobster grilled and served with lemon oil and arugula, as well as eight cookie recipes.
But among the simplest dishes, appropriate at any time, are the pastas. There is a winter walnut sauce for linguine featuring chopped walnuts, toasted bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, pecorino cheese, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Another is the wonderfully named "Strangulapreti Alla Sorrentina" which is literally in Italian "priest strangers." This is a recipe for gnocchi in tomato sauce with fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella cheese. And there are wine recommendations, making this little 143-page book a treasure now and all year long.
You should have no trouble finding these titles on most any online bookstore site.
Old standbys and new products make this a great time to give cooks' tools to your favorite chef.
Carbon Steel 8" Chefs Knife -- Many people ignore these knives because they aren't stainless. They will turn gray, and if you abuse them like leaving them in a wet sink, even rust. But the up side is that they hone like razors in just a few seconds and are the best at doing what a knife is supposed to do -- cut. Stainless steel German chef's knives are beautiful to look at, but their steel is much harder, making them much more difficult to sharpen. As a result, a lot of home chefs have dull knives.
Two of the top brands of carbon steel knives are French-made Sabatier and Thiers Issard -- both available online, selling for about $70.
Kyocera Ceramic Vegetable Peeler -- The makers of the pricy Ming Tsai ceramic knives also make this wonderful little vegetable peeler. It has a zirconium oxide blade guaranteed never to dull. Mounted in a plastic handle resembling a safety razor, it will make lightning work of any peeling chore. Sells for about $12.
Microplane Zester -- The story goes that the wife of a Canadian hardware store owner discovered that a rasp, used for smoothing wood, worked very well for zesting citrus. The result is a stainless steel 12-inch-long tool with sharp, rasp-like teeth that make lemon, orange, or lime zest a simple task. Once you have it, zest a little orange peel in your next pot of ragu for little bursts of flavor. The zester is about $12.
Programmable Thermometer and Timer by Polder -- Unlike instant read thermometers that can be hard to use, the Polder Thermometer and Timer has a probe that goes into the dish and a 42-inch wire lead that extends out of the oven to the thermometer that clips to the oven door with magnetic strips. You set the maximum temperature and the thermometer sets off an alarm when that temperature is reached, insuring you won't overcook the Christmas goose or that rare prime rib. It can also be used as a digital timer; about $25.
Chinois -- Called a "Chinese Cap" in most French kitchens, this conical strainer is used to make velvety sauces and creamy purees. When top chefs like Thomas Keller say strain, strain, and restrain, a chinois (pronounced sheen-wha) is the tool. A stainless steel 7-inch chinois with a wooden pestle allows the home chef to puree a smooth tomato sauce, strain out the vegetables in a rich broth, or remove the lumps in a silky Creme Anglaise. Prices start at about $20.
Truffle Oil -- Truffles can be incredibly expensive, often running into thousands of dollars a pound. (For example, $350 will buy you 1.5 ounces of fresh white Alba truffles at http://www.dean-deluca.com.) But one alternative is pungent truffle oil, olive oil infused with either white or black truffles. Paint hot slices of pork roast just before they go to the table, add a few drops to a cream soup, or turn humble scrambled eggs into something spectacular with a spritz of truffle oil; roughly $20 for about 2 ounces (online or in stores).
Fleur de Sel Geurand -- Literally the "flower of salt" in French, this sea salt is skimmed from the surface of ponds in Brittany and is intended to be added at the last moment just before a dish is served. It's praised for its earthy mineral quality that makes it the "caviar of salt" for many chefs. A half pound bottle runs about $7.50.
Truffled Goose Foie Gras -- One of the most luxurious dishes ever invented, slices of this "brick" of foie gras are smooth and unctuous. The traditionally shaped "brick" comes studded in the middle with a nugget of black truffle. Sliced and served with glasses of sweet Sauternes, there is nothing quite like it. I found a 7-ounce tin for $80 at Dean & DeLuca or .25 pounds for $44.55 at D'Artagnan.
Rack of Venison Ribs -- Rubbed with a mixture of mustard and chopped pecans, seared and then finished to medium rare in the oven, these tender ribs of free-range New Zealand venison make an unusual and tasty dinner. I found a rack of 8 ribs for $57 at D'Artagnan.
Hickory Smoked Poke Sausage -- This traditional Southern favorite is made of ground pork that is packed into a cloth bag, also called a poke, and then hung in a smokehouse for up to eight days to soak up hickory flavor. The result is pungent, smoky sausage perfect sliced and fried, used as a stuffing for Cornish hens or as a flavorful addition to meat sauces and meatloaves. Two-pound pokes are $12.95 at Early's Gifts.
Stone Ground Grits -- The quintessential Southern food, grits are not only good for breakfast. Cooked with cheddar cheese and roasted garlic, they make the perfect side dish for fried chicken or a roasted rack of lamb. A 2-pound bag, coarse ground, medium or fine, will set you back about $5.
Review: "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller
Barnes & Noble.com
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