Fancy ingredients for a home cook
December 15, 2009 7:45 AM   Subscribe

What fancy pants ingredients should I buy for a foodie?

This is for a Christmas gift and the recipient (my bro) is getting more and more into food and cooking with every second. He loves experimenting in the kitchen and I want to get him some fancy ingredients he wouldn't necessarily go out and buy himself. My initial thoughts are saffron, vanilla beans and/or truffle oil. Any other ideas?

A few things to note:

* he doesn't have a sweet tooth (so no chocolate, how sad)
* he will be flying back to the west coast after Christmas (we're on the east coast.) I want him to have something to unwrap, I don't want to just have stuff delivered to his house on the left coast.
* I'm open to giving him cool kitchen gadgets as opposed to ingredients.
* Where can I get this stuff? Whole Foods? Sur la Table? Can I order it online?
posted by ihavepromisestokeep to Food & Drink (41 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
What you need is Zingerman's.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:49 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Absolutely: a really good balsamic vinegar.
posted by General Malaise at 7:50 AM on December 15, 2009

Penzey's gift box?
posted by electroboy at 7:52 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Absolutely: a really good balsamic vinegar.


Or also an expensive olive oil. It is the type of thing you CAN taste a difference with, but not everyone is willing/able to fork out the extra cash. Whole Foods has some goods ones, so does Williams-Sonoma.
posted by jefficator at 7:54 AM on December 15, 2009

Vanilla beans are good, and I've read anecdotally people have had good luck on eBay (YMMV).

My local Whole Foods has a lot of options, maybe try their flavored salts?

For that or other spices, you could also try the Alton Brown recommended Spice House, they also have a gift section.
posted by I am the Walrus at 7:54 AM on December 15, 2009

Fleur de sel.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:55 AM on December 15, 2009

For food itself, after much searching we used iGourmet last year for a gift, and the recipient was pleased with the quality of what she got. I was pleased because we ordered on the 22nd and it got to her by Christmas Eve without spending a million dollars (it was an intra-state delivery). You can DIY or they have theme-based baskets/gift sets. Last year we went meaty - smoked duck, Spanish ham, nice cheeses.

One year I got my husband dulce de leche and an assortment of fancy sea salts, which he seemed to enjoy. He also loved, loved, loved his cast iron skillet and Dutch oven.

I like Chef's Catalog for gadgets, although it's been a while since I've ordered from them.

Subscriptions to foodie mags - Saveur or Cook's Illustrated.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:57 AM on December 15, 2009

I would go against giving him a nice oil or vinegar at this time because he is flying back. He won't be able to take it into his carry on and there is a chance it might get mishandled in his check in baggage, if he has one.

I suggest sea salt.
posted by spec80 at 7:58 AM on December 15, 2009

Spices/herbs from Dean and Deluca.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2009

Or, if you want something really compact, really expensive, and really good: truffle salt.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:03 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Give him a mandolin, even a cheap one is worth having.
posted by Ferrari328 at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2009

tellicherry peppercorns

le puy lentils
posted by Max Power at 8:05 AM on December 15, 2009

Good suggestions above. To clarify w/r/t balsamic, I'd be sure to get at least a 12 year old vinegar, preferably an 18; a moderately sized bottle will run about 30.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2009

I couldn't live without pimenton, smoked Spanish paprika. The Spanish also do amazing canned seafood. (No, I don't work for La Tienda.)
posted by neroli at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

What city are you located in? That might help us steer you towards the right retail stores -- particularly those that might sell items at more reasonable prices.

Saffron is good, as are high quality vanilla beans. Truffle oil doesn't contain any actual truffle so it's not as impressive as you might think.

I might do Spanish paprika, Maldon salt, Sichuan peppercorns, pasta by Rustichella d'Abruzzo, maybe some gourmet mustard.

Gadget-wise, I would recommend the Thermapen Digital Thermometer ($100 but worth it), Oxo Good Grips i-Series Can Opener, AccuSharp 001 Knife Sharpener, Oxo Good Grips Silicone Collapsible Colander, Oxo Good Grips Silicone Sink Strainer, the William Bounds Proview Pepper Mill, Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press, or the Mario Batali 5-Piece Measuring Prep Bowl Set (nesting). IMO, these are all small things that actually improve the cooking experience more than you'd think.

I'd also consider some cookbooks (the Alinea one is a thing of beauty if you're into the science of molecular gastronomy) or a subscription to Cook's Illustrated.

See also:

What is a good/luxury cooking item for around $50?
Help me help my kitchen help me.
I need a serious, simple, general-purpose cookbook.

Smitten Kitchen gift guide
Serious Eats gift guides
The Kitchn's guide guides
posted by kathryn at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2009 [6 favorites]

Also big with the food crowd: fabulous heritage beans from Rancho Gordo; grits and other grains from Anson Mills.
posted by neroli at 8:13 AM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

You don't mention where on the east coast you live, but even smaller cities and towns have local specialties. Sausages, seasoning mixes, bottled sauces, esoteric honey, jams/jellies from regional fruits, etc. etc. are all possibilities for treats that your foodie brother won't be able to obtain locally.
posted by DrGail at 8:17 AM on December 15, 2009

When I was firs starting out the following gifts were the ones I used most/most appreciated:

Immersion Blender
Flavor Shaker (it's like a portable mortle and pestle)
Fancy Olive Oil
Really nice balsamic vinegar
Spices from Spice House
A really great chef's knife (this site is cheaper and the knives are still quality, just not as pretty)
Specific tools like a microplane, chinois, plunger-measure, or silicon brush are cheap, useful, and would make a good "grab bag" style present. They're also the kind of things you don't realize you need until you have them and use them all the time.
Lastly, you can never have too many stacking bowls so you may practice good mise en place.
posted by phineas.gage at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2009

posted by sanko at 8:20 AM on December 15, 2009

Actual truffle, not just truffle oil.
posted by amro at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am going to second an Immersion Blender, but I would not go with the type that phineas.gage is suggesting as in my experience they tend to get clogged. Other useful tools he might not have might be:

A mandolin.
Ceramic vegetable peelers - these are cheap, but they are amazing I hate it when I have to use a metal one having gotten used to these.
A food processor.
Tongs- good kitchen tongs are a prized possession of mine and I guard them jealously.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2009

Paella pan.
Good Balsamic Vinegar
some good cheese
good french saussison
posted by mary8nne at 8:26 AM on December 15, 2009

These are terrific, thanks! And I'm in Washington, DC, for those that have asked. Should have mentioned that!
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2009

Along with pretty much all of the above, I suggest jamón ibérico de bellota--In DC, you can get it at Dean & Deluca, Cowgirl Creamery, and Canales Deli at Eastern Market.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:00 AM on December 15, 2009

Skip things flavored with truffles and just get him a truffle.
It's definitely worth it. Also buy him a small wheel of good brie with the instructions to cut the brie in halve and sandwich the layers with shavings of truffle. Then let it age for a day or two. Good stuff.

I also agree that a mandolin is a great idea. He can use it to shave his truffle (how's that for a euphemism in need of wide acceptance?). However, eschew the fancy-pants, over-priced versions and just buy a Benriner. For beginner on the mandolin, it doesn't hurt to also invest in a kevlar glove for them.
posted by Seamus at 9:18 AM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding high-quality artisan cured meats---Framani, Salume...I'm sure there are some awesome local producers in D.C.

Hardware-wise, a big roasting pan. The kind that fits over two stove burners. That way you can sear a big roast on the stove, then just shove it in the oven. Then when it's done, you can pull it out, put the roast on a platter, and deglaze and make a sauce right there in the pan with all the good fond and drippings.

Also seconding a good chef's knife. If he already has one, then a whetstone for sharpening.
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:46 AM on December 15, 2009

I like the ideas of fleur de sel (I like this) and balsamic vinegar (this one is good if you really want to splurge) because both are versatile, keep well, and don't take up much space.
posted by TedW at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2009

Seconding an actual truffle.

Also Maldon salt.
posted by jmmpangaea at 10:04 AM on December 15, 2009

If you want a gadget (and he doesn't already have one; if he is a foodie he probably has all the basic tools), ceramic knives are awesome.
posted by TedW at 10:05 AM on December 15, 2009

Seconding sharpening equipment. No gadget or trinket, at least if you mean really sharp. A Japanese water stone, 800 grit, and a Japanese honing stone of 6000 grit, for example; that's what I normally use, out of laziness (one could be way more neurotic about it all). Look here, for example.

Otherwise, get him into Indonesian cooking and look for ingredients like Trasi (shrimp paste), sator beans (peté; self-link here), fresh galanga root, fresh turmeric, fingerroot, fresh lime leaves, Indonesian bay leaves (daun salam), etc. etc. (Most of these things can be frozen, but it's kind of cool to present them in a basket). Check out the Cook's Thesaurus for ideas.
posted by Namlit at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2009

If you go with a truffle, also give him a truffle slicer. Give him the truffle in a container surrounded by Arborio rice. The rice and container will help minimize moisture as well as help flavor the rice for a nice risotto. The slicer will hopefully prevent him from overdoing it when he adds truffle to something.

Also, its a good suggestion for something to make... and more importantly - he might let you eat some.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2009

Don't get him an actual truffle unless he's going to be able to use it in the next day or two. Truffle oil is nothing more than someones lab experiment. I'd avoid anything perishable unless the idea for the gift is to get your brother to cook something for you while he's visiting.

A superbag is a great (and unusual) kitchen toy - they're hugely better than cheese cloth for straining stock.

Rancho Gordo beans are a good choice, as long as your brother doesn't live in SF or Napa since the beans are available at the farmers markets here.

I buy balsamic vinegar from the Rare Wine company. They're the best source I've found in the country.

If you're getting an immersion blender, get a bamix. The braun/cuisinart/etc stick blenders are underpowered and don't seem to last very long if you use them regularly.

For something a bit more obscure (and expensive) - a bigolaro pasta press (for some reason it's called a torchio in the US). They're really fun to use and they make really excellent pasta.
posted by foodgeek at 10:29 AM on December 15, 2009

If he's keen on experimentation, you could give him some molecular-gastronomy type ingredients (such as alginate + calcium chloride to make `caviars'). L'Epicerie has a very interesting catalog, and there's a list of other suppliers at Khymos.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 10:31 AM on December 15, 2009

Just a note that there is no truffle in most truffle oil.

I might advise against ceramic knives, because they cannot be sharpened conventionally and are so lightweight that they require changing one's cutting technique.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:05 AM on December 15, 2009

Victoria Gourmet Chipotle Pepper Flakes. Like red pepper flakes, but more complex and delightful.
posted by sickinthehead at 11:09 AM on December 15, 2009

I recommended an immersion blender in a previous answer and it was pooh poohed as useful only for soup.

To which I reply - also sauces, salad dressings, mixed drinks (good ones will crush ice), smoothies, and all manner of other liquidy things.

I also use it to mix dry flour into the sour dough starter to keep it going.

Which leads us to the next, perhaps slightly risky, suggestion - a good sour dough starter. And a place to keep them. (Though if he is on the west coast, this may be a coals to Newcastle sort of thing. Or maybe he's not allowed to have pets.)
posted by IndigoJones at 11:54 AM on December 15, 2009

If he doesn't know about Penzey's yet, that's probably the best idea. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
You get him some spices, he notciess how much more delicious they are than his current spices, he starts buying his spices there and you are forever the awesome sister who turned him on to Penzey's and made everything he made after that taste that much better! Foolproof plan.
posted by willpie at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2009

All good suggestions thus far. At the other end of the spectrum is the Caveman Kitchen Tool.
posted by Atom12 at 12:54 PM on December 15, 2009

Oh, and if you're looking for fancy meats, my local corner store is a Polyface Farms outlet.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:58 PM on December 15, 2009

If he's just starting out he may not have much in the way of pans. I try to do most things with a basic stainless steel pan, but crepes are worth the separate equipment (the thin batter makes them hard to turn with a regular high-sided pan).

A good crepe pan doesn't have to be expensive; some cooks prefer a basic aluminum non-stick over the pricier, heavier models. They go for under $20. The one thing to look for is that the pan has a defined edge or rise; this helps control thickness and size of the (usually quite runny) batter.

There are lots of good crepe recipes with exotic ingredients.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:02 PM on December 15, 2009

Here are some cool tools from a cook I trust, Ruhlman. His book "Ratio" would be an excellent gift for someone who's experimenting. I can't recommend it enough, especially for your situation.

My advice to you is to go with the basics that will improve his everyday cooking. A good salt really makes a difference, and he'll use it every day. Maldon is the choice of real chefs. Fleur del Sel is the consumer favorite. Either steps your cooking up a notch. Smoked peppercorns are nice as well.

If you're going exotic, go with a cookbook for one of his favorite cuisines, look up relevant spices, and get him the whole spices along with a coffee grinder. He can grind the whole spices to add to his dishes. This also makes a huge difference.

Another idea is to go to and get him a CSA membership to have local, organic, fresh produce delivered from a nearby farm to a location near him on a regular basis. He gets to pick up the food (whatever's fresh) weekly. Working with local, fresh ingredients will keep him experimenting, introduce him to new foods, and, yes, this makes a difference. Maybe the biggest difference.

You could go for a really expensive truffle or balsamic, but I don't think you'll get the bang for the buck as you will for any of the above. If you get him the CSA membership, he'll be encountering new foods regularly.

P.S. The real rocket fuel ingredient is beef stock. Unfortunately, he needs to make that himself. Freeze it in an ice cube tray and add that at least one cube to everything (e.g. pasta, cooked meats and veggies of any kind, any sauce, etc. :-) And, if he doesn't have a micrograter you have to get him one. Those are really magic.
posted by xammerboy at 12:23 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

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