Gift Guide, Day 9

December 6, 2010

La Vieille Prune

It was pretty much love at first whiff. The first time I tasted this aged, plum brandy the aroma came surging toward me out of the glass. It was so mellow that I imagined a crackling fire, violins playing, a cashmere hug. I folded my hands around the glass and the aroma lingered, still seducing me with its perfume long after the liquor itself had vanished.

I love cooking with Vieille Prune; add it to apple sauce, or chicken liver pate, or just toss a drop into a ragu – and whatever you’re making becomes softer, rounder, more appealing.

For years you couldn’t buy Vieille Prune in America, and I faithfully brought bottles back from France for my friends. I usually bought mine at La Maison de la Truffe in Paris, because I loved the old-fashioned writing on the label. This wonderful liquor is still shockingly rare in the United States – and isn’t that one reason to offer it as a gift? – but I’ve found a few sources in California. If anyone knows another place to buy Vieille Prune, I’d love to know about it.

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Gift Guide, Day 8

December 5, 2010

An Entire Wardrobe of Flours

There are a few things I always have in my freezer, and Anson Mills grits are one of them. A big bowl of grits is perfect comfort food, and this hand-milled corn is the best I’ve found. And I don’t even think about making polenta unless I’ve got some Anson Mills on hand.

But as I was trolling through their website a few weeks ago (the recipe section is impressive), I came upon a few more must-have products. For one thing, they sell ni-hachi sobakoh buckwheat flour to make fresh Japanese soba. They also have old-fashioned sesame flour for benne cakes, semolina for pizza and pasta, rye flour for bread, and wonderful hand-milled cake flour. The result: This year my baking friends are all getting entire wardrobes of flours, (along with their recipe for Angel Food Cake). I can’t think of a single baker who won’t be thrilled.

Anson hand-mills and ships its products only on Tuesdays.

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Gift Guide, Day 7

December 4, 2010

A Wardrobe of Great Beans

Yesterday was all about carnivores. Today we’re taking the other tack, coming up with ways to please a vegetarian.

In my opinion, every vegetarian’s perennial problem is trying to find good beans. This is because most stores keep them forever and sell them stale, so that the beans refuse to get soft, no matter how long you cook them. Even worse, in a world filled with exotic beans, most places offer only pedestrian varieties.

Enter Cesare Casella, the maestro of beans. The chef/owner of Salumeria Rosi loves the gentle little Burrino that tastes like butter, and the giant Fagioli Grossi with their mottled flesh. His beans, imported from Italy, are flavorful, beautiful and plump. My favorites are the Fagioli del Papa, which have marbled purple and beige skins and taste of chestnuts, and the big creamy Fagioli Corona that like to stand in for meat. The restaurant’s website is a great resource for bean-lovers, and a few varieties, packed into pretty jars, make great gifts.

Cesare doesn’t sell black beans, but if that’s all you can get, here’s my favorite black bean chili (this is for you, Jessica.)

Black Bean Chili

Soak 2 pounds of dried black beans overnight.

Toast 2 tablespoons cumin seed, 2 tablespoons paprika, and 2 teaspoons crumbled dried oregano in a dry skillet just until fragrant. Grind the spices into dust with a mortar and pestle. Add 2 dried pasilla chiles (stem and seeds discarded), coarsely chopped.

Saute a couple of diced onions in a bit of oil until golden in a large pot with a teaspoon of salt. Add 10 cloves of garlic, minced and 2 tablespoons of chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo. Stir in spice mixture. Add the drained black beans, a couple of bay leaves and 3 quarts of water. Simmer, covered, until the beans are soft. (This should take about an hour, but if your beans are old it might take considerably longer.)

Add a 28 ounce can of chopped tomatoes. Taste for salt. Cook another 20 minutes or so and serve topped with sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese.

This will make 8 to 10 people very happy.

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Gift Guide, Day 6

December 3, 2010

Bacon Filled Hot Dogs

One of the best memories of my last trip to San Francisco was standing on line outside the Ferry Building, contemplating which hot dog I was going to order from the 4505 stand. Just watching people walking away munching on dogs piled high with crisp chicharrones was a treat. It was topped only by getting my own Zilla dog, which was every bit as delicious as advertised.

The 4505 dogs are uncured and made from good ingredients (the bacon in them comes from Niman); this is, in short, a hot dog you don’t have to feel guilty about. They’ve got the classic snap of a great dog, as well as the tender texture. The big drawback was that the were sold only in San Francisco.

4505 now ships its bacon filled hot dogs across the country. You have to order by Monday, they ship 2-day air on Wednesday, so on Friday you can be giving these great dogs to all your friends. (How convenient that Christmas falls on Saturday.)

I’m planning to wrap them up with jars of kimchi, bags of chicharrones and if I’m really ambitious, home-baked buns. I can’t think of a single friend who won’t be happy to see me carrying this through the door.

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Gift Guide, Day 5

December 2, 2010

Handmade copper cookie cutters

The year the monogrammed sterling silver yo yo appeared on my desk at Christmas, I knew the corporate gift giving culture had gone insane. When you’re a magazine editor people are constantly sending you gifts you don’t want.

But occasionally something both useful and pretty actually shows up. My favorite was a huge copper cookie cutter in the shape of a star; it makes beautiful cookies – and looks swell on the Christmas tree.

Stars are kind of generic, but cookie cutters come in every shape and style you can imagine, and you can tailor your cutters to your friends. Coppergifts makes cookie cutters in 2,000 shapes (every dog you have ever seen, for instance) – and if they don’t have what you’re looking for they’ll custom craft a cookie cutter just for you.

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