My Favorite Things - A Holday Gift Guide

Not only do I love to eat out in restaurants with some frequency, I also love to cook at home. Part of that love is gourmet or exotic ingredients, tools and gadgets for my kitchen. Because it’s that time of year when people start to fill up their favorite hiding places with gifts for loved ones, or make wish lists so their in-laws don’t supply them with yet another fruitcake or witty coffee mug, I thought I would share some of my favorite purveyors for tasty gift-giving around the holidays. Some of these items I’ve given, while some have been given to me, all to great acclaim. If you have a Big Hungry in your life, consider an item or two off this list. He or she may even invite you over for dinner to thank you!
Penzey’s Spices – This is my favorite place to get spices for a number of reasons. First of all, they are of very high quality for extremely low prices, because all Penzey’s does is sell spices. Secondly, you can buy each spice or blend in the size that best suites you; since good spices are fresh spices, buying smaller containers on a more frequent basis will improve your cooking measurably. Thirdly, their spice blends are delicious and inventive, saving a lot of hassle and making quick weeknight cooking a breeze. My two absolute favorites from Penzey’s are the Galena St. Rub for grilled, skin-on, bone-in chicken, and Ozark Seasoning for boneless chicken breasts. The Galena St. has a kick to it, and is the hands-down best rub on the planet for beer can chicken. The Ozark blend, for whatever reason, tastes and smells like fried chicken, so you get the flavor without the fat. Plus, once you’ve placed an order, you begin receiving their catalogue, which has excellent, easy recipes each month. Their pork noodle soup recipe is a winter standard in my house, and makes use of Penzey’s genius soup bases. You just can’t go wrong with this company’s products, and their gift sets are gorgeous.

Vosges Haute Chocolat – I discovered Vosges several years ago, when my colleague Lauren escaped to the big city for the weekend and brought me back the best souvenir ever: a bacon chocolate candy bar. I became a devoted customer the instant I broke off a tiny corner of this delicacy and let the creamy chocolate melt across my tongue as I chewed on the salty, smoky bacon bits mixed in. This company has all sorts of unholy goodies to derail even the strictest of diets, among them my favorites: Mo’s Dark Chocolate Bacon Bars, Mo’s Bacon Chocolate Chip Pancake Mix, Bacon Caramel Toffee (!!!) and Caramel Marshmallows. Shawn and I just tried the bacon chocolate chip pancakes for the first time a couple weeks ago (thanks to Meg for the gift!), and I was blown away. The pancakes are very thin and tender, almost like a crepe, and you add the chunks of bacon chocolate yourself, so you can decide the level of sin in which to engage. I also highly encourage the use of bacon caramel toffee as a breakfast treat. It will make you happy from the tip of your toes to the brim of your cap. And the caramel marshmallows are pure decadence – if you’ve never had a gourmet, handmade marshmallow, you don’t know what you’re missing. Overall, this company is run by a woman who really loves food, and wants to feed people the absolute best product she can create. It’s unabashedly expensive, and totally worth it. And if you’re looking for the perfect gift for Big Hungry Shelby, I’ve wanted to try their taleggio cheese truffles from the Italian collection since I first spied them online.

Bacon chocolate chip pancake mix, Galena St. dry rub, coated whisk and butternut squash seed oil

Napastyle – Chef Michael Chiarello, of Food Network and Top Chef masters fame, is a Napa Valley champion and purveyor of high-end homegoods, cookware and gourmet foodstuffs. Again, there are no bargains to be found at Napastyle, but everything I’ve purchased here has been of the highest quality. I am irrevocably addicted to Napastyle’s ubiquitous Gray Salt, which is available plain or dressed up in several iterations in dry rubs and flavors. It is wonderful on steak, will perk up mellow slow cooked dishes, and is absolute dynamite sprinkled judiciously into hot chocolate. They also have a wonderful little creation called marinated parmesan dip, which is a bit spicy due to Calabrian chili peppers and fantastically savory – great to keep in your pantry and whip out to spread on crackers or bread if unexpected company arrives. The crispy prosciutto bits are another good pantry staple; these are like bacon bits on steroids, so think about quick pastas, frittatas or risottos as a vehicle for these. Last but not least, Napastyle sells Saltistry Samplers full of knock-out specialty flavored salts. I received two samplers from my friend Lindsay last year, and I treat them like the most precious saffron: to be deployed sparingly and with love. The heirloom tomato salt in the harvest sampler is astonishingly good in plain white rice cooked in chicken stock, and there’s a lime flake variety that jazzes up chicken fajitas terrifically. I think you’ll also find that Napastyle has about a million things that you can’t live without as far as housewares and kitchen gadgets go. I have a gorgeous little white ceramic salt box in which to keep my gray salt that was a gift from my friend Gwen and that I absolutely cherish, while I’ve only managed to covet and drool over their beautiful wine barrel stave furniture. Once I win the lottery, it will only be a matter of time until the campaign side table and half-time chaise lounge are mine.

Williams-Sonoma – It’s not like Williams-Sonoma is some insider’s secret. The store is in most large malls across the country. But I love a choice few of their products, plus the overall calm and free samples in their stores. The same Gwen of salt box fame gifted me with the classic 10 piece glass bowl set years ago, and it is an absolute staple in my kitchen. The smallest bowls are perfect for mise en place or appetizers while the largest of the set are ideal for mixing batters and dough. This is an affordable kitchen basic that would make a great gift for a young couple or twenty-something single. W-S’s silicone-coated locking tongs are the item in my kitchen that I could not live or cook without. I use them during the preparation of literally every meal, as the silicone coating protects the delicate insides of all my nonstick cookware. These make a great stocking-stuffer, and any serious home cook should own a pair. Similarly, the silicone coated whisks are indispensible if you ever make sauces in a nonstick saucier pan – like béchamel for mac n cheese or gravy of any sort. This is the only time of year W-S carries its Spiced Chestnut scent of its essential oils collection of lotions, candles and soaps. Grab some now, because this scent is divine and all of these products are extremely high quality. I can’t imagine a foodie who wouldn’t appreciate a gift bag filled with a spiced chestnut candle, silicone coated tongs and whisk under the tree – a dream present!

Saltistry sampler, spiced chestnut candle, ceramic gray salt box, Napastyle roasted garlic olive oil, coated tongs and Penzey’s spice mixes

Savannah Bee Company – My friend Jill gave me Savannah Bee Co’s no drip honey pump as a gift last year, and I love the thing. If you use honey in your household, you need it. It’s only $5, and again, a fabulous stocking stuffer or, combined with some of their other products, like their yummy lip balms or rare tupelo honey, a really unique and affordable gift basket. In fact, look out, because I may be giving the honey pumps out myself this year!

Lake Champlain Chocolates – This is my favorite brand of chocolates outside of the snuggly, pampered world created by Vosges. A smidge more affordable and definitely more accessible, Lake Champlain has a complete line of chocolates, truffles, hot chocolate mixes and candies. I would not have made it through exams at Geneseo if Pictures & Presents on Main St. hadn’t sold Lake Champlain’s wares. While all of their chocolates are exceptional and gift-worthy, I especially prefer the 5 Star Chocolate Bars, with the edge going to the hazelnut variety, which is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Another great stocking stuffer (unless your stockings hang over the mantle of your working fireplace!), these chocolate bars put Snickers and Almond Joy to shame. The chocolate is prefect-tasting, never too sharp or too milky, and the textures and ingredients are to die for. The Chocolates of Vermont chocolates also are standouts, with the evergreen mint flavor winning my blue ribbon prize.

Di Bruno Bros – Jill really gets me. In addition to her brilliant honey pump gift, a few years ago she sent me a ginormous chunk of imported parmiggiano-reggiano cheese from Di Bruno along with an amazing brand of olive oil that doesn’t seem to be on their Website now, but was simply extraordinary. I’ve bought and enjoyed the Frantoia brand of oil in the past, and once sent some Philly-area friends the pepperoni and cheese gift box as a thank you, which was received with the hoped-for groans and nodding. This shop has been around since 1939, and they know what they’re doing. All of their products are top-notch, so you really can’t make a mistake. If I were to make a wishlist here, I’d be asking for the pesto cheese spread and some fantastic olive oil.

Stony Brook Whole Hearted Foods – Do you love the tastes of fall? Roasted acorn squash, hearty stews and soups, yummy fresh-baked breads and the like? Then get yourself or someone you love some cooking oil from this company. I have the butternut squash seed oil, which I bought at the Sheldrake Point Vineyards last year and first read about in edible Finger Lakes. It smells toasty and warm, and is the absolute best thing for roasting vegetables in the fall – even potatoes! The Website lists where you can buy the oil, and while it’s expensive, I think you’ll find you use it sparingly and lovingly in your cooking. Mine is still mostly full, and I’ve used it to grace several meals. I really want to try it on scallops next, and I promise to let you know how it is when I do.

Of course, a classic holiday gift, and one that always fits, is a gift certificate. Because I’m a big fan of supporting local restaurants, why not choose gift certificates to your favorite eatery for your loved ones this year? You’ll be bolstering the local economy and giving the gift of bread-breaking at the same time. If you’re lucky, the giftee may even invite you to be his or her guest at the meal. So open your heart and your tummy to the world of culinary gift-giving this holiday season like a true Big Hungry. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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