Perfect presents for foodie friends

Gloves that peel vegetables…a blowtorch? There are some surprises on Franka Philip’s Christmas shopping list

Illustration by Darren Chee Wah

It’s the time of the year when you have to think about buying gifts for those special people in your life, and, inevitably, one of them is going to be an aspiring Ina Garten or Jamie Oliver. The trick to buying gifts for people who love cooking is to understand their needs. That means carefully observing them cook and listening to their little complaints about what could make the time in the kitchen more useful. When people ask me about buying presents for the foodies in their lives, I usually ask: how long has your foodie been cooking, how good are they, and what do they like doing best – baking, making desserts, or cooking challenging main courses?

I’ve also been looking around at the useful stuff out there, and I’ve come up with three gifts that I’d buy for my friends who cook.

The first is a pair of gloves. Not everyday washing-up gloves, but Skrub’a gloves. This range of Danish-made textured elastic nylon gloves is great for cleaning vegetables. They come in varying colours like black for potatoes and orange for carrots, but one can do the job of the other, no problem. As I was writing this, I noticed there’s also a pair for descaling and cleaning fish – these have a special patch on the palm of the gloves to remove scales. Genius!

One of the cook’s most important tools is a good knife. I can’t overstate how vital this is. Without good knives, cooking is a chore, not a pleasure. Knives can’t be a surprise gift, though, because the cook needs to hold the knife, feel the handle, and test it out in the shop to ensure that he or she is comfortable with it. There are as many knives as there are uses for them, but start with a solid chef’s knife. You can also pick up the highly recommended book, Mastering Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to the Most Important Tools in Your Kitchen by Norman Weinstein, which also comes with a helpful DVD.

My third choice isn’t a gadget but a book. Ratio: The Simple Codes behind the Art of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman is my book find of the year. Ruhlman breaks down the properties of basic recipes and demystifies the formulas of seemingly difficult recipes. I’ve found it quite useful for baking, because if you know the proportions in which ingredients should be used, it’s easy to make your own variations. Once you know, for example, that basic bread dough is made up of five parts flour and three parts water plus yeast, then you can add other ingredients to make any kind of bread you desire. This book will serve any good cook well for many years.

For more ideas on cooking gifts, I turned to foodie friends. Catherine Phipps, who once made Dominica her home, writes for the Guardian in London. Phipps often tests and reviews appliances, and this year, she’s been lucky enough to get her hands on the amazing Thermomix, which she admits is a totally luxury gift.

“It’s a surprisingly compact food processor which also weighs and cooks, is hugely popular on the Continent, and should be here (in London) too. Why? It is versatile and efficient, without needing all the attachments most processors require. It grinds anything in seconds, makes ready-to-serve sorbet, kneads bread and pasta dough in a minute and a half, makes the creamiest custards, sauces and soups, and is responsible for the best pastry I’ve ever made. I love it.”

A little lower down the price scale, Phipps recommends the trusty pressure cooker.

“A pressure cooker is indispensible to anyone who wants to cook on a budget, yet those in need won’t necessarily be able to afford one, so it makes for a thoughtful present. In minutes you can cook unsoaked beans and pulses, turn tough, cheap cuts into tender morsels, and cut your cooking times down on pretty much everything else. Essential.”

With gifts, sometimes the simplest is the most effective, and Phipps’ third choice falls into this category. “I have lost count of the number of people I have bought potato ricers for – usually after they have remarked about the lump-free, non-gluey, creamy mash they have eaten at my table. It looks like an oversized garlic press and works on the same principle. More expensive than a regular potato masher, but worth it.”

New York-based Trinidadian chef Kashia Cave runs My City Kitchen Inc, a non-profit organisation that teaches children from six to 17 about the culinary arts and the benefits of wholesome food. Her top choice was the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer, an appliance that many ardent bakers swear by. “I use it more during this season for baking and cake decorating. It’s a must-have for me, like an American Express card. I don’t do without it,” she said.

Kashia also suggested the underrated stainless-steel injector or turkey baster. “My turkey and chicken has to be moist and very juicy. It makes my poultry so much better.”

Kimberly Parris, another chef from Trinidad & Tobago based in the Big Apple, also listed the turkey baster as a good foodie gift. “They’re not just for turkey! It’s the perfect item to get oil out of your sauces.”

I’m totally in agreement with Parris on why the versatility of her favourite piece of kitchen equipment – a cast-iron grill/griddle pan – makes it a great gift. “The griddle is great for quesadillas, pancakes, etc, and the grill grills like you were outside!”

But what do you get for the foodies who seem to have everything? I think you’ve got to go for something with a bit of wow factor. And that’s why Sarina Bland, of the Trinigourmet blog, recommends the Butane Chef torch.

“Cooking gets downright sexy when one is able to wield fire and steel. With a flick of your finger and a twist of the wrist you’ll be able to get the perfect golden tips on your meringues, not to mention the ultimate crackling golden amber crusts to your crème brulée. If you are feeling particularly flashy, nothing will make a get-together as unforgettable as the moment when you whip out your torch and flame each guest’s serving before their eyes. Voila!”

So when you’re buying those gifts, remember they’ll only be appreciated if they’re useful; take the time to listen and observe – and maybe you’ll get the gift of great food for years in return.