What food lovers buy—and want—for the holidays | Food Feature | Indy Week
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What food lovers buy—and want—for the holidays 

For the dedicated cook, a partridge in a pear tree doesn't compare to a fine paring knife as the ideal holiday gift. And those three French hens would benefit from basting with a melted block of rich European butter while roasting to a golden glow in your new convection oven.

We checked with area chefs, cookbook writers and specialty food purveyors to see what they would most like to give or receive as a holiday gift. There's still plenty of time to find it or to exchange something lame for something fab. Consider their tips when shopping for your favorite foodie.

Tempted by that novelty whisk with a pink pig handle? People who love to work in kitchens do not necessarily love kitschy kitchen toys, says Jay Pierce, the outspoken chef at Cary's Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen and a contributor to Eatocracy, a CNN food blog.

"I'm pretty picky when it comes to ingredients or gadgets, so I'm not liable to get excited about something that was on closeout at Big Lots or T.J. Maxx," says Pierce, who confesses a passion for Luxardo cherries and chocolate-covered pecans. "I do love antique canning jars, mostly the Italian style with the hinged lid. They're great in small sizes for storing dried ingredients like hibiscus and chiles."

Other food lovers echoed Pierce's sentiments, saying they hope Santa loads his sleigh with simple but distinctive treats this year.

"In the interest of finding a more simple life, I am a huge fan of consumable gifts—especially cheese," says Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery, which this year earned multiple awards for its Asiago-inspired Calvander cheese. "We love to receive cheese and nuts. Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts ... they're all on my Top 10 list."

April Schlanger, co-owner of Cary's eco-friendly Sip ... A Wine Store, would be delighted to receive wine as a holiday gift. She's especially keen on Love Lies Bleeding, a pinot noir by the bio-dynamic producer Dominio IV, and Cuvee du Chat by Beaujolais Villages. "They're sexy and fun and both smell just great," she says. They'd taste especially fine, she adds, served in stemless Riedel Swirl wine glasses. "They never tip over so you can't spill your wine. I'm going to give these to people because they are a really fun conversation piece."

Jonathan Bonchak of Durham's Counter Culture Coffee, who was just named 2013 Southeast Regional Brewer's Cup Champion, hopes for some small-batch bourbon in his Christmas stocking. But when it comes to giving, he prefers presents that are fun but ultimately practical. "I'd give everyone a single-origin coffee subscription, a hand grinder and a pour-over cone so they'll always have really great coffee," he says.

Much like checking a smoke alarm when the time changes, Paul Mosca uses the holidays as a reminder to freshen his spice drawer. "It's a great time to restock the basics and add a few really special items," says Mosca, founder of Raleigh's Elemental Chocolate. "One of my favorites is the Milwaukee Avenue Steak Seasoning by the Spice House. I love it sprinkled over fresh popped popcorn."

Amanda Miller, co-founder of the Chapel Hill-based wholesale operation Dock to Door Seafood, which supplies several top Triangle restaurants, has a somewhat grander plan. If Santa really wanted to surprise her with a dream gift, she muses, he'd send her to England to take classes at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's famed River Cottage cookery school.

"I'd love to take the Catch and Cook class this June," Miller says. "However, the River Cottage Fish Book is a much better fit for our family budget, and it's a gift that I would be thrilled to receive."

Joe Philipose, co-founder of Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, travels frequently to research and experience creative food trends. He suggests focusing on a hobby or shared interest.

"Enjoying cocktails out can be an expensive habit, but my girlfriend got me everything I need to stock a home bar," he says, noting a favorite item is a set of silicone molds for making large, spherical ice cubes that are slow to melt. "It's been great fun for us both. After all, if I'm going to make one cocktail, I might as well make two so we can enjoy them together."

For Phoebe Lawless, chef-owner of the acclaimed Scratch bakery in Durham, the answer to what she most likes and dreads to receive is the same: cookbooks. "I love getting the ones I want, but the unsolicited titles always languish on my shelves for years because I feel guilty for getting rid of them," says Lawless, who has been spending a little less time in the kitchen since the arrival of her second child, Warren, last month.

That said, she does have a favorite cookbook to give as a gift: The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. "It's full of solid basic recipes that are a great start for the beginning baker," Lawless says, adding it's a good guide for mastery of basic baking techniques.

Don't try slipping any cookbooks under the tree at the Raleigh home of Debbie Moose. "It's been very hard to convince my family that cookbooks are not appropriate gifts," says Moose, author of Buttermilk (UNC Press), which was featured in a recent holiday cookbook list by The New York Times. "I hate to sound ungrateful, but really, enough. I'd rather have a really good bottle of champagne."

Gift giving at the holidays remains a somewhat foreign concept to Vansana Nolintha, who co-owns the uber-hip Bida Manda restaurant at Raleigh's Moore Square with his younger sister, Vanvisa. "Giving objects as presents is quite uncommon in our tradition," says Nolintha, a Buddhist who grew up in Laos. "Our parents liked to give us experiences in meals."

When he does give gifts, he takes special pleasure in sharing the flavors of his homeland. "I think a lot of people are really timid with spices, but this encourages them to play," says Nolintha, who likes to give lemongrass plants. "For me, food should always be associated with joy."

Jill Warren Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Kitchen toys."

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