POSTED: Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 9:00pm
UPDATED: Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 9:04pm
ENTERTAINMENT (CNN) — Raindrops, roses, whiskers, kittens - all lovely items to be sure, but perhaps not the gifts that will make the holidays glow as brightly as you'd like. Certainly not* if they're for the food lover in your life.
With that in mind, as a person who lives, breathes and, yes, eats food for a living, I'm sharing my personal list of beloved foods, drinks, gadgets, books and save-the-world gifts to fill the hearts and mouths of your favorite food freaks. And yes, they're all available online.
- Gifts for growing -
Earlier in 2012, we declared "This is the year you garden!" Whether or not that actually came to pass, you can up your chances in 2013 with this collection of 12 varieties of heirloom seeds like Crookneck Summer Squash, Old Virginia Tomato, Sugar Cherry Tomato, and Yellow Moon and Stars Watermelon. Not only will you be keeping the legacy of these treasured vegetables alive - the company donates 30% of your purchase to directly support the Piedmont Environmental Council's "Buy Fresh Buy Local" Food Guide to ensure clean food for future generations. -- Southern Exposure ($25)
Why did the man give his girlfriend a mushroom growing kit for the holidays? Because he was a fun guy. (I'll be here all week. Try the shiitakes.)
Once you have grown mushrooms like Hen of the Woods, Lion's Mane or Blue Oyster inside your own home, you'll never settle for those sad, old supermarket buttons again. -- Fungi Perfecti ($15-$29)
- Gifts for cooking -
Smoked paprika trio
Smoke is my favorite food flavor, and I'm hard-pressed to think of any dish that wouldn't be improved by a gentle kiss of woodsy heat from this trio of smoked paprikas. I've put them in oatmeal, salad dressings, cookies and even cocktails and they have won hearts, minds and palates each and every time. -- Tienda ($16)
Bluegrass soy sauce
Rob Newton, chef/owner of Seersucker Brooklyn restaurant, will only allow American-grown ingredients in his restaurant. He hunted high and low to find this Kentucky-brewed soy sauce, aged in re-purposed bourbon barrels, and when he served it to me, it made my head explode. It's pleasantly pungent, slightly sweet and quite potentially your new obsession. -- Bourbon Barrel Foods (5oz for $6, 32oz for $34)
Georgia olive oil
Italy and Greece, we have nothing but respect for you, but the South has come to eat your lunch. Georgia Olive Farms is an agricultural cooperative formed in 2009, and they're working to create systems for successful olive farming in the southeastern United States. The oil itself is rich and deeply spicy, and with my own eyes I have witnessed people sipping it like it was brandy. This might say something about the kids of people with whom I spend my time, but it's darned good olive oil. -- Georgia Olive Oil Farms (500ml for $32)
Stone-ground Christmas grits
If anyone knows grits, it's Virginia Willis. Not only is the recent "Chopped" contestant a killer chef in her own right, she's also the author of a couple of our favorite and most-used cookbooks, "Bon Appétit, Y'all! Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern" and "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," as well as a classic Eatocracy 5@5 about how Southern is a state of mind.
When she tells us some grits are good - those grits are good. -- Virginia Willis ($10.99)
Heart measuring spoons
Full disclosure: I went to grad school for metalsmithing with Jim Dowd and watched him fall in love with his now-wife and business partner Sandra Bonazoli. I could make all sorts of jokes about a love being forged, but really, we're just here for their extraordinarily lovely heart-shaped pewter measuring spoons. They introduced this design as the company's very first product back in 1999, and it remains one of their best sellers to date. -- Beehive Kitchenware ($48)
Indoor turkey fryer
Give the gift of a great-smelling house AND not having said house burn down in the making of holiday dinners. One warning, though - once that puppy is fired up, it is nearly impossible not fry every potentially edible item in your home. -- Masterbuilt ($139.99)
- Gifts for serving -
Repurposed restaurant ware
These artful plates, bowl and cups first caught my eye on Pinterest. I bought them as a Christmas gift for my husband (we're weird like that), but they were far too cool to keep under wraps, and they've since been put into everyday rotation. Ceramic artist Meredith Host takes sturdy restaurant-style dishes and screen prints and overglazes images of human hearts, brains (bearing the slogan "i love you more than zombies love brains"), skulls, rib cages, bugs and other bone-chilling delights. -- Folded Pigs ($16-$24)
Perfect cocktail glass
These glasses are neither fancy nor schmancy, but they're a classically simple shape and a modest six ounces, compared to the tankards and fishbowls I'm often (over)served in bars. Legendary bartender Harry Craddock wrote that a cocktail should be imbibed, "quickly, while it's laughing at you." The little gems will ensure fresh giggles until the evening staggers to an end. -- Fish's Eddy ($3.50)
- Gifts for eating -
Sweet potato habanero sauce
Like a little sweet with your heat? This New Orleans-made condiment packs plenty of both, along with a heaping helping of savory. It's a perfect accompaniment to smoked meats, soups, stews, your arm... -- Cochon Butcher ($8.50)
Chocolate is chocolate is chocolate right? Nope. This isn't one of those weird, sour, bitter artisanal bars that you have to pretend to like while listening to NPR and making kale chips in the oven. They're knee-weakeningly creamy and robust bonbons that'll make you slump to the floor in joy, then crawl back up for another piece. The fact that it's all raw, fair trade, sustainable and organic is just the cherry on top. -- Fine and Raw (8-piece box $28)
The Fabulous Beekman Boys aren't just my friends and neighbors and the winners of the most recent installment of "The Amazing Race," they also sell some darned good onion jam. John Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge raise goats on their upstate New York farm and are constantly on the lookout for ideal accompaniments to their signature Blaak cheese. This combo of local onion, maple syrup and balsamic vinegar brings a wallop of savory umami flavor to any dish, and it's pretty much going to be the lucky recipient's new favorite condiment. -- Beekman 1802 ($12)
If you have had burrata before - this one is probably better. If you haven't had burrata before, DiPalo's website says it can be described as "Mozzarella stuffed with cream and strips of 'stracciatella' (stretched curd) giving it an unusually soft texture." It is described by me as gazing directly into the face of the cheese gods and living to tell the tale. -- DiPalo ($8.99)
Seven-layer caramel cake
Yeah, sure, you could make a pretty good cake at home. But would it have seven (7) layers of moist yellow cake slathered in sumptuous caramel icing and shipped in a lovely red tin by a family that's been selling them for 31 years?
The cake serves 14-20 people and can be frozen and re-frozen repeatedly in case it's just for one person. Who might like to enjoy a slice while she's watching "Law & Order" reruns late at night in her cold, dark New York City apartment while she dreams of leaving it all behind and apprenticing to an incredible Southern cake maker. Or something. -- Caroline's Cakes ($58)
Beer and pretzel caramels. Sweet potato black pepper caramels. Apple cider caramels. These are not the chalky, cloying bulk-bin caramels of our youth. These soft, luscious, handmade candies are to those as a can of spray cheese is to that burrata we just talked about, and they're the finest I have ever had. Liddabit also offers a "slurtle" - Brooklyn Brewery beer caramel poured over crunchy Martin's Pretzels or crispy Route 11 potato chips in a shell of dark chocolate. God bless America. -- Liddabit Sweets (12 for $6, 24 for $11, 48 for $20)
Allison and Matt Robicelli didn't let a little (okay, massive) hurricane get in the way of their baking the most mind-bending brownies in all of browniedom. Instead, they marshaled their community and social media resources to feed hundreds and even thousands of meals a day to people affected by Superstorm Sandy. Once their own facility was up and running again, the married chefs once again started baking up the beer, Scotch, cajeta and salt-bashed brownies that have made them an obsession of sweets fiends along the Eastern seaboard. -- Robicelli's (4 for $13-$14, 12 for $39)
Serious American ham
America has long been high on the hog when it comes to country hams, but with this smoked, aged, pasture-raised Berkshire offering from Virginia's Surry Farms, we're trotting on Italy and Spain's turf, too. The third-generation curemasters of the Edwards family have perfected their technique (developed more than 400 years ago by Native Americans and influenced by the aforementioned ham strongholds) to create the "Surryano" ham that's become a cult favorite among chefs around the U.S. Don't forget the stand for easier carving. -- Surry Farms ($199.95 for a whole ham, $64 for a stand)
Salumi of the Month Club
I was given an Armando Batali salami at my bridal shower. When I brought it home, my dog tried to run away with it. I fought that dog. I fought him hard. The only product still shipping for 2012 is the future delivery of a different salame on Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day throughout 2013. Accept that, and ensure salumi-scented dreams until the fateful day of their arrival. And consider sending the dog into another room. -- Salumi Cured Meats ($99)
- Gifts for drinking -
Super smoky Scotch
My husband and I took a week-long trip to Scotland last year. We stayed at an old country estate with a single-malt library overseen by a Scotch sommelier named Beth. Beth taught us things. When we emerged from the peat bog at the end of the week, it was with a single word upon our lips: Corryvreckan. It takes its name from the famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay, and it tastes like a rich, heady, forest fire that takes ages to put out. Get ye some. -- Ardbeg Corryvreckan (Approx $85)
Best bloody mary mix EVER
Bloody marys are usually a maintenance beverage - a cursory nod at healthy vegetable delivery on a damaged Sunday morning, while still being a delivery system for more alcohol. McClure's confounds that notion with a spiced-up, tomato paste laced, pickle brine that (gasp!) can stand up on its own, or even be cut down with some seltzer. A case of 12 might seems like excess - until you actually taste the burn and realize that's what your heart has been missing. -- McClure's (Case of 12 for $120)
- Gifts for reading -
Organize your cookbooks
Does your food lover have stacks of cookbooks and no idea what recipes are in them? A membership allows cooks to store a registry of the titles they own, so when life hands them lemons, they can easily figure out which books in their collection contain lemonade recipes. -- Eat Your Books (1 year $25)
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a lifelong picky eater who feared she would pass those habits down to her son. This led to an in-depth and deftly-written and frequently hilarious exploration into the curious science behind food aversions and what we can do to overcome them. -- Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate ($15)
Back to nature
Stockbroker-turned-Gourmet Magazine test kitchen chef Ian Knauer wasn't quite sure what to do with himself when the august publication folded, so he went back to tend the land that had been in his family for generations. The result is an earnest, honest, practical cookbook that's a celebration of the seasons and the simple gifts of the earth. -- The Farm ($30)
A woman's place is in the kitchen - the restaurant kitchen. In this engaging (and often enraging) book, journalist Charlotte Druckman wove together first-hand accounts from a stunningly smart panel of over 70 female chefs who are holding their own in a male-dominated field, and commanding only a fraction of the recognition they deserve. -- Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen ($24.95)
Even if you're not familiar with Ruth Bourdain - the unholy Twitter-borne mash-up of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain - the food freak in your life is. RuBo, as she(?) is known to fans, won the inaugural James Beard Award for humor writing, and brings ever bit of that biting wit to this send-up of modern-day food fanaticism. -- Comfort Me with Offal: Ruth Bourdain's Guide to Gastronomy ($19.99)
Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith won the first season of "The Next Food Network Star" and went on to write my single most favorite entertaining book of all time, "Talk With Your Mouth Full." Their newest book expands on their big-hearted and easily elegant hosting techniques, and include techniques and recipes to make even novice bartenders feel like master mixologists. -- The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks from The Hearty Boys ($19.99)
- Gifts for saving the world -
You've fed your loved one's mouth, mind and soul. How about spreading some of that love around? Everyone has their favorite causes, but I'm a particular fan of the International Rescue Committee's New Roots campaign, which enables refugees to grow foods from their homeland and stay in touch with their culture, while sustaining themselves and their families.
CNN's Impact Your World has more ways to help you channel your time, energy and cash to where it will feed the most people where it's needed most.
Have a delicious holiday season!
*Yes, I know you can make rose petal syrup, chocolate-coated rose petals, etc. I just don't care for them.