Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Foodie Gifts for Guys

Yes, men in general and dads in particular are notoriously hard to shop for. But if there's a dad on your gift list who's into food—whether mixologist, cook, wine lover, pit master, or just good old gourmand—you can stop dithering about what to give him for Father's Day (or any day you want to give him a present). Here's a list of on-line gifts ranging from budget-minded to budget busting, from practical to pie-in-the sky, from predictable to way out there to help you come up with something he'll really like and maybe actually use. (Note that these ideas are perfect for guys who aren't dads, too.)

The good news is that you can do the shopping without ever leaving your computer chair.

For more gift ideas for foodies--not just dads--go here.


Bartending and Grilling Doodads for Dads
If you’re trolling for gift ideas, check out http://www.homewetbar.com/ for lots of predictable as well as some novel but truly handy grilling and bartending doodads in a wide range of prices. For the family grill man who’s already got all the basics, choose from assorted digital meat thermometers; personalized steak branding irons (really-see the pic on the right!); super-duper grill cleaning brushes; or cordless grill light here. For the household bartender, find the usual sets, plus extras like a flexible bottle or flask cleaning brush; monogrammed coasters; a beer 6-pack holster belt (for the drinker on the go maybe?); or a floating beverage cooler (so Dad doesn’t have to get out of the pool for his next brew, or course!) here.

Gourmet Bacon, Ham, and Smoked Poultry Samplers
Something for the serious meat-eating gourmet or gourmand: The late Johnny Apple of the New York Times once called the Neuske’s applewood smoked rashers “the Beluga of bacon,” so if you’ve got a dad who’s a bacon, sausage or ham fan, he’ll love a sampler of goodies from this storied Wisconsin family firm, found at http://www.nueskes.com/. Gifts start in the $20 range, including some “Dad’s Day Specials,” and on-line exclusives including smoked pork loin chops and a sausage gift assortment here.

Cutting Edge Ceramic Chef’s Knife
For the dad who not only enjoys eating and drinking but actually cooks, a top-quality, high-tech ceramic chef’s knife or two might be the perfect gift. Knives with zirconium carbide blades will especially appeal to the man who’s wowed by the latest “cutting edge” technology, as this ultra-modern ceramic material is just below rubies, sapphires, and diamonds on the hardness scale! Having used the sleek, super-sharp, “Black Diamond” (click here, picured at right) zirconium carbide knives myself for several years, I can attest that they cut effortlessly and never seem to dull. They are the knives I now reach for almost all routine slicing and chopping, and even though they do chip (don’t try to cut through bone!), they never rust and never need sharpening (at least not so far).

Only a couple manufacturers actually sell ceramic blades made from the top-of the-line zirconium carbide; this material is chemically darkened and hardened from the somewhat less durable white zirconium oxide using an extra firing, or hot isostatic pressing (HIP) process. The least expensive zirconium carbide knives I’ve found are available are from an American firm, URI Eagle, at http://store.urieagle.biz/ for well under $100. The much better known Japanese Kyocera company sells one line of the zirconium carbide knives, called KyotopHIP; these are usually highly-rated but much pricier. You can see what’s available and check Amazon.com prices here. Note that unless Kyocera knives are designated Kyotop HIP, they are not zirconium carbide, even if the blades are black.

Decorative Chi-chi Salt Slabs, Blocks, Bowls
Even the foodie dad with everything will likely not have this: Beautiful, translucent pink, Himalayan salt blocks, slabs, and bowls suitable for cooking, serving, or as kitchen/dining room decoration pieces. Your special man of the day can use them hot, cold, or at room temperature. The salt surfaces will slowly infuse moist foods such as meats and fish, or simply function as gorgeous presentation areas for dry foods like crackers, cheese, and chocolates. He can wipe them clean and reuse them repeatedly. Prices vary from $14 for a small sushi slab or salt cube, to $42 or for bowls and dishes, to over $100 for some large squares and blocks. Useful info/instructions for use and care provided here. Inventory/prices/pics are at: http://www.atthemeadow.com/

Gourmet Sipper's Equipment and Supplies
Whether your favorite dad is a wine collector, coffee or tea aficionado, home beer brewer, or cocktail maker, there are suitable small and big ticket items at http://www.beveragefactory.com/. If you’re budget conscious, check out mojito muddlers, tea infusers, and shot glasses. If the sky’s the limit, consider espresso machines, bar blenders, wine cabinets, ice machines, and bar refrigerators. Amazon also has a nice array of less expensive items like double-walled thermo glasses (shown right), stainless steel jiggers, and wine pourers/stoppers in the “bar tools and glasses” section here.
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trendy Must Be Tasty, Too--Chamomile Shortbread


I'm always leery of trendy recipes. Trying too hard for the big "t" can be a big t-r-a-p! When a recipe developer or cookbook author excitedly rushes off to devise a concoction using the latest hot ingredient, it's surprisingly easy to lose sight of what should be the key concern—how the recipe tastes!

Whether the item du jour is something tricky to incorporate, like sea urchins, or fairly easy, like sea salt, it doesn't belong in everything. Is that cream of artichoke soup really better with a poached sea urchin perched on top? Does $15-an-ounce imported pink sea salt really make that soup better than ordinary salt would? (Maybe—if it's an eye-catching color, has an interesting texture, and is used as a garnish.) I think the recipe developer, whether cookbook author, blogger, or chef, owes it to his or her audience to ask and honestly answer such questions.

Most recipe developers will admit that sometimes the idea of the dish is a lot better than the dish itself. When this happens, the best course is simply to abandon the testing and try something else. But letting go of what seemed a bright idea isn't easy—especially when time, money, and pride in one's intellectual property are already invested.

I learned to ask the hard questions and personally pledged to heed the answers back in the 1980s when white chocolate was all the rage. Cookbook authors and chefs were tossing it into everything from sauce anglaise and creme brulee to cranberry cookies and chocolate fudge. (Some still are.)

I tried this too, with decidedly mixed results. I discovered that the creamy, unctuously sweet chunks of white chocolate definitely can provide a pleasing contrast in zingy cranberry cookies and a bittersweet fudge. But the product is way too mild and cloying to do much, if anything, for a creme brulee or sauce anglaise. I decided I simply couldn't, in the interest of striving to be trendy, encourage readers to spend their time and money on this item when it didn't actually enhance.

Which leads me to my chamomile shortbread recipe. I have the feeling that chamomile is about to be rescued from antimacassar lace and tea cosy obscurity and zoom to chi-chi restaurant hot ticket status. I first noticed it recently in a refreshing cocktail called a chamomile sour at a culinary conference in Portland, Oregon. (See my last blog post.) Though I'd never been a fan of chamomile tea, the herb was a charmer in this drink. In fact, I was wowed. I've since seen chamomile in other recipes, including a sauce anglaise, where it also added a subtle but very real appeal.

So, sensing that this herb is about to become the next smoked paprika, I've attempting to catch the lastest culinary wave (or at least ripple) with my shortbread. I promise that the chamomile won't taste weird, or be more trouble than it's worth, or serve no obvious purpose at all. It will genuinely enhance, lending an elusive, hard to describe, but decidedly pleasant flavor. I hope it will also offer a fresh, new sensory experience, which is what truly sound trend-setting recipes always do. Still if chamomile doesn't sound right to you but you're up for a slightly different herb-flavored sweet, try these amazing rosemary cookies . Or perhaps these pumpkin cookies with cream cheese frosting are more your speed.



Chamomile Petticoat Tails Shortbread

I automatically think of Great Britain when I make this shortbread, though I have to admit I never saw any chamomile shortbread when I visited there. As is typical, this version is rich and buttery, yet mild enough that the subtle, haunting herb taste comes through. Long, slow baking heightens the butter flavor and gives the slices a faint tawny color, too. The homespun slices have a slightly tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture and, like most shortbreads, go quite well with a cup of regular or herbal tea.

How shortbread baked in a round and cut into wedges came to be named petticoat tails is somewhat of a mystery. Some say it references the hoop skirts of early English court ladies; others think it’s a corruption of the French “petite galettes,” or little cakes. Choice one is more entertaining and fanciful, so I'm leaning in that direction.

The easiest way to obtain the chamomile needed for this recipe is in the form of herbal tea bags. (Just check the label and be sure that you’re buying pure chamomile and not an herb blend.) Depending on the bags, you may need 5 or 6 or more to yield the amount required.

It’s also fine to use the little yellow and white dried chamomile blooms sometimes sold in health food stores and herb shops. In this case, grind them until finely chopped but not completely powdery in a food processor. They may have a stronger aroma and flavor than the chamomile in tea bags, so start with 2 tablespoons and add a little more after tasting the dough if necessary.

1 cup (2 sticks) cool and firm unsalted butter, cut into chunks
7 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons pure chamomile dried tea (about 6 to 7 tea bags) or dried chamomile blooms ground fairly fine in a food processor
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 300 degrees F. Set out a 10-inch fluted tart pan or 10- to 11-inch pie plate. (If using a pie plate, line it with foil that overhangs 2 inches on opposing sides.) Set out a large ungreased baking sheet.

Combine the butter, all but 1 tablespoon sugar (reserve the 1 tablespoon for garnish), the chamomile, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. With a mixer on medium speed, beat about 2 minutes or until very well blended and lightened in color, scraping down the bowl as needed. On low speed, beat in the flour until evenly incorporated. If the mixer motor labors, knead in the last of the flour with your hands. If the dough is dry and crumbly knead in a teaspoon or two of water.

Press the dough evenly into the tart pan or pie plate: If using the tart pan finish the dough edges by pushing it into the fluted indentations; be sure the dough edge is evenly thick all the way around. If using a foil-lined pie plate, press the dough evenly into the bottom and out to the edges until it is evenly thick at the perimeter. With the tines of a fork or the dowel-like side of a wooden spoon handle, press decorative indentations into the dough edge all the way around.

Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar evenly over the dough surface. Smooth the dough surface and imbed the sugar by laying a sheet of wax paper over top, then smoothing out and pressing down with your fingertips. With a table knife, carefully cut the dough into quarters, then cut each quarter into 4 or 5 wedges.

Bake for 44 to 48 minutes, or until the shortbread is fragrant and not quite firm when pressed in the center top. Let the pan cool for about 20 minutes on a wire rack; the shortbread is too tender to handle will hot. When cool, carefully retrace the cuts if necessary. Gently lift out the shortbread wedges and place, slightly separated, on the baking sheet. Return to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes longer, just until the wedges just start to color slightly all over. Transfer to a wire rack; let stand until completely cooled. Keep airtight at room temperature for up to 3 weeks. Freeze airtight for up to 2 months.

Makes 16 or 20 petticoat tails (wedges).
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