Kitchen sink

I've had a couple of readers bemoan the absence of recipes, and my annual Christmas gift recommendations, from this blog. So today: foodblogging.

In this post, the Christmas gift recommendations; in the next, my long-awaited recipes from Iron Chef Blogger. Then, some tax policy stuff. It's a veritable smorgasbord!

First, the perennials: things that I recommend every year because, frankly, every chef should own them.

1. Kitchenaid Stand Mixer If you've never used one, it's easy to say "But it's just a mixer? Why would I drop several hundred dollars on a mixer?" Because if you want to do any sort of moderately serious cooking, there's simply no substitute for its speed and versatility. It's invaluable just for bread--if you've been wanting to try bread making, but leery of the coolie labor involved, the (included) dough hook makes it practically effortless. There are also a host of attachments for everything from grinding meat to making pasta; I own, and love, the ice-cream maker, which is better at making ice-cream than all but the hideously expensive machines with their own compressors.

Personally, I own the five-quart professional, but I look longingly at the six-quart model, though some people who do a lot of things in small batches complain that it's too big. I'm not a big fan of the artisanal models; some cooks like them because they use the tilt-head construction that's used on ordinary low-end mixers, which is what they're used to. But the tilt-head feature requires a less powerful motor (otherwise, it's too heavy to lift), which kind of misses the point of owning a Kitchenaid. It's still better than a lower-end mixer, but I'd save up my money for a more powerful model. After a week of using the bowl-lift, you won't remember you ever cared. This is probably the lowest-end model I'd consider buying. Costco often has very good deals on these.

I also have, and love, Kitchenaid's hand mixer. Don't bother with the dough hooks, though; the mixer may be powerful enough to knead dough, but your hands aren't.

2. Microplane grater This model is like the one I have. This is one of those little gadgets that make you wonder how you lived without it--no more scraped knuckles on your box grater. Suddenly, you'll find yourself adding zest to a lot more things; I'm very fond of steaming broccoli in the microwave, then adding a little butter along with the zest and juice of one lemon. I don't recommend the wider ones for lemon zest, but the coarser models are great for things like cheese. Don't be fooled by advertisements for microplane rotary or box graters; the whole point of using a microplane is that for many things, it is easier to scrape the grater against the food than vice versa.

3. Calphalon One Infused Anodized I'm a huge fan of these pans. The problem with traditional nonstick is twofold: first of all, you never get the brown fond that makes sauteed foods so delicious; and second of all, once it is scratched--and it will scratch--the food starts sticking to it, and you have to throw it away, because you can't clean it properly. Infused anodized pans have the teflon incorporated directly into the aluminum. They are not as non-stick as teflon pans--I keep exactly one non-stick pan, for cooking scrambled eggs--but they are more non-stick than regular pans, and you can use your metal utensils and clean them with brillo. They also heat beautifully, and look pretty darn attractive. They're pricey though, so if you don't want to spring for the full set (or the smaller one), the most important item is a good frying pan, followed by a saucier or sauteuse, and then one sauce pan. These can often be found "slightly irregular"--ie, marred--at outlets; unlike with nonstick, it doesn't matter if it's dented.

4. Good knives I'm a big fan of my Kyocera ceramic knives, and ceramic slicer for lighter work; they're very affordable, and maintain their edge longer than any steel. But they do shatter if you're thumbfingered, and they aren't heavy enough for many jobs, so I also have a fair number of Henckels knives.

5. Silicone rolling pins: In a gift of the magi moment, my mother and I gave each other these (mine blue, hers red) for Christmas two years ago, and we're both thrilled. You can make almost anything using a lot less flour, because the silicone resists sticking. I also highly recommend silicone ice cube trays and baking mats, but stay away from the bakeware: it's so floppy, you risk disaster every time you take something in or out of the oven.

New additions

1. Kitchenaid food processor: I used to have a Cuisinart, but reports are that quality has fallen off considerably, so last Christmas I invested in this high-end Kitchenaid. Honestly, it's just a joy. It lives on my counter (next to my mixer), and I use it all the time. It has three nested bowls, so you can prepare a full dish without stopping to wash. It also has an extra-wide mouth, so you no longer have to chop things small in order to fit them in that narrow tube. I now use it to aerate my dry ingredients instead of sifting (just pulse everything for fifteen seconds or so); grate cheese and chocolate instead of hand-grating; juice oranges for brunch; slice vegetables for hors d'oeuvres; emulsify my salad dressing; mix perfect pesto . . . honestly, it's rare indeed that I cook without giving this machine a heavy workout. Its motor is both powerful and quiet (well, until you stick something hard in there) and I've never had it fail, even with tough projects like grating chocolate. I note the pro model is now well down in price, near enough to the cost of this one that you might consider upgrading--but it's hard to see why. I haven't yet found a project it couldn't tackle.

2. My shockingly expensive Shun chef's knife is not for anyone who isn't planning to do a lot of chopping; it's a waste of money unless you cook a fair amount. But if you do . . . sigh. The weight and handling are simply perfect, and of course, it's lovely.

3. Oxo kitchen tongs. I like the ones with the nylon head, which I can use with my rare forays into non-stick cookery. If you are a cook, or know one who doesn't have these, they're a great little gift. I use them for everything from frying to pasta, and the locking feature is terrifically helpful.

4. Silicone oven mitts let you plunge your hand right into boiling water. They're also dishwasher safe. All of which adds up to best. oven mitts. ever.

5. I like cappuccino, but not paying a zillion dollars to my local coffee shop, nor fussing with steamers. My frothing wand and a little discreet microwaving have produced a very acceptable substitute at very low cost. It's even better when paired with fresh ground coffee, for which I like my cheap Krups grinder; the expensive burr models don't actually seem to produce noticeably better coffee.