Holiday Foodie Gift Guide 2012

It’s that time of the year again! Here are a few gift ideas for the foodies on your list. Feel free to send any suggestions, including what you plan to give and what you’d really love. Happy holidays!

Hanukkah:

1. A selection of exceptional extra virgin olive oils, such as McEvoy Ranch and Moutere Grove

2. Donuts from Donut Plant in NYC or Federal Donuts in Philadelphia

3. Olive oil bundt cake from Zingerman’s

4. Your offer to prepare latkes for them (no one really and truly wants to slave over a hot saute pan for batch after batch!)

Hanukkah or Christmas or Holiday Hostess Gifts:

1.  Herb wreath from Sur La Table

2. Luxury maple products from Tonewood

3. A really good chef’s knife, such as a Wusthof Santoku-style, perfectly sized for the recipient’s hand (mine is 7-inch). To go all out, add a Chef’s Choice electric sharpener.

4. If you’re in a sunnier climate, a potted Meyer lemon tree (try Williams-Sonoma).

5. Aromatic cleaning products, such as from Mrs. Meyers or Williams-Sonoma (I love the Williams-Sonoma Essential Oils Pink Grapefruit Countertop Spray). Sounds overly practical, but they’ll bring the recipients pleasure every time they use them. Make sure to choose a scent they’ll love.

6. Truffle salt plus black truffle butter

7. Chocolate: truffles from Chocolat Moderne, John & Kira’s, Vosges, and Woodhouse; and bars from Ashkinosie and TCHO

8. Gift sets, such as the paella-themed one from Sur La Table or any baking set from King Arthur Flour

9. “Armchair travel” cookbooks, including Jerusalem (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) and Burma (Naomi Duguid)

Smaller gifts and stocking stuffers:

1. Justin’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups and Candy Bars

2. Vanilla bean paste from Nielsen-Massey

3. Sel gris de Guerande (grey sea salt from Brittany, France)

Are $$$ Spices Worth It?

As I’ve learned from working on a “Taste Test” column for years, there is much variation amongst products and, often, I can taste a brand’s specific mark, whether it be a lot of sweetener and harsh spices in a tomato soup or a very airy texture in an ice cream. But, what about spices? Is every bottle of, say, cinnamon, the same? Does it matter which small glass bottle you bring home from the store?

To find out, I tasted five popular spices (cinnamon, ground black pepper, red chile flakes, cumin, and chili powder) from six national brands. As usual, I tried the products straight (yes, plain and off a spoon – tough job!). With the crushed red chile flakes, doing so was pretty intolerable–I ended up breaking into my kids’ supply of milk to quiet the heat! However, the cinnamon was delicious and sweet, with undertones of orange and wood.

Here are my results: The bargain basement-priced spices (which shall remain nameless) were subpar. The chile flakes were extremely dry, shriveled, and almost devoid of color. The ground spices lacked much flavor. The chile powder tasted of just one spice: coriander, and was way too tame for my taste.

Meanwhile, the remaining spices–priced from moderate to a bit on the expensive side–were virtually the same, in a good way  (especially the ground black pepper and chile flakes, where it was difficult to discern differences due to their heat). The spices all had a lot of flavor and the chile flakes were bright red and yellow and moister and plumper in appearance.

Sure, the cinnamon varied in taste (I’m guessing due to different varieties of the spice being used); however, this variation didn’t translate to some tasting much better than others. (But, for the record, I most loved the J.R. Watkins, Badia, and McCormick cinnamon and Simply Organic and Spice Islands cumin.) And each chile powder was unique, since chile powder–like curry powder–is a spice blend or a recipe. I definitely preferred some brands’ recipes (Badia, J. R. Watkins, Spice Islands) more than others.

All in all, what I took away from this is, there’s no need to buy more than the mid-level brand of spices when using spices for cooking. That said, I would gravitate towards certain brands for spice blends due to their superior recipes.

If you’re going to be sprinkling spices (such as special salts) onto a dish after cooking, that’s a different story. That is a case when you might want to spend a few extra dollars. If you want to splurge, go for that $25 truffled salt if you’re looking to upgrade your popcorn! After all, since these spices’ characters won’t be subdued from cooking, their qualities will ring out loud and clear.

While we’re on the subject, in general, don’t keep spices for more than a year, or they will lose aroma, flavor, and color. Keep them away from light and heat, both of which (along with time) cause them to degrade. To truly maximize their flavor, if you have the time and inclination, buy them whole and grind them fresh in a spice grinder. Then, toast them in a dry pan. If using dried herbs (which I generally limit to long-cooked sauces and stews), crumble them with your fingers before adding them to dishes.

Best Frozen Oven Fries

Despite being working parents of two young children (read: chronically exhausted!), my husband and I have been entertaining a lot more than usual lately. The reason: frozen oven fries! Seriously. While some dishes and drinks are worth preparing from scratch (such as hot chocolate and salad dressing), fries are another story. Between cutting perfect matchsticks and double-frying, they’re time-consuming to make. Yet, they’re an instant way to make any meal a fun party.

For the October 2012 issue of Everyday with Rachael Ray Magazine, I sampled 47 different frozen oven fries (scoring me serious points with my preschoolers!). The winners featured in the article include: Ore-Ida Extra Crispy Fast Food Fries (Best Thin-Cut); Wylwood Crinkle Cut Fries (Best Crinkle-Cut); Ian’s All Natural Sweet Potato Fries (Best Sweet Potato); Alexia Parmesan Lemon Waffle Fries (Best Seasoned); and McCain All Natural Steak Cut Fries (Best Steak Cut).

Other noteworthy products include:

Thin-Cut/Shoestring/Julienne: Trader Joe’s Hand-Cut Fries, Mr. Dee’s Natural-Cut Skin-On Fries with Sea Salt, Ore-Ida Shoestring Fries

Thick-Cut/Steak Cut: Ore-Ida Steak Fries, Target Market Pantry Steak Fries

Crinkle-Cut/Unusual Cut: McCain’s Smiles, Alexia Oven Crinkles with Salt and Pepper

Sweet Potato: McCain’s Sweet Potato Crinkle Fries, Alexia Spicy Sweet Potato Julienne Fries with Chipotle Seasoning

Flavored: Alexia Oven Fries with Olive Oil, Rosemary, and Garlic, Trader Joe’s Garlic Fries

Overall, I was most impressed by the potato products from McCain’s (especially the adorable, fluffy Smiles, plus the frozen whole potatoes) and Alexia (loved everything, including the sweet potato tater tots).

Best Veggie Chips

Why should potatoes get all of the attention? They’re not the only veggies or tubers that crisp up beautifully when fried or baked. And many other veggies, such as kale, are nutritional superstars, ready for their transformation into killer snack food.

That said, for Everyday with Rachael Ray Magazine’s July/August issue, I munched my way through a whopping 27 legume chips, 21 sweet potato chips, 17 kale chips, 10 seaweed chips, and 13 mixed vegetable chips to yield the five winners that ended up in the issue.

These chip champs included: Dirty Sweet Potato Chips (incredibly addictive), Calbee Snapea Crisps (adorable, with an appealing veggie tempura-like texture), Terra Exotic Harvest Sea Salt Chips (gorgeous and ultra-flavorful), Beanitos Cheddar Cheese, Pinto Bean & Flax Chips (like a satisfying Mexican meal), SeaSprinkles Original Seaweed Snack Clusters (sweet, crispy, and delicious), and Alive and Radiant Chocolate-Covered Kale Krunch (for a fun, nutritious, and novel dessert or snack).

Other noteworthy chips included:

Mixed Vegetable: Boulder Canyon Garden Select Vegetable Crisps in Sour Cream and Chive (these are amazing–and taste like thick-cut sour cream and onion potato chips!), Lesser Evil Veggie (lightly sea salted and baked)

Kale: Rhythm Kale Chips Texas BBQ, Alive and Radiant Kale Krunch in Quite Cheezy, and Snacklets Kale BBQ Giddy-Up (Warning: The kale chips don’t look that appealing, but they’re crunchy and full of vegetal flavor and, usually, amped-up seasonings. I’m a big fan.)

Seaweed: Lundberg Sesame and Seaweed Rice Chips, Eden Sea Vegetable Chips, Annie Chun’s Wasabi, and Trader Joe’s Sesame Chips

Legume: Enjoy Life Plentils Margherita Pizza (yes, made with lentils!), Michael Seasons Nacho Cheese Popped Black Bean Crisps, and Good Health Sesame Garlic Humbles

Sweet Potato: Rhythm Sweet Potato Chips Hickory BBQ, Food Should Taste Good BBQ, and Food Should Taste Good Salt and Pepper

So, pick up some dips and get snacking!

Best Gelato

I’ve always loved gelato – ever since my first taste of it at Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington, DC roughly 20 years ago. The gelato (I always opted for hazelnut) was served with a brittle, triangular cookie, which I’d dip into the dense, creamy frozen treat. A trip to Florence, Italy nearly 10 years back only encouraged my love of this intensely-flavored frozen dessert. At least, it’s lower in fat than ice cream!

A few months back, I experienced the ultimate in indulgence: I taste-tested 51 gelati (all available in stores nationwide). The results appeared in a recent issue of Everyday with Rachael Ray Magazine. Below, I include the five winners, plus other top-notch products that didn’t make it into the story.

In the Story:

Talenti Sicilian Pistachio, Ciao Bella Key Lime Gelato Squares, G.S. Gelato Caramel Sea Salt, Archer Farms Tiramisu, Talenti Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup

Other Products and Brands I Loved:

Organic Nectars Cashewtopia: I especially loved this dairy-free product line’s Mint Chocolate Swirl (which tastes just like traditional mint chocolate chip ice cream) and Chocolate. Crafted with cashew nuts, these gelati are a bit reminiscent of the Middle Eastern treat, halvah (a fudge-like sweet made with sesame seeds) in taste.

G.S. Gelato: I loved the intense flavors and creamy texture of these gelati! My favorites (other than the winner featured in the article) were the Tahitian Vanilla (which boasts the most intense vanilla flavor), Coconut, and Tuscan Tiramisu.

Talenti: This brand’s products prevailed in the group tasting at the magazine. My personal faves (other than the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup) included: Sea Salt Caramel, Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip, Mediterranean Mint, Double Dark Chocolate, and Tahitian Vanilla Bean. Very authentic!

Pure Gourmet: Coconut Almond Gelato (if you prefer your dessert a bit less sweet and very nutty and natural).

Ciao Bella: Belgian Chocolate S’mores (this flavor comes in pint or bar form) and Pistachio

Bar Gelato by Naia: My favorite of these gelato pops is the TCHO Chocolate (TCHO is a very highly regarded chocolatier based in San Francisco).

Best Non-Dairy Milks

Got (non-dairy) milk? At most grocery stores, the answer is now a resounding yes! Whether you keep kosher, have an intolerance to dairy, or like to shake up your morning routine, you’ll surely love some of the many non-dairy milks at grocers nationwide.

For Everyday with Rachael Ray Magazine’s January/February 2012 issue, I tried 87 such products! Five, including So Delicious Chocolate Coconut Milk Beverage (Best Chocolate), Silk Original Soy Milk (Best Soy), Pacific Natural Foods All Natural Hazelnut Original Non-Dairy Beverage (Best Nut), Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Vanilla Almondmilk (Best Vanilla), and Rice Dream Organic Original Rice Drink (Best Rice), scored highly and made it into the magazine’s pages.

Here are some of the other products that impressed me during the process:

Soy Milk: Soy Dream Non-Dairy Original (Enriched Organic) and Eden Soy Original (Organic). Soy milk is my personal everyday go-to, and has made it into my cereal bowl, smoothies, and green tea lattes.

Nut Milk: Silk Pure Almond Original, Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Original, and Pacific Almond Low-Fat Original. I love to use almond milk in farro porridge, and stir in toasted chopped nuts to gild the lily.

Rice and Other Milks: Pacific Organic Lowfat Oat Original and Good Karma Flax Milk. Rice milk is sweet and has a thin texture similar to skim milk.

Vanilla Milk: Pacific Hemp Vanilla (a super-sophisticated must try for foodies!) and Soy Slender Soy Milk Vanilla. These heavenly drinks are delicious plain, or paired with chocolate desserts. Try them instead of non-dairy creamer in your coffee and in desserts (when you can get by with a thinner texture).

Chocolate Milk: West Soy Chocolate Peppermint Stick Soy Beverage and Silk Pure Almond Dark Chocolate. Wow – prepare to swoon! Try offering these to your kids as a relatively healthy dessert–that is, if you’re willing to share!

Best Flavored Crackers

Years ago, our cracker choices were few. As a child, I remember reaching for Melba Toast or Triscuits when I was sick or felt virtuous; Nabisco or Ritz when I wanted something buttery; and Carr’s when I was in the mood to feel fancy (or when my parents had company).

Now, it’s a different story. Consider this: I tried 124 different flavored crackers for “Taste Test: The Best Crackers” in the November 2011 issue of Everyday with Rachael Ray Magazine.

Here’s the article, with descriptions of the five winning crackers: Milton’s Everything Multi-Grain Crackers; Triscuit Cracked Pepper & Olive Oil Crackers; Sensible Portions Pita Bites, Black Olive Feta; Koyo Organic Brown Rice Chips, Tamari; and American Vintage Wine Biscuits with White Wine, Shallot & Cayenne.

The runner-ups included:

Nut/Seed: Keebler Wheatables Nut Crisps, Toasted Pecan; Sensible Portions Bagel Tops Everything; Wasa Flatbread Sesame; 34 Degrees Sesame; TLC/Kashi Honey Sesame

Herb/Onion/Garlic: Jennifer’s Homemade Rosemary Flatbread; Wasa Thin and Crispy Rosemary Flatbread; Mediterranean Crackers Leek and Onion; New York Style Bagel Crisps Roasted Garlic; Health Valley Organic Garden Herb Multigrain Crackers

Oddball: Milton’s Cornbread Crackers; Mediterranean Crackers Roasted Tomato and Basil; Castleton Crackers Middlebury Maple; Wheat Thins Sundried Tomato and Basil; Culinary Circle Vegetable

Spice/Spicy/Pepper: Jennifer’s Homemade Salt and Pepper Flatbread; Health Valley Cracked Pepper; American Vintage Chianti, Oregano, Crushed Red Pepper; TLC/Kashi Zesty Salsa Pita Crisps

Cheese: Trader Joe’s Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers; Mediterranean Crackers Feta and Oregano; Triscuit Thin Crisps Parmesan Garlic; and TLC/Kashi Country Cheddar