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Last Minute Foodie Gift Ideas

by | Dec 14, 2009
Photo by danesparza

Photo by danesparza

Sometimes the stars just do not align for getting your holiday shopping done early. I know I haven’t started mine yet. But there are still plenty of easy-to-find, yet super valuable gifts out there for your favorite foodies.

Personally I try to avoid giving gifts that require guessing someone else’s taste or style. Instead I rely on things that are either super useful, completely novel or just ridiculously cool.

At this stage of the game your best bets are things you can order online and have delivered in the next week, gift subscriptions, or books that you can find just about everywhere.

Here are some of the coolest tricks I have up my sleeve for 2009.

Last Minute Gift Ideas That Aren’t Lame

1. Artisan foods from FoodzieFoodzie_Facebook_Logo

Decadent food is one of the easiest ways to make someone happy. But Summer Tomato readers know that I do not take my indulgences lightly. If I’m going to eat something that isn’t healthy, I want it to be beyond awesome–the healthy food I eat is just too delicious to bother with anything less.

That’s why Foodzie is so cool. If you don’t live in San Francisco, New York or LA, finding high-end artisanal foods can be a challenge. But now thanks to Foodzie, anyone can have Bacon Jam or Single Malt Scotch Bars delivered to your doorstep. Just be sure to order in the next day or 2 or your orders won’t make it before Christmas without extra shipping costs.

2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0143038583&fc1[/amazon-product]

As you might imagine, I’ve read A LOT about nutrition and have tried almost every diet myself. One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in this research is that while the content of your diet is certainly important, how you think about and approach food is one of the most influential factors in your long-term health and happiness.

By far the best book I’ve read on food philosophy is Michael Pollan’s landmark work The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This book is remarkably well-written, meticulously researched and an overall pleasure to read. It is also the perfect gift for the curious yet unconvinced soon-to-be healthy eater.

If you are still looking for more, check out his practical guide for following these principles, In Defense of Food.

3. How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0764578650&fc1[/amazon-product]

For someone who has decided to start cooking but doesn’t know where to begin, this book has everything you need to know. Mark Bittman is the brilliant author of the New York Times food column, The Minimalist, that includes fantastic 2-3 minute cooking videos also available as a podcast.

Bittman demystifies the kitchen by explaining basic cooking concepts and fundamentals in this classic cookbook. There is even a vegetarian version for those who aren’t interested in the perfect roasted chicken.

4. Splendid Soups, by James Peterson[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0471391360&fc1[/amazon-product]

The only other cookbook I consider indispensable is Splendid Soups, by James Peterson. Soup is pretty close to perfect food, especially during these cold, stormy winter months. Soup is also perfect for dinner parties and potlucks, since it stays warm all night and doesn’t require a set “dinner time.”

I recently re-ordered this cookbook for myself (my last copy actually belonged to a former housemate) even though I have most of my favorite recipes memorized. I’ve benefited so tremendously from this book, I just feel better if it is always in my kitchen.

5. Cuisinart Hand Blender[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0006G3JRO&fc[/amazon-product]

This makes a great bundle gift with Splendid Soups, since a purée is often the last step in soup-making magic. Though it is possible to make a wonderful soup in a regular blender or food processor, it is exponentially easier if you have an immersion hand blender. You can also use an immersion blender for smoothies and other blended foods, like hummus.

The Cuisinart hand blender is especially awesome because it comes with attachments that transform it into either an electric beater or a mini chopping food processor as well.

For $50 this is some of the best value you can get out of a kitchen gadget.

6. Fagor Pressure cooker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B00023D9RG&fc1[/amazon-product]

My pressure cooker is the one special piece of cooking equipment that I cannot live without. The reason is that the first time I tasted beans made from scratch I knew I could never go back to canned. But beans are such an essential part of my healthstyle that the 1-4 hr cook time is a bit too inconvenient to be practical for real life.

Enter the pressure cooker. A pressure cooker cuts bean cooking time down to under half hour. It’s also great for grains and a ton of other foods. Fagor is the only brand I recommend bothering with. You don’t want to mess around with high-pressure cooking unless you are sure about your gear.

7. Audible membership

I rave about Audible every chance I get. If you’ve never heard of it, think Netflix but for audiobooks. While a monthly audiobook subscription isn’t for everyone, for those of us with commutes or jobs with extensive manual/technical (aka mindless) work, Audible is a godsend.

Though audio is still not my favorite way to “read,” it is perfect for those books in which I only have a passing curiosity. If I find a book I love (which happens often), I will buy a hard copy as well. Sometimes I listen to a book more than once. Rarely am I disinclined to finish one.

Audible is a great way to finally read all those food and health books you’ve been meaning to get to.

Have I mentioned I love Audible?

8. Zagat subscriptionzagat_twitter_bigger

Yelp is great if you want to find the best tailor near your house or need a place to get your pets groomed, but I never use Yelp for restaurant recommendations. There are very few people I trust in food taste, and in my experience Yelp reviews reflect the typical American appetite for cheap, big and cheesy. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

When I’m curious about the best Korean food in SF or if I’m traveling to a city I’m not familiar with Zagat is where I turn. I never hesitate to renew my subscription and recommend it to anyone looking for reviews by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

9. Bialetti stovetop espresso maker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0001WYDP0&fc1[/amazon-product]

I’m something of a coffee purist, and of all the home brew methods I’ve tried (most of them) the Bialetti stovetop espresso maker is my favorite. It’s relatively inexpensive and has the added charm of being a little old-school.

This is how everyone makes coffee at home in Italy.

10. CSA membership

Busy people have trouble finding the time to buy fresh fruits and vegetables every week. CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture brings fresh, seasonal produce to you. The idea behind a CSA is that you subscribe to a farm or collection of farms and pay a certain set price (varies by farm) for a box of their goods. For your fee you are provided with a week or two worth of fruits and vegetables of the season.

Buying someone a subscription to a CSA is a great way to encourage healthy eating and support local farmers. All CSAs are a little different, so you need to find ones in your area and contact them to work out the details. Most deliver to your house or a nearby pick up point and allow some filtering for your particular food preferences.

There are also meat and dairy CSAs, which you will become more interested in after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Visit Local Harvest to find CSAs in your area.

Good luck with your shopping and happy holidays!

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The Bitter Truth About Olive Oil

by | Mar 18, 2009
Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Have you ever had homemade hummus turn out bitter? Have you whipped up your own batch of mayonnaise and found an unpleasant aftertaste? Or are you just confused about why I warned against putting olive oil in a blender for my harissa recipe?

The culprit behind these bizarre phenomena is extra-virgin olive oil, which is very sensitive to mechanical agitation. Upon one reader’s request, I set out to explain the unusual behavior of this common ingredient.

But getting to the bottom of this problem was not easy. The internet is teeming with false assumptions and unfounded hypotheses about why olive oil can become bitter when blended. Most people point their finger at the quality of the oil itself, accusing the chef of using a cheap brand that was bitter before they included it in their recipe. I knew this wasn’t true because it has happened to me several times, and I always use excellent olive oil.

Another common hypothesis is that “heat” caused by the friction of high-speed spinning blades makes the “delicate oils” in the olive oil turn bitter. This explanation makes even less sense, because as most of you know olive oil can be heated in a pan to several hundred degrees and does not burn or turn bitter. There is no way the oil gets hot enough to go rancid after a few seconds in a blender.

The only logical and (mostly) scientific explanation I found for the bitter olive oil phenomenon was from Cook’s Illustrated. I am inclined to trust this source because they essentially run their kitchen like a laboratory, which gives them major credibility points in my book. Also, their reason offers a plausible, mechanical explanation that does not depend upon the quality of the oil itself. I have not seen the data with my own eyes, however, and they do not cite their sources.

According to Cook’s Illustrated, extra-virgin olive oil is the only kind of oil susceptible to becoming bitter. Even pure olive oil can handle blending better than the extra-virgin kind. The reason is because extra-virgin olive oil contains a high percentage of molecular compounds called polyphenols (thought to be cancer-fighters), which are normally coated in fatty acids. Under standard conditions, the fatty acids in the oil prevent polyphenols from dispersing in an aqueous environment. This is because oil and water do not mix.

When these fat molecules are broken into droplets in an emulsion, however, the polyphenols are distributed into the solution and their bitter taste can become apparent. When the emulsion is only lightly blended, the bitterness is not perceptible. But a blender or food processor breaks the droplets down into smaller sizes, increasing polyphenol dispersal. These suspended polyphenols can ruin an otherwise delicious recipe.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to use either pure olive oil or a different kind of oil altogether, such as canola or safflower oil. Alternatively, if you would like to keep the rich taste of extra-virgin olive oil you can hand whisk your emulsion rather than using a blender. Just be careful not to over work the mixture. You can also start your recipe by blending a small amount of stable oil (e.g. canola), then hand whisking your extra-virgin olive oil in at the end.

Have you ever had problems blending extra-virgin olive oil?
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Silky Parsnip and Sunchoke Soup

by | Nov 24, 2008

I am really proud of myself for this one, guys. You could probably guess I was a little nervous about what to do with my parsnips and sunchokes. I find both these vegetables a little alien and I have only recently started experimenting with them.

Following my gut and combining them in a soup with leeks turned out to be a stroke of genius.

The soup I made is really simple. But do not be deceived, the subtle complexity of the flavor it packs is absolutely divine and the creamy texture of the sunchokes makes it luxuriously silky.

The finishing touch is the juice and zest of a Meyer lemon, an addition that brightens and balances the creaminess of this soup. In a pinch you could use a regular lemon, but I really recommend making an effort to find the real thing.

Because this soup is so easy it is perfect for a weekday lunch or dinner. But the rich, earthy flavors would make an excellent first course for your Thanksgiving meal as well.

Silky Parsnip and Sunchoke Soup

Ingredients:

  • 3 large parsnips
  • 5 medium sunchokes
  • 1 large leek
  • 3-1/2 cups cold water
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • 1/2 Meyer lemon
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Scrub and peel the parsnips and chop them into small slices (in half in necessary), about 1/3 inch thick. Scrub the sunchokes as well, but do not bother to peel them. Instead use a pairing knife to remove any rough patches. Cut the sunchokes into 1/4 inch slices.

Clean the leek very carefully and chop it into thick sections, as described previously. In a large soup pot heat olive oil and add leeks. Saute the leeks for about 2 minutes, then add the parsnips and sunchokes. Lightly salt and pepper. Continue to saute, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables become soft and partially translucent.

Add 2 cups of water and the bouillon cube to the vegetables and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the vegetables are completely tender, turn off heat and add the remaining water. Use a hand blender* to finely puree the vegetables.

Before I got to this step I was certain that I was going to end up straining this soup. Most good pureed soups need straining to thin them out. While you are welcome to do this, I found it was not necessary if I pureed the vegetables long enough, probably because of the texture of the sunchokes. This does take some patience, however. Puree the mix for at least 5 minutes.

Once you have finished blending the soup you can heat it up again if necessary. Otherwise, squeeze the lemon half into the soup and add the zest (leaving some aside for garnish). Adjust salt.

Ladle soup into bowls, garnish with zest and freshly ground pepper and serve. You can drizzle more lemon juice on top as well, it is delicious.

*Note: I am of the opinion that whoever invented the hand blender deserves a Nobel prize. These things make pureeing soup a snap, and are easy to store and clean. This is the one I use (I have also added this item to my sidebar if you want to purchase it from Amazon). If you do not have one and want to make this soup immediately, a regular blender will suffice. However, be very careful when blending hot liquid and do not fill the blender more than halfway at a time unless you want to be doused with scalding hot soup. Hold the lid down firmly with a kitchen towel for your protection.

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