THERE, THERE NOW. Of course it's the last minute. But loads of useful little kitchen items are still out there waiting if only you can muster the courage.
We'll start with the under-$5 items. Because these tend to be small and therefore vulnerable to the garbage disposal they are a yearly sure thing. Take the old-fashioned American swivel-bladed vegetable peeler. At around $1.50 every kitchen needs one and maybe two or three. Then there's the wonderful set of tough stainless steel measuring spoons that clip together, not with a flimsy wire circle but with a little hook built into the tablespoon measure. They come apart for use but are clipped together for storage. About $3.
Among the most useful items in the kitchen are rubber spatulas. They come in all sizes and anybody who cooks could use several. Anybody who eats could use one of the miniature ones with a tiny paddle just the right size for digging out the last of the catsup.
There are metal nutmeg graters with little storage spaces for the nutmegs (about $2), and almost anybody could use a standard winged corkscrew (about $3). A citrus zester grates citrus peel without grating your knuckles, and a stripper removes wider sections of peel. These are in the $3 to $4.50 range. For slightly more money you can get a combination stripper-zester.
Good wood utensils, especially in closer grained and therefore sturdier woods like beech, olive and boxwood, are nearly as rare as truffles. But if you can locate a cache, look particularly at the "spatula", which is shaped like a spoon with a perfectly flat bowl. It comes in a variety of sizes. Another idea is the corner spoon, designed with one rounded edge and one angled edge for getting into the corners of the sauce pan. Wooden pasta forks come in a variety of designs, some sturdier than others. Basically a flat handle with protruding wood pegs, they are great for lifting dangerous gobs of unruly spaghetti.
Still around $5 but going for the glamor now, we come to the oyster knife. It is a short fat little thing with a pointed stubby blade and a metal shield that protects the hand from the oyster shell. Team this with a champagne cork remover (three for about $7) and you have a good start on New Year's Eve. The champagne cork remover will, in less festive times, also work on any twist-off bottle cap.
And finally, in a special category we'll call 20th-Century Decadence, $5 and Under Division, we have two items. The first is a mushroom brush, a little soft-bristled round thing for -- well, you know what it's for. The second is a pasta measurer (how did the Medicis ever get along without this?), a little board with different size holes in it. Enough uncooked spaghetti to serve four fits through the largest hole, enough for three through the next, and so on. Washington stores are selling these by the dozen.
Now for the $5 to $15 range. One possibility here is a set of sturdy stainless steel measuring cups for dry ingedients. A set costs between $5 and $10 depending on the store and the number of cups. Or consider an "instant-read" thermometer, which will tell you the internal temperature of your roast the minute it's inserted, avoiding the steady outflow of precious juices you get with regular meat thermometers. Also good for custards and sauces that shouldn't boil. $13 to $15, depending on the store.
Everybody needs scissors and the little flexible-handled Joyce Chen scissors will cut paper as well as chicken bones or chives. About $12. A Mouli grater with three insertable disks will grate cheese, parsley, nuts or chocolate and will also slice small items like mushrooms or radishes. Prices vary widely according to the store. Wire whisks come in all sizes and price ranges from about $1 to about $15. Choose small ones for little sauces or salad dressing, the largest, balloon-headed ones for egg whites.
Summer will come around again and then you'll want an ice cream scoop. You may even need one right now. Metal ones with anti-freeze inside cost $10 or $12 and eliminate a lot of frustration.
Finally, for heftier budgets, a few items still small enough to tuck into a stocking: An electric coffee grinder is one idea. Small imported ones grind enough coffee for six to eight cups and cost between $25 and $30.
The old standard pepper grinder is the Perfex, made of cast aluminum and imported from France. It's adjustable grinding mechanism allows fine-to-coarse grinds, and there is a little door for removing whole peppercorns. Between $25 and $30.
A beautifully designed but ignominiously named corkscrew called "Screwpull" lifts corks out with only a turning motion. It's screw is Teflon-coated, making life in the fast lanes even faster. About $15.
Our last item requires two particular sets of circumstances: a recipient cook who already has a full set of copper and is moving into aspic and truffles, and a potential giver with a lot of money and/or expectations. We're talking about a beautiful 75-piece set of tiny cutters that will turn your truffle slices or your aspic into any shape from teardrop to flower and in graduated sizes, too. Around $150, in tinned steel.