I've met cooks who don't mind chopping, and I've met cooks who don't mind standing on their feet forever over a simmering pot, but I've never met a cook who doesn't mind cleaning up. If you are a cook who actually cooks (as opposed to reading about cooking, or eating cooking), you have had the following fantasy:
You have a day of cooking ahead of you, which you look forward to except for the mean jungle of slimy pots and tangled spoons that accumulate all around you. But suddenly an angel appears -- an angel in an apron, who follows behind you CLEANING UP.
This angel washes and puts back, clears counters, puts away the olive oil and the flour, takes out the trash as it piles up. This angel doesn't say, "Where does the olive oil go?" This angel doesn't evaporate, whine or get bored. This angel knows when spoons are just resting and when they're finished, and never throws away little insignificant-looking pots of exquisitely reduced duck stock. This angel remains constant, moving silently and knowingly, the cook's perfect alter ego.
So there, in a grown-up version of the wrinkled note from the penniless third grader, is the first thing to give the cook for Christmas -- a promise to do the dirty work sometimes. That's what we all really want.
And, since that one was free, more or less, here are a dozen others that will cost you some money:
*Donvier ice-cream maker. This is a little gem of a new idea. It makes ice cream without salt, ice, electricity or significant amounts of cranking, making use of a refrigerant-filled container instead. You let the container sit in the freezer for a few hours or overnight, pour in the ice-cream mixture and let it sit for about 20 minutes, giving the crank a turn or two every now and then. You can make more than one batch without re-refrigerating the container, but extra containers are also available, and would be a nice fillip to give somebody who likes to make lots of different flavors at the same time. It's widely available in department and kitchenware stores.
*Pottery terrines. These are French imports, graceful brown pottery ovals with subtly handled tops. They come in sizes to hold about a cup, to larger ones of about two quarts. Graduated sizes look wonderful stored visibly in the kitchen, and they are among the most versatile pieces you can own even if you never make terrines or pa te'. I've used them for souffle's, for casserole-roasting chicken with vegetables, for layered vegetable terrines, and for serving. Williams-Sonoma has some of these, as do La Cuisine and the Coffee Connection."
*On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee (Scribner's, $29.95). This is a piece of kitchen equipment more useful to people who really like to cook than practically anything but the knife. McGee has written about food history, chemistry and usage in a most erudite and interesting way. It's not a book to read like a novel, but it's a book to browse through and to use on specific occasions, for instance when you're wondering what will happen if you cut down the amount of sugar in a cake recipe, or what makes fruit turn into wine. Look in serious bookstores.
*And speaking of knives, give carbon steel. Its vulnerability is vastly overrated, unless you can't stand anything in your kitchen that doesn't shine. Carbon-steel knives will rust and get dark and sinister-looking, but they will sharpen like a dream. And -- here's the dirty secret nobody wants to admit having tested -- they won't be irreparably harmed even if you do leave them in the sink overnight. The most useful knife in the world is an eight- or nine-inch carbon-steel chef's knife. Look for comfortable feel, metal that travels in one piece from blade to end of handle, and a tightly riveted handle. Widely available.
*An extra grinder just for spices is indispensable for anyone who does lots of Indian or Latin-American cooking. Small coffee grinders are perfect for this, and you might consider giving packages of whole seasonings such as coriander seeds, cardamom pods, cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, dried chilies and peppercorns to go along with it. Buy these in bulk at ethnic food stores and they'll be fresher. The grinder is widely available.
*A copper rehruecken mold. This is a cake pan for the times when you will feel the need to make a cake that looks exactly like a saddle of venison. The rehruecken is a classic Viennese cake invented to soothe the feelings of empty-handed hunters. Should these moments be few and far between, the pan, which is shaped like a loaf with a rounded-off top, is more than useful for Christmas bu ches de noel, pound cakes, carrot cake, fruitcake, even breads. In copper it's beautiful as well as useful, but it comes in dark steel and tinned steel as well. Steel versions are widely available; look at La Cuisine for copper.
*A nonstick cast-iron skillet by LeCreuset. The surface on these skillets, developed by LeCreuset and Du Pont, has all the advantages of other nonstick surfaces, but few of the disadvantages. Foods brown well in the LeCreuset version, and they don't get watery either. You do need to take some care in using them, but they seem sturdier than regular nonstick pans. Kitchen Bazaar usually has a good variety at good prices.
*Baking plaques for little cakes and muffins. A set of these would be nice, in versions to make madeleines, langues de chat, twists, shells or miniature muffins. They make baking interesting for a serious cook, and they look decorative by themselves, too. Look at the Coffee Connection on Connecticut Avenue, at Kitchen Bazaar, La Cuisine and Williams-Sonoma.
*A digital scale. Look at the Soehnle, which is made in Switzerland. Everything works with the touch of a fingertip; you can switch from ounces to grams, and you can "tare," which means you can weigh the mixing bowl and instantly return the register to zero, add flour and weigh it, then return the register to zero, then add sugar and again return to register to zero so you can add the remaining ingredients. It's expensive -- between $70 and $75 -- and widely available.
*A set of olivewood serving forks and spoons. These are gracefully grained and practically indestructible. They'd be perfect given in tandem with a copy of Penelope Casas' new book about the little tidbits of Spain, "Tapas, the Little Dishes of Spain," (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, $12.95). They come in sizes from gherkin-small to salad-large. There are little spatula-like spreaders to go with them, too, for your foie gras. La Cuisine has the biggest selection, but other kitchenware stores have them, too.
*Wooden knife keeper. This goes in a drawer and is perfect for those whose knives have been chopping each other up while rattling around loose, and who don't have a lot of counter space for a counter-top version. It's compact, well made and widely available.
*A mandoline is a truly poetic present for classically oriented cooks. It accomplishes things you can do neither with the food processor nor with a knife, and looks sort of like a washboard with blades built into it. These blades let you slice potatoes -- or any vegetable -- paper thin, french-fry thick or any thickness in between, or julienne or produce waffled slices. It's definitely a classic, and you'll find it in the kitchen of any fine French restaurant. Shop around for the best price, but plan to spend around $100 or more. You can buy a knuckle guard to go with the mandoline; this is nice for novices to have but not really necessary if you're careful.