Knowing the other guy is important in many of life's transactions, but it's especially important this time of year, when you may want to give this other guy a gift. If you are thinking about giving kitchen equipment, believe me -- knowing what you yourself would like to receive gets you absolutely nowhere.
The first thing you need to decide is what this other person considers "cooking" to be. One natural division is between those who love and those who hate electrical help. Some people consider only processes that use electricity as cooking. Others think of electricity (food processors, mincers, electric pasta machines, deep fryers, etc.) as a manifestation of the devil and no fun either. These people would rather chop 10 onions by hand than do them in the food processor. The others would rather mince one clove of garlic in the food processor than get out a knife.
Some cooks -- and these are often the ones who end up getting the best stuff -- are what we could call Sunday morning cooks. They are generally not responsible for the day-in, day-out ordeal known as getting dinner on the table, and they tend to have specialties -- chili, soup, bread, waffles, or angel hair pasta with red peppers, arugula and garlic. These are often, though not exclusively, long-order cooks as opposed to short-order cooks. They may like gadgets or they may be purists who prefer a great knife and a great chopping board to all the gadgetry in the stores.
With that in mind, we're here this week to talk about big-ticket presents -- the kinds of things that may require much angst and brow-slapping as the decision is made. For our purposes we'll designate as big-ticket anything over $50. Of course it's possible to spend substantially over $50. Next time we'll talk about gifts that require less commitment, and there are many for under $20.
One big-ticket item whose usefulness as a gift applies to all but the most compulsive choppers-by-hand is the food processor. The problem is which one to get. For the cook who does a lot of cooking, and often for crowds (which we'll consider to be four or more), the best choice is probably the Cuisinart DCL7 Super Pro.
Its bowl holds up to 14 cups -- exact amounts depend on whether it's liquid or more solid stuff that you're processing. There is one larger-capacity Cuisinart, but it's so big as to be unwieldy and actually less useful in some cases when you're doing small amounts. And you'll be frustrated by the smaller models if you want to do bread dough or chopped meat. The Super Pro retails for about $350 but you should never have to pay that much. Kitchen equipment stores, discount and department stores all discount the Cuisinarts heavily.
Another big-ticket item -- the KitchenAid mixer -- is for people who really like to cook and who appreciate solid, trustworthy equipment. It will be of no use to folks who just like gadgets, or to those who make only chili and waffles. But if you have a recipient in mind who makes cakes and pastry, bread, souffles, mousses and the like, he or she will appreciate the investment.
Again, the problem is which model to buy. Any of the KitchenAids is powerful enough to take heavy bread dough, for starters. So the main decision to make is about bowl size. Your choices are between the 4 1/2-quart bowl and the 5-quart. The advantage of the machine with the 4 1/2-quart bowl is that the top lifts up and back, which makes it much easier to insert and remove the beaters. It is also slightly shorter in height, meaning it will fit under low-slung top cabinets.
The 4 1/2-quart machine will list for about $300, but is usually heavily discounted. Never pay full price. If you are buying for a serious bread baker (very serious; the person who makes bread and lots of it, all the time) consider the new, professional-quality KSM5 machine, which has an extra-powerful motor that won't overheat even if you give it batch after batch of bread dough, all day long, to knead.
Big-ticket doesn't necessarily mean hundreds of dollars, however.
For example, for the weekend soup and chili maker, consider an oversized soup pot. I like the French variety that is squat and solid, with two nice handles on either side for secure lifting. These are aluminum, which is fine for any soup. (You won't want to store very acid soups such as tomato in them, however, because there is the possibility of a reaction between the metal and the acid food, which occasionally will give the food an off flavor.)
Buy one that holds between 8 and 12 quarts. Make sure the pot comes with a top. These pots -- so solid and satisfying to cooks who really like to simmer -- will be a joy every time they're used. They just feel good. Look at La Cuisine in Alexandria for the best selection.
There is finally an electric knife sharpener that works, and this year it comes in a smaller, less formidable version. It's called the Chef's Choice, and it should please anybody who takes knives seriously. The larger version, which has a three-part sharpening process, will take even damaged (gouged, ruined) knives and make them sharp again. Just plain dull knives can be sharpened as well, by using only the second and third sharpening stages. The smaller Chef's Choice includes only the second two stages, and is useful for regular sharpening of knives that aren't very badly damaged. Plan to spend about $80 for the large version, $60 for the small -- but look for deals.
For the fine-tuned cook -- one who likes fine little sauces and delicate saute's -- consider a heavy copper fait-tout (a saucepan with sides that slope outward) or a heavy copper saute' pan. Plan on spending between $50 and $100 or more for French copper, tin lined. Nickel-lined copper is also available, and while it's not the classic lining, it is easier to clean and does not wear off as tin does.
Other possibilities for more specialized cooks: a Belgian waffle-maker, Teflon coated and used on top of the stove instead of with electricity. It produces waffles with deep indentations, and is a solid piece of equipment that is easy to use. Or a scale: Soehnle makes a nice digital scale that is easy to use and especially easy to read. Give it to the baker on your list, or to anyone who cooks from European recipes, whose ingredients are always given by weight. Both of these items are available at fine kitchenware and department stores.
For the down-home type, consider a set of plain cast iron, to include different-sized skillets, a stew pot with lid (preferably glass) and a griddle. You'll have a hard time spending $50 on cast iron, but it's possible if you buy several pieces.
Finally, for the pastry or candy maker (who must also be an unabashed sybarite) you might wrap up a 10-pound block of good baking chocolate, available at fine kitchenware stores and at some gourmet supermarkets.