So many of us are guilty of giving gifts that suit our own purposes. This is especially tempting within a household. If the woman gives her husband an espresso maker, just to cite an example at random, then she gets an espresso maker too.
If, on the other hand, the woman gives her husband a saxophone, then she has to spend her evenings and weekends listening to him trying to become Johnny Hodges. But he'd probably rather have the saxophone than the espresso maker.
This is a conflict that we all need to struggle with in the privacy of our own hearts. In the meantime, while greed is slugging it out with altruism, here are a few ideas for kitchen equipment gifts that cost under $50, most of them well under that figure.
A pot of rosemary. Rosemary is for remembrance in herb lore, so a plant sent as a gift is not only useful (clip off sprigs to marry with the lamb, the potatoes or the tomato sauce) but symbolic as well.
For years Tom De Baggio at Earthworks in Arlington was the only local source for Christmastime rosemary plants. Although he still has the best variety, other garden centers have discovered the market as well. Rosemary is native to dry, hot climates such as southern California and southern France, and it overwinters well indoors. Put a large plant somewhere where you'll brush up against it frequently and its fragrance will rise up to intoxicate you all winter long.
A white porcelain tart pan. This is something that most cooks hesitate to buy for themselves, so it makes special sense as a gift. The 9-inch size is probably the most useful, as it will hold a 6-to-8-servings pie, tart or quiche. A fruit tart served in plain white porcelain is one of the glories of hospitable home cooking.
For frequent travelers whose idea of purgatory is waking up in an anonymous motel room -- is this Kansas City? Tampa? Detroit? -- with a shower and a toilette between themselves and a cup of coffee, there are several portable one-cup coffee makers on the market. Melitta makes one that comes with a carrying case that's approximately the size of a make-up or shaving kit. It works exactly the way the larger electric, drip coffeemakers work, but in miniature.
A bouquet of small utensils tied together with a red ribbon is better than flowers for most cooks. Some suggestions for the bouquet's contents: a pint-sized whisk (say 6 inches long) for mixing up small quantities of salad dressings, a wooden hot chocolate swizzler, an olive spoon (the bowl will be spherical shape, with holes in it) and a wooden butter spreader. Or a larger whisk, a hardwood salad spoon and fork set and good rubber spatula. Rubber spatulas don't seem romantic or compelling as gifts until you're without one, then they can become very, very desirable.
A Plexiglas combination pepper grinder and salt shaker. These are often under $20 and very good looking in a modern sort of way. Plexiglas nutmeg graters are another idea along the same lines. There are several giant steps between the flavor and piquancy of freshly grated nutmeg and that of the long-grated kind that comes in jars.
For a cook who has trouble with arthritic hands or wrists, the twisting motion involved in operating most pepper grinders is either excruciating or impossible. For these cooks and for others who are just plain lazy, consider a battery-operated pepper mill. For about $20, electricity will do the work.
A small coffee bean and/or spice grinder. Or two. These little machines are compact and efficient. Hard line purists prefer a milling action for coffee beans, but hey -- it's all but impossible, even with a fine palate, to tell the difference in the end product.
While one of these little machines can be used for grinding both spices and coffee beans, it's real trouble to keep the French roast flavor from lingering and getting into the cumin seeds and vice versa. If someone on your list does lots of Indian or Latin American cooking, a spice grinder is practically a necessity. For around $20 you can make this person happy. If that person also loves coffee, for around $40 you can buy two and produce whatever lies beyond simple happiness.
For a cook who is just setting up a kitchen, consider a varsity-class knife. Here is where you need to know something about the personality of the recipient. Carbon steel knives are the easiest to keep sharp -- they take the best edge using home methods -- but they also, inexorably, turn dark and will rust if they're left wet. While this propensity doesn't affect the knife's raison d'etre, which is cutting things, compulsively spotless types just can't stand it. In that case, buy stainless knives from a good maker such as Henckels or Sabatier.
A good chef's knife with an 8- or 9-inch blade will be a joy forever, but you may need to break the $50 barrier in order to buy one. Alternatively, consider a smaller "utility" knife or parer.
Donvier ice cream maker, which everyone has by now heard of. But it's a terrific little machine that works without ice or electricity. You just put the metal container in the freezer overnight, pour in the ice cream mixture, then over a period of 20 minutes or so make a few turns of the dasher, no more, and you have ice cream. Get the one-quart size as opposed to smaller versions -- a pint of ice cream is hardly enough to bother with. You shouldn't have to pay full price, which is about $45. Extra metal containers are available as well so that you can freeze two at once and make two batches of ice cream within minutes.
An extra bowl for the KitchenAid mixer, maybe even one in copper. This is an item for someone who really likes to cook. A bowl seems like a banal gift but believe me, most KitchenAid owners would love to have it and have a hard time convincing their loved ones of that fact.
Stocking stuffers: A Swing-A-Way can opener, which was not only "The First Can Opener in Space" but also works and costs just above $5. An old-fashioned nutmeg grater -- the kind that also has a space for storing the nutmegs. An oyster shell opener. A can of Private Preserve, which is nothing but nitrogen and carbon dioxide in a can but which really works to preserve the quality of uncorked but unfinished bottles of wine. You spray in the contents of the can, which displace oxygen which is what spoils your wine. Then you recork. Then, later, you can drink again.