Eleanor Roosevelt, named the most admired woman of the 20th century, was an author and activist for human rights, a diplomat, lecturer, teacher and newspaper columnist. She was also a savvy shopper.
During her travels throughout the United States and abroad, Mrs. Roosevelt kept a keen eye out for presents she would give at Christmastime. She kept these gifts in a special closet in the White House 365 days a year.
Although we may not be fortunate enough to have a spare closet in our homes, keeping a sharp eye out for bargains is necessary in uncertain economic times. I suppose this is the reason department stores are constantly running coupon sales during the holiday season and throughout the year.
Gifts for the cooks on your list come in all sizes and price ranges. Small appliances are on sale at the lowest prices in a long time. Remember the bread machine? It proved to be a dud. Several years ago, manufacturers tried to bring back the fondue pot, but I doubt many people bought them. The crock pot, however, is "the" small appliance making a big practical comeback.
Crock pots came into vogue during the 1970s. My sister had an enamel 3-quart Rival crock pot that she used for making soups and stews. Today’s versions are larger, many in the 5- to 6-quart size. Some are real beauties, made from shiny stainless steel. I recommend the 6-quart oval size because it can easily hold a roast or chicken.
The problem with a stock pot, however, is that you cannot sear beef cubes for stew or any other ingredients. If you prefer the flavor of seared meat, you must sear a pot roast or pork loin in a hot pan and then transfer it to the crock pot. When cooking in a crock pot, you don’t have to sear anything first, however. This is a matter of personal taste. Dinner cooks nice and slow, and is ready by the time you get home.
The food processor made its way from France to America during the late ’70s and this appliance immediately caught on with good home cooks. My Cuisinart is 22 years old. It is the workhorse in my kitchen. You can find a mid-size Cuisinart for as little as $69.99. They usually run about $89.99 on sale. This model comes with a shredding disk and a slicing disk. Extra disks, such as one for preparing julienne of vegetables, are sold separately.
Readers of this column know how often I pull out my enamel-on-cast-iron Le Creuset pots. They are made in France in an array of colors, carry a lifetime guarantee and are often on sale. I use mine constantly for preparing soups, stews and roasts. Heavy nonstick skillets are a must in every kitchen. I constantly use my 10-inch and 12-inch skillets.
Bakers are a special breed of culinary "giftee." A freestanding mixer, such as a KitchenAid, is the perfect present for those who love to make cakes and other treats. An assortment of baking sheets, bake cans, spring-form pans, muffin tins and the like will bring smiles to the baker on your list. Expert bakers have told me that nonstick baking pans do not perform as well as heavy shiny stainless steel or aluminum pans.
For years I have sung the praises of my electric knife, which makes carving a roast, chicken or turkey a breeze. I’ve seen them priced as low as $10. Buy several and keep one for yourself.
I often like to give gifts around a theme. Since cocktails made their big comeback during the ’80s, every conceivable type of glass, from the classic martini to highballs to double old-fashions, have found their way onto store shelves. I am about to send a cousin of mine a set of martini glasses and a metal cocktail shaker. I have found whimsical cocktail spears in all shapes and sizes. Some are made from glass and have a green glass olive on the top. A bottle of dry vermouth, along with a bottle of gin or vodka, rounds out a martini-themed gift.
Any cook would enjoy a bottle of deep-green extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany, along with a bottle of real balsamic vinegar from Modena. A set of cruets for the olive oil and vinegar is a nice addition. The only corkscrew I can use is the Skrewpull, made by Le Creuset. It makes a nice hostess gift along with a bottle of wine.
Gifts of food run the gamut from caviar to fruitcakes (no jokes, please). You can buy them in gourmet shops or online. A side of smoked salmon and a jar of imported baby capers is a delicious and thoughtful hostess gift. Some online purveyors feature 12 months of fruit or cheese to be sent throughout the year. An array of imported jams with an assortment of crackers or water biscuits and English shortbread goes well with a tin of imported English tea. The tea-for-one teapot with matching cup has become very popular and there are a number of colors and styles from which to choose.
Belgian chocolates are considered the best, but they are expensive. Figure on spending about $40 a pound. I also like truffles and confectionery made by Perugina, the Italian candy company. Chocoholics who bake would welcome any of Maida Heatter’s cookbooks, especially Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. Coffee lovers would appreciate a grinder for whole beans, a 1-pound bag of Kona coffee beans and a set of mugs. Sales of espresso machines are up. They come in a range of prices. If someone on your list already has an espresso maker, search out espresso and cappuccino cups along with demitasse spoons.
Dish towels and oven mitts are practical gifts and everyone needs extras, especially around the holidays. I prefer pure cotton dish towels, while my sister Sandy uses cotton terrycloth ones. You can find matching chef’s aprons to go with the mitts and towels.
Since the holiday shopping season is in full swing, check your mailbox and newspapers for coupons. If you see items that are really priced well, buy several, wrap them, tag them and keep them for hostess gifts. For years, Strawbridge’s has stocked a variety of silver-plated serving pieces such as salad tossers, cake slicers, large forks and spoons and the like. With the coupon sale, they run $5 to $10. Extra serving pieces are a necessity this time of year or for whenever you toss a buffet-style bash.
Since the crock pot is a harried cook’s best friend, here is a recipe for pot roast from Desperation Dinners by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross.
New Old-Fashioned Pot Roast
1 (4- to 5-pound) chuck roast
3 medium onions
2 cups (about 24) already-peeled baby carrots
8 medium potatoes
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves or 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
Trim off and discard any excess fat from the roast and place it in the bottom of a 5-quart or larger slow cooker. Peel and thinly slice the onions, adding them to the pot as you slice. Add the carrots to the pot. Rinse, peel and quarter the potatoes, adding them to the pot.
In a 4-quart container or glass measure, combine the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt and 1/2 cup water. Mix well. Pour over the roast and vegetables. Sprinkle the rosemary over the roast and cover the pot. Cook on low for eight to 10 hours. When done, the roast and vegetables will be very tender. Remove the roast from the pot and slice. To serve, spoon a portion of meat and vegetables into each of eight shallow bowls or pasta plates.