It is the late humorist and master of salesmanship, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who said one of my favorite quotes of all time: “You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.”
While he didn’t specify, I’m nearly certain Mr. Jones was talking about cookbooks. Reading cookbooks has changed me. Not only have they made me a better cook, learning how to do it and falling in love with the activity has impacted our household finances, tremendously.
Little by little, as I have become a better cook, we naturally eat at home more. The more I read, the more I cook; the more I cook the better cook I become and the more often we eat at home. It’s a beautiful thing!
The hubs and I have reached the point that eating out has become more of a “Do we have to?!” than a “We get to.” We eat at home, gladly, at least 99 percent of the time.
Today, I want to tell you about my current four favorite cookbooks (the lineup does change from time to time) and suggest a way that you could use any one of these fabulous cookbooks as the central item in a gift basket that you create for an aspiring home cook on your holiday gift list.
I guarantee that one of these cookbooks plus several items that match the theme of that particular book will delight any home cook—novice to advanced. What makes me so sure? Because I know how happy I’d be to receive any one of these gift baskets:
GOURMET ITALIAN GIFT BASKET
1. Everyone is Italian on Sunday, by Rachael Ray. This brand new cookbook currently sits at the top of my list of favorites. The recipes I’ve tried in the past three weeks have all turned out so well, I’m pretty sure that soon I’ll be speaking with an Italian accent. At nearly 400 pages, this oversized book contains hundreds more of what appear to be fantastic recipes. I can’t wait to test them. This cookbook has all the earmarks of a great gift. It’s beautiful, quite hefty and written in an engaging, fun style. About $30.
3-piece 2-piece Stoneware Salad Set. This set includes a 13-inch salad bowl, 13-ounce vinegar bottle and 24-ounce olive oil bottle. Interiors are glazed to make them non-porous and food safe. Absolutely gorgeous! About $20.
5. California Olive Ranch Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Or as Rachael Ray calls it, “EVOO”—a staple in Italian cooking and a must for this great gourmet basket. About $25.
HOBBY CHEF GIFT BASKET
6. How to Cook Without a Book, by Pam Anderson. You know how much I love “Chopped,” the Food Channel show, right? This is the book that’s is helping me build my confidence in looking at a pile of ingredients and figuring out what to do with them—without a specific recipe. Would you believe I now know how to make Pad Thai sauce by heart? I do, and so much more! I just adore this book and study it all the time. So don’t ask to borrow it. You and that aspiring chef on your gift list need copies of your own. $20.
8. Set of 6 Bamboo Kitchen Tools. These tools are must-haves in a chef’s kitchen. Bamboo, which is harder than maple, is the best choice for these wooden spoons and spatulas. Natural color, no stain. That makes them safe, too. Great set for under $6.
9. KitchenAid Kitchen Shears. Another kitchen must-have (one in every drawer if you ask me) is a good pair of kitchen scissors. These shears are dishwasher safe and have tiny serrations that make cutting anything from lettuce to meats a cinch. So useful and affordable, too. $8.
10. Stainless Steel 5-quart Colander. A colander with the power of a sieve. No more watching your spaghetti or rice slip through the holes. No slow draining water. No worries about warping, scratching, rusting or tipping over. Whether you’re boiling pasta, steaming vegetables or washing fruit, this colander simply makes your life easier. $17
Chop Wizard . Oh, I love my Chop Wizard. I use it nearly every day and it never disappoints. Chopping onions, vegetables, hard cooked eggs, cheese—you name it, Chop Wizard is the tool. Still $20. Onion Pro Vegetable Chopper. Heavy duty chopper that as advanced into first place with myself and thousands of other home cooks. This chopper is amazing. About $20.
ARTISAN BREAD GIFT BASKET
12. The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. I might as well be the president of the Artisan-in-Five fan club for how this book and its method have changed my life. It does require a few strategic pieces of equipment, without which will leave a novice baker disappointed if all they receive from you is this book. Take care to add the following four items, and instantly, you’ll become this recipient’s favorite person, ever! About $25.
13. Pizza Peel. It looks like a big flat wooden paddle and yes it is most often used in making homemade pizza. It is an essential item for making artisan bread. While pizza peels come in metal and also wood, I much prefer this wood peel for the artisan bread process. I find that my dough sticks to metal. This peel is ideal. $13.
14. Oven Thermometer. One of the secrets of making fabulous artisan bread is oven temperature. It must be precise! But don’t worry. Even if yours or your recipient’s oven is not well-calibrated, the only thing necessary to fix that is a good oven thermometer. The book explains and instructs on this. This is a great, reliable and easy-to-use thermometer. About $7.
15. Dough-rising Bucket with Lid. Another must-have to make artisan bread in this method is a dough-rising bucket. Any large container that will fit in your refrigerator, that also has a lid, will do. And for your gift basket, this particular one is ideal because unlike the one in the picture above, it is square to make better use of space in a refrigerator. The bucket and lid are separate items. Don’t forget the lid! Bucket about $15. Lid about $7.
16. Baking Stone. Another must-have is a good quality, large baking stone. Unsealed quarry tiles will do the trick, but getting the right size with tiles can be challenging. A much better option is a commercial baking stone like this one. For any home baker, consider this an investment in your craft. About $40.
CAST IRON SKILLET GIFT BASKET
17. The New Cast Iron Skillet Cook Book: 150 Fresh Ideas for America’s Favorite Pan, by Ellen Brown. Oh my, how many ways can I thank Ellen Brown for writing this thorough, beautiful book. It is a cookbook, but it’s more than that. It is a how-to book for every possible question and instruction for how to own, maintain and cook in cast iron. It is an art, and a lovely activity, too. My cast iron skillet is 40 years old. I bought it at Gemco in Southern California (anyone remember that?). It was part of a set and a cheap set at that. It is the only piece that survived my brutality and abuse. Thanks to Ellen, my skillet has been totally restored. I’ve followed her precise instructions and could not be happier. I am pretty sure I’ve now built up 1,000 layers of seasoning. It glistens, it is so beautiful. And oh, the recipes in this book! It is a beauty. Around $15.
18. Natural Bristle Brush. The thing that stymies most people when it comes to maintaining and using cast iron is having to clean the thing. It’s so easy, but you need the right tool. Ellen Brown will teach you exactly how to use it, too. About $5.
19. FlaxSeed Oil. Cast iron, in order to be useful and by that I mean your favorite cooking vessel of all time, must be continuously seasoned. With oil. And not just any oil. According to our expert Ellen, flaxseed oil is the oil of choice and for reasons, you will read. It’s not easy to find. So give your recipient a break and include this food-grade bottle of flax seed oil in the gift basket. This is a beautiful choice and will last for many years. That’s how little is required to get the job done. $13
20. Ringer. Back to cleaning cast iron. A natural bristle brush works well, but so does this stainless steel tool called a “Ringer.” Love this thing! I just wad it up like a piece of chainmail fabric and go to work on anything stuck on my cast iron. It doesn’t scratch or remove the seasoning. And it looks awesome in a gift basket. $15.
21. Utopia Cast Iron Skillet. What good is a cast iron gift basket without a lovely piece of cast iron cookware? This 12-inch skillet is ideal and will be a valuable addition to any kitchen. About $30.
Now you know why I love Charlie “Tremendous” Jones’ reference to books in his famous quote. As for the other mention, I’m a changed person for having met you over the past years, right here in this column. Thank you for being in my life and for being such a loyal reader!