Kitchen tools are a great idea


Time is getting short.

There are just nine shopping days left until Christmas, and that's only if you count Sundays as shopping days (which pretty much every store does, these days). And if you're looking for a last-minute present for Hanukkah, you're too late: The final gifts were handed out last night.

According to a Gallup poll, American shoppers plan to spend an average of $770 apiece on gifts this holiday season. Many of us have been procrastinating and have not yet spent a dime. And time, as it has been noted, is getting short.

If you have cooks on your list — or if you know someone you'd like to cook for you and you are looking for a subtle hint — why not consider spending some of that $770 on culinary tools? A lot of people don't think about them as presents, but serious cooks love their gadgets. Funny cooks do, too.

A Washington, D.C., chef with a good PR firm has come out with a list of five recommendations that make a lot of sense (hint, hint). Ryan Fichter, executive chef at Bodega Spanish Tapas & Lounge and Thunder Burger & Bar suggests giving the following five culinary tools. They are certain to last long and provide years of cooking pleasure:

• Chef knives. If you have a good chef's knife, that's really the only knife you'll need. But many people don't want to shell out the considerable bucks it takes to buy one for themselves. That's why it's up to you, the generous friend or loved one, to give your favorite cook the best knife you can.

• Cutting boards. OK, maybe these aren't the sexiest gifts. But they are vital for cooking, and you can never have too many of them. Mr. Fichter recommends wooden boards, especially made from bamboo because they are environmentally friendly. And wooden boards are attractive, and make nicer gifts. But frankly, the easily cleaned plastic boards are probably more useful. Mr. Fichter suggests buying a set in different sizes.

• Wine opener. If a wine lover is on your list, why not? According to the chef, you can match the opener to your grateful recipient's personal style. They come in electric, winged, pump, lever pull, and traditional. I'm not sure what he means by "traditional," but it must be the ordinary, unadorned corkscrew.

• Steel pans. High-quality pans are a joy to use. They hold their heat well, don't have hot spots, and generally can stand up to the rigors of being slammed around on the stove. Though costly, a set can be a great deal — but even a single pan will be greatly appreciated.

• Immersion blender (also called stick blenders). These hand-held blenders are a lot of fun to use; just hold them in a pot, turn them on, and they transform chunky food into soups and sauces. In most cases, they are just like a regular blender, but they are lighter and you can store them in a drawer. And some cooks even get a childlike joy out of playing with them. Trust me on this.

Army Christmas

This time of year, there is so much emphasis on Christmas that you have probably found yourself wondering how the Army celebrated it in 1947, probably in a place such as Fort Smith, Ark.

In an astonishing coincidence, Cathy DePew sent in the menu of food served to soldiers on Christmas in that very place (probably) and in that very year. Her father, who died nearly 50 years ago, was Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who served both in World War II and Korea. In his 12 years of service, he earned an Oak Leaf Cluster and three Purple Hearts. Among his effects was an Army menu for Dec. 25, 1947.

The meal that day included: mixed fruit cocktail, roasted tom turkey, turkey consommé, sage dressing, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed white potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, buttered green peas, whole kernel corn, coleslaw, pickles and olives, pumpkin pie, ice cream, hot rolls and butter, coffee and cream, oranges and candy, and mixed nuts.

Not bad for the Army, right? And you know it had to be Christmas, because there wasn't a shingle to be found.

Chili time

In winter, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of chili. And why not? On days when you can see your breath, few things are as warming and satisfying as a big, steaming pot of chili.

The good folks at Samuel Adams beer have passed along a recipe for chili that (it's probably not a coincidence) includes a bottle of beer. But beer has long been considered a vital ingredient in chili, at least in Texas. Besides, a significant number of people who eat chili will have a bottle of beer with it anyway; this recipe only leaves out the middleman.

This is the exciting part: The recipe was created by David Burke, who is a big pooh-bah in the world of beef and steaks. That means the recipe probably tastes as good as it sounds.

Beer Chili

4 pounds ground beef

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 medium red pepper, diced

1 medium yellow pepper, diced

1 Spanish onion, diced

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne

1½ teaspoons ground cumin

1½ teaspoons toasted ground coriander

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 bottle lager-style beer 

½ cup tomato paste

1 cup whole peeled canned tomatoes

½ cup bottled chili sauce

¾ cup red kidney beans

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, optional

In a large pot over medium heat, brown meat with salt and pepper to taste. Let drain on the side on paper towels. In same pot, heat the oil and add peppers, onions, chili powder, paprika, cayenne, coriander, thyme, and salt.  and stir in the  with the spices and canola oil. Stir for about 20 seconds, making certain the spices do not burn. Add beer, tomato paste,  tomatoes, chili sauce, beans, and Tabasco (if using), and bring to a simmer for about 45 minutes. Serve in soup bowls and top with shredded cheddar cheese.

Yield: Serves 8.