Want to really wow your favorite foodie this holiday season? Indulge his inner gourmand with one well-chosen ingredient.
Gimmicky gadgets only end up cluttering kitchens and collecting dust, but raw ingredients are gifts that keep on giving. Think olive oil pressed at the peak of freshness, vinegar that's aged like fine wine or flavor-infused sea salts.
"Home chefs love to experiment in their kitchens. It becomes a therapy of sorts to try different flavors and ways of preparing dishes," says Theodora Stephan, owner of Global Gardens, an artisanal food shop in Los Olivos, Calif.
Kitchen staples may not sound exciting to the culinary-challenged, but any food aficionado knows that high-end artisanal varieties pack a lot more punch than what you find at the corner store.
Odd, rare or hard-to-find consumables are more than mere ingredients. To the food-obsessed, they're inspiration.
"Savoring new experiences is a huge part of the day-to-day home chef lifestyle that in turn becomes memories of great meals and synergy with family and friends," Stephan says.
As with any gift, choose quality over quantity. Instead of selecting several less expensive items, splurge on one truly exemplary ingredient. Even amateur chefs will taste the difference.
"Vinegar cannot be beat as a gift for any home chef," says Rachael Sheridan, gourmet buyer for Cube Marketplace, an online emporium specializing in imported food items.
Vinegars come in every price range and often feature flavors you won't find at the supermarket.
"Vinegar is totally underrated and so useful in the kitchen for everything from salads to finishing soups and proteins -- even drizzling over some desserts," she says.
For a great gourmet basic, Sheridan recommends Cafaggio Chianti wine vinegar ($22). Imported from Florence, Italy, the vinegar is made from Chianti grapes and aged in oak barrels for a pungent, woodsy flavor. It's straightforward but remarkably versatile.
"I believe this is the best red wine vinegar on the market, and its diverse array of uses make it perfect for the novice cook," Sheridan says.
For more exotic fare, look for vinegar with a hint of berry, such as Gegenbauer elderberry vinegar ($33), made from fermented elderberry juice and slowly aged in oak barrels for five years.
"This amazing vinegar is deep purple in color, smells of dark fruit, minerals and herbs and is perfect for reductions, dessert sauces and proteins, such as duck or foie gras," Sheridan says.
Extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil is another luxury staple any home chef would appreciate.
"Most people don't realize that like grapes, there are hundreds of olive varietals and therefore hundreds of flavors that are parlayed onto our palates," Stephan says. "Different olive oils are buttery, savory, grassy, fruity or peppery and can truly affect the outcome of a dish."
Stephan's own Global Gardens Signature Estate Blend ($30), for example, features hints of sage. The certified-organic, extra-virgin, first cold-pressed olive oil is grown and produced in Santa Barbara, Calif., wine country and gets its distinct flavor from sage blooming near the olive grove during pollination.
Trampetti organic extra-virgin olive oil ($36) is another good bet for beginners, according to Sheridan. Imported from the Umbria region of Italy, the oil is intense and fruity, with notes of freshly cut grass, herbs and artichokes.
Flavor-infused sea salts are a must for creative home chefs.
"If you're shopping for someone who likes to cook a lot, an unusual spice or salt will be appreciated -- something they'll have to look up or invent a new recipe for," Sheridan says.
She recommends Antica Macelleria Cecchini Profumo del Chianti ($32), created by butcher Dario Cecchini and imported directly from Italy's Tuscany region.
"This mixture of powder-fine sea salt and herbs brings grilled meats to a new level and can also be added to extra-virgin olive oil as a dip for bread and vegetables," Sheridan says.
For a clever kick to salad dressing, creamed vegetables and chocolate dishes, look for vanilla-infused sea salt, such as Halen Mon pure sea salt with Taha'a vanilla ($14). Made with Tahitian vanilla pods, the infused salt also pairs well with whitefish and scallops.