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updated: 12/11/2013 10:51 AM

Lean and lovin' it: Sizing up gifts for the cooks on your list

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  • Looking for a gift for a cook on your list? "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan, who passed away earlier this year, is a perfect fit.

    Looking for a gift for a cook on your list? "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan, who passed away earlier this year, is a perfect fit.
    Associated Press File Photo


With the holidays nearly upon us, many people find selecting gifts for folks who cook to as hard as an oak butcher block, especially if that giftee has been cooking for a while.

What I do when considering a holiday gift for well-seasoned cooks is to look at what cooking tools or books I appreciate. With that and my own 50 years of cooking experience, here are my top three gift ideas.

"Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan: I love cookbooks and am literally surrounded by them in my office. With hundreds of cookbooks hitting the shelves every year selecting the right one can be an arduous task. If the person to whom you want to give a gift loves Italian food you will not go wrong with Hazan's book (about $20).

Sadly, Hazan passed away this year, but her literary presence in the cooking world still shines a bright light on what authentic Italian food is all about and, most importantly, how it's prepared.

In "Essentials," Hazan combines two of her early books: 1973's "The Classic Italian Cook Book" (considered by many as a true "classic") and her 1978 follow-up "More Classic Italian Cooking."

Check the price online for an original 1973 copy of Hazan's first book and you'll discover they go for several hundred dollars. "Essentials" contains everything Hazan brought to the table in those two books and would definitely be appreciated by any good cook.

Balsamic vinegar: Hazan brought balsamic vinegar to American tables and I'd bring it to a cook in your life. I've tasted many balsamic vinegars and have found Calivirgin's Barrel-Aged Balsamic Vinegar to be the best in terms of quality for the price. At $16 to $18 for a 250 mL bottle ( and Williams Sonoma) it's a bargain compared to imported balsamic vinegar.

For me, it's quite simply the best for the price and I guarantee it will bring a warm smile to whomever you give this gift.

Victorinox chef's knife: If you've got a guy on your list who loves to cook, I suggest what a Victorinox's 8-inch or 10-inch chef's knives ($29 and $49, respectively at

Over the years, both knives have won several Cook's Illustrated magazine comparative competitions and rightly so. I own both sizes and they are my go-to kitchen workhorses.

I keep those and other knives sharp using a Chef'sChoice AngleSelect Knife Sharpener (about $169). This sharpener can get and keep 15- and 20-degree knife blades razor sharp. I lent my sharpener to a chef who uses knives that cost hundreds of dollars each and when he returned my sharpener he had a single comment: "Wow!"

If the price tag kicks that sharpener off your gift-giving list, I find Chef'sChoice's Manual 3-stage Sharpener ($29.95) does almost as good a job for a fraction of the cost.

Happy Holidays!

Try this recipe: There's a fantastic barbecue restaurant in downtown Raleigh, N.C. called The Pit that smokes some of the state's finest barbecue. The Pit also serves up pumpkin cornbread in small iron skillets with unctuous whipped maple butter. Lean? Not so much.

I turned that pumpkin cornbread into muffins and cut the fat in half. Drizzling a little real maple syrup on these muffins leaves butter's fat and calories in the fridge.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at

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