Friday, November 26, 2010

Feasting Black Friday

First off, the Thanksgiving contest is still running through Sunday night, so pop over here and enter if you haven’t already.  We had a spectacular time, Charming Suitor's Charming Parents and my adorable family, including my brother from another mother Officer K all stuffing ourselves silly on the feast...highlighted and much improved by Charming Suitor's amazing cornbread stuffing, and Mrs. Charming's light as air yeast rolls, and perfect pecan/hickory nut pie...

Mrs. Charming taught me the secret to her rolls and pie dough, so recipes will be coming soon.


Holiday gift giving is right around the corner, Chickens, which means it is time to shop and your Polymath has a round-up of the best foodie gifts around, even if the foodie in question is you! After all, tis the season to be generous, and one should always be generous with oneself. Now that we have all been Thankful for our blessings, I thought you’d want to take a look at my go-to gifties!


Here are my best presents, something in every price range and for everyone on your list!

First and foremost? I would be remiss if I didn’t highly recommend the fabulous ‘novel with recipes’ Good Enough to Eat, by ME!

(or Room for Improvement, or The Spinster Sisters for that matter…) The perfect thing for your bestie, your Mom, your sis…anyone of style and taste on your list.

And just in time for the holidays…if you send me an e-mail with a copy of your receipt to staceyballisinfo (at) gmail (dot) com showing me books purchased after November 25, 2010 and before the end of the year (for you procrastinators), I will send you a personalized book plate for every book of mine you order! A lovely glossy sticker, with my signature, addressed to the person of your choice. That’s right; you can insert the autograph with personal message to your gift recipient! I will do as many bookplates as you buy books, so feel free to order them for everyone you know.

(Sorry, receipts dated before November 25, 2010 or after December 31, 2010 do not qualify.) If I get your receipt by December 15, I can guarantee you the bookplates in time for the holidays, but am happy to do them even after…

But I’m not here just to hock my own books, nay nay, I have plenty of other gift ideas for your nearest and dearest.


These are the high ticket items that will guarantee you that the recipient will say “Santa who?” You might be off dishes duty till 2014. It is not impossible that some serious nookie might come your way. I’m not saying, I’m just saying…

John Boos Block THE AZTEC

Best carving board ever. You know how most of your basic carving boards never really manage the meat juices properly, and you still end up with a small puddle, or waterfall down the fronts of your cabinets? This one is not messing around. The little pyramids in the middle hold your meat solid for carving, and not only do the ample deep moats cover the juice problem, the little stainless tray that works for your scraps goes underneath and there is a hole so that the juices collect there and can be then whisked into sauces, added to gravies, or used to make a delicious au jus! Those precious and delicious fluids which are usually lost are now safely captured, even if it is just for ease of disposal. If you could ever fall in love with a cutting board, this is the one. Big enough to hold a whole 25 pound turkey, a large watermelon, or a five rib roast easily. And pretty enough to bring to the table for carving. But wait, there's more!  t is reverseable, so evem when you aren't in need of carving magic, the flip side is just a basic flat cutting board, with the juice tray flipped up to gather scraps for disposal.  GENIUS!  Easy to maintain, and truly the last board you will ever need to buy.

MAC Knives

The knife of choice for many of the chef’s we respect and admire most, Thomas Keller at the top of the list, once Charming Suitor and I tried them we were blown away, and are complete converts. Not that the Henckel’s and Wustof’s are suddenly terrible…they are still very well made and completely fine. They just aren’t quite as mind-blowingly extraordinary. If you are at the place where it is time to invest in good knives, I hope you will check them out. If it is time to help a loved one replace some good knives that are beyond their prime (maybe the ones they have been washing in the dishwasher) these are the next level. They’ll never need or want others.  I should warn you, however, as with all knives...BE CAREFUL!  My knife skills are great.  My knife WASHING skill apparently could use some work, as I discovered Tuesday night while blithely scrubbing my MAC without paying attention.  On the downside, a major laceration on one's right index finger in the middle of Thanksgiving prep is not, as they say, ideal.  On the upside, the MAC cut me so cleanly, albeit deeply, that the would was able to reseal with some while I did end up in the ER briefly, I didn't need stitches, just some tape and a tetanus shot.  The doc said it looked like a scalpel cut...I know that is an odd recommendation for a kitchen knife, but I do try to be honest with my Chickens!

CDN Infrared Probe Thermometer

I’m a stickler about temp being the best way to insure prime protein perfection and while I have long relied on those cheapie probes from the grocery store, this is a game-changer. It can take an infrared shot, testing the true temp of your oven, or a probe temp, with pinpoint precision to make sure your roasts and birds all come out moist and juicy and safe. If you have someone on your list who loves the meat, this will be perfect!

Small appliances that make all the difference:

Cuisinart Slow Cooker

This 6.5 quart beauty has been turning out some perfect stews, chilis, and braises all Fall, and I can’t wait to see what I can do with it over the winter. If you know someone ready to dive into the world of slow cooking, this is the one, and if they have an old one in need of replacement, they will love this sleek update.

Immersion blender

This thing gets a crazy amount of use at my house, the best for fast salad dressing, instant homemade mayo, emulsifying sauces and pureeing soups, whipping cream. I probably use it at least 3-5 times a week, and for entertaining, probably 5-10 times for one meal!

Fagor Pressure Cooker

Pressure cooking is back, people everywhere are discovering how fast and easy it is to cook with them. I know a lot of you have the same fears I had, recalling the old “blowing up all over the kitchen” issue of legend and myth. But the new models have all kinds of safety features, so you get all of the benefit of pressure cooking without the worry. Fagor has been making them for years, and there are a variety of versions so you can choose the best one.

Kuhn Rikon Swiss Chop Chop

With its reasonably large capacity, two spinning blades, and the funky ripcord mechanism, this thing has become indispensable in my kitchen. The little arm at the bottom of the bowl keeps contents moving towards the blades. This thing actually works. It makes quick work of minced garlic, and is big enough to do a whole onion a once. It comes with a lid, so you can use it to store things, which is pretty handy. I have given three of them as gifts, and have another on deck for the holidays.

Salter scale

This digital scale makes baking a dream, and is very useful when you find recipes with weight measurements. Affordable and sleek, with everything you will need. It also can be helpful when you want to keep an eye on what you are eating connected to a healthy program, I can eyeball 4 oz of chicken pretty well by now, but it is easy to accidentally overserve yourself….this scale takes the guesswork right out. Buy it for the baker in your life with a copy of Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.

Fun and Funky stuff for entertaining

Swissmar Raclette Set

Raclette in the traditional Swiss method, involves an entire wheel of nutty creamy raclette and an open fire. But we all don’t have access to Switzerland. Swissmar makes a great home raclette set…you put the cheese in the bottom to melt, and cook up sausages, new potatoes, veggies or anything you like on the top. It is the new fondue, and utterly delicious. You can use it as the centerpiece of a cocktail party, or go whole hog for dinner.

Nordicware mini popover pans

and mini cakes

Nordicware makes the best nonstick baking items I have every used, and my two new faves for entertaining are the mini popovers and tiny decorative cakes. Popovers are dead easy and a unique addition to a dinner party or a fun enclosure for any number of hors d’oeuvres. And these tiny cakes are two bites of adorable. They come in many shapes, and accommodate your best cake and brownie recipes.

For the coffee and tea lovers:

Capresso Froth Machine

I am not a coffee drinker. Which is good, because I make terrible coffee. Charming Suitor, on the other hand, is my own Mr. Latte, and needs his steaming cup to get through the morning. Enter my salvation. Starbucks Via packets and this Capresso Frothing Machine. It heats and froths milk for perfect lattes, cappuccinos, and hot chocolate. It even gets a good thick froth out of skim milk! I made CS a latte with the Starbucks Via and freshly frothed milk and he loved it! Morning is saved. Buy for the coffee maven in your life.

Tea Forte Tea over Ice set

While I may not like coffee, I do love tea, and in the summer, I am a serious iced tea girl. Tea Forte sent me this cool set, lovely glass pitchers, the upper for making intense tea (using their iced tea blends, natch) the lower you fill with ice. When the tea is done brewing on top, you just pour over the ice below.

Makes for a lovely presentation for company, but I use it all the time just for myself! Be sure to buy some of the Tea Forte teas to go with it!

Beehouse Teapots

I have used these individual pots by Beehouse for a long time now, and I love the convenience of the mesh inserts, the fact that all the parts can be tossed in the dishwasher.

Gadgets and Cool Tools


This company makes the coolest stuff out of silicone, steamers and lemon squeezers and silicone mats for baking. I love the decorating pods and can lids. Not usually seen much in stores, so the kind of thing you can safely buy for the person who has everything!

Soda Stream Soda Maker  

For starters, it is dead easy. Five minutes after I opened the box, I was drinking a frosty glass of homemade soda water. No electricity, no batteries, so it can be anywhere. Pop in the canister, fill the special bottle with cold water, screw it into the machine, pull the lever three times and presto! Fizzy lifting drinks in your own home! They have a great ginger ale, which CS loved, and both regular and diet Tonic, so mixers for cocktail parties are well covered. You name your favorite pop, they have a version. There are 38 flavors all told, in regular and diet, with four ‘essences’ for unsweetened flavored water. And an unexpected shocker, even the regular flavors are about a third the calories and carbs and sugars of the commercial brands, with half the caffeine and almost no sodium, so when I want to indulge, I’m not totally derailing my program. It is fun to be able to offer guests their own custom fizzies when they arrive, I am glad not to have to keep tonic and soda slowly going flat in the pantry on the off chance someone wants a cocktail, and I am experimenting with making some of my own flavorings by adding in fresh pureed fruit, herbs, and other fun stuff. Cucumber mint is delish, ditto strawberry basil. The bottles of mix are only about $5,and make 12 liters, so it is very affordable, but you can also experiment with those wonderful French and Italian soda syrups, just add slowly to find the amounts that work for you.

ReUseIt produce bags

I recognize the hypocrisy of taking a re-useable bag to the grocery store and then filling it with little plastic bags from the produce department. So I feel much better about these little green mesh bags. They are see-thru enough that check out personnel can still see what they are ringing up, and even better, you can wash the produce IN THE BAG and then store it in the fridge. And they come in a small bag so you can keep them organized. I am still collecting them, since I only have the set of four and I never buy just four things in the produce department! Perfect for your green pals!

Amazing ingredients

The Spice House
The Spice House. My only source for dried herbs and spices. For starters, it is actually less expensive to buy from a spice vendor. You can get larger quantities when you need them, custom blends, and exotics that you just can’t find in the chain grocery stores. The products are fresher, unadulterated by fillers, and will last longer. The quality of your cooking will jump a notch, even though you won’t have changed anything about your recipes or cooking methods.

And which is best, as long as you think a little bit ahead, you can always have your spices delivered right to your door if you aren’t lucky enough to live near a store! Their products are impeccable, and I’m a huge fan of many of their custom blends. Charming Suitor uses almost equal parts of their Bronzeville Rub and Milwaukee Ave Steak Seasoning as the basis of his famous Rib Rub, and we both love the Trinidad Lemon Garlic blend on chicken. I give endless gifts of their products to my foodie friends, gift cards and gift baskets alike, and at least every other month I have to find an excuse to go to one of the stores and putter around. Not sure what you need? Give them a call, their salespeople are all very knowledgeable and can help you find exactly what you need. Great gift boxes!

We took Reverend and Mrs. Charming for a spice buying adventure on Wednesday, so things are going to be awfully perky in a Kentucky kitchen very soon!

Onion Jam

 A spoonful of this stuff is like magic in a jar. Use as a condiment on any meat, spread on your sandwiches for serious wow factor, stir a spoon into sauce, use to glaze a roast, coat a log of goat cheese with it for an awesome appetizer. My last best use? On a homemade flatbread. Picked up pizza dough from my local, spread with the onion jam, strewed with prosciutto, chopped sage, and curls of really good parm. Insane.

Food Reads

Adventures on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch

This one was a gift from Charming Suitor, and I devoured it. Wine and food in France. Delish. And really informative for the newbie wine enthusiast.

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris Even better than the movie.

Chocolate transforms a tiny puritanical French town.

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

The former Editor of Gourmet Magazine remembers her own food awakening. Funny and poignant memoir.

Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jabar

Wonderful novel about a chef, with equal passions for food and love.

French Lessons, by Peter Mayle

Really, anything by Peter Mayle. Provencal and inspiring.

The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher

If you buy only one book on this list, you need go no further. Who I am as a cook, an eater and a writer are all steeped in these pages.

The Soul of a Chef/The Making of a Chef/The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

I can re-read these books over and over. Beautifully written and unbelievably compelling.

Heat by Bill Buford 

A fun look behind the scenes with Mario Batali. If all you know is Molto Mario, you don’t know nuthin’!

Toast by Nigel Slater 

A coming of age story with food. Hilarious and touching.

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

My favorite food curmudgeon. He snarks better than anyone, but his praise can be equally effusive.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

It’s Tony. Full stop.

Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch 

A fun look behind the curtain at Per Se.

The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin

Simple and fun essays, great read.


Nigella Kitchen by Nigella Lawson

All her books are great, but this is the one to have if you are only going to have one.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking1 and 2 by Julia Child Simone Beck and Loiuse Bertcholt

Perfect gift for anyone who loves to cook.

The Essential New York Times Cookbook, edited by Amanda Hesser

Massive and terrific.

Ad Hoc At Home by Thomas Keller

The one you can safely and easily cook from, with all the food porn you come to appreciate about the Master.

Around my French Table by Dorie Greenspan

Perfect. Full stop.

Foodie DVDs

My favorite stuff to snuggle up with…

The French Chef

Big Night

Babette’s Feast

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Pie in the Sky

Two Fat Ladies

Mostly Martha




Julie and Julia

Wishing you happy shopping, and if you need an idea and don't find the inspiration here, post your query in the comments and let the class help!

thanks to for my gorgeous mag mile!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. i'm forwarding this to my husband as we speak!

    i second The Spice House! You posted about it months ago, and I've been venturing up to Evanston to their location ever since! It is so much less expensive than purchasing at the grocery store and more importantly the herbs and spices taste so much fresher! not to mention you can get refill bags at a fraction of the cost and don't have to keep buying containers! love love LOVE!

  2. Stacey and friends - have you guys tried Penzey's Spices? If so, do you prefer The Spice House? Why? :)

  3. Penzey's and The Spice House are the same family! Patty Erb who operates The Spice House is Bill Penzey's (rest his soul) daughter. The quality at both places is impeccable, you can't go wrong at either. I name The Spice House because they have two locations where I live, so that is the place I do my spice shopping.

  4. ahh. Good to know. Unfortunately,Charlotte doesn't have any 'good' spice stores, so all of my shopping is done online.

  5. Great list! I like your choice of books and films (Eat drink ..and Babette's feast are one of my favorite)! You just gave some super ideas for my Christmas shopping!

  6. I love to make my own jellies and jams (and I'm 36....why does everyone think I'm eighty) I made a fantastic pineapple habenero sauce that I copied from a store bought jar for 1/3 the I MUST make that onion and port jam. Like this weekend!!