Over the past year, various companies have sent me all sorts of cool swag, and in an effort to pay it forward, I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite freebies (as well as a few that I did fork over some cold, hard cash for). For all you last minute shoppers out there, take heed: this might be the guidance you so desperately need.
My humble gift-giving suggestions after the jump…
The single most useful kitchen gadget I’ve received this year has been my electric citrus juicer. Making short work of lemons, limes, and oranges, this nifty tool makes homemade cocktails a breeze. It takes no time to squeeze out a cup of lime juice, a process that used to take upwards of fifteen minutes. If you don’t anticipate a lot of juicing in your life, then maybe this machine isn’t the ideal gift, but if fresh-squeezed is your m.o., then do yourself a favor and get this bad boy. $19.95 at CSN Stores
Over the summer, a furious debate raged on this blog: bread machine vs. ice cream maker vs. slow cooker. I initially decided a bread machine would be excessive and potentially unhealthy, and so I ordered a slow cooker and an ice cream maker — both of which I’ve enjoyed. This fall, however, I decided to take the plunge on a bread machine, and I must admit that I’ve been very, very happy with the results. Turns out that making bread in a machine is the easiest thing of all time, and of all the three machines up for debate, it’s the one I’ve used the most. Of course, sweetening the deal was the bargain-basement price of $64.99, which made the Breadman 2-Pound Bread Maker a fantastic deal. Sure, it may not have all the advanced settings of other machines, but it actually has many features, almost all of which I’ve used to successful results. Additionally, the machine comes with many recipes, including a cinnamon raisin loaf which is oh so tasty. For the price, this is probably the best bang for the buck on this list. $64.99 at CSN Stores
Just because my bread machine proved to be the most useful “big appliance” I ordered this year doesn’t mean that I’m kicking the ice cream maker to the curb. Making ice cream is simply too fun to be denied, and even though I’ve only used my machine all of three times, I still highly enjoy having it. If anything, an ice cream maker is a perfect gift in that it’s the sort of thing people might not want to buy for themselves (but secretly want anyway). Cuisinart is known for the best home ice cream making machines, but their inventory was out when I used a gift code to order from CSN stores. Hence, I wound up with the Deni Automatic Ice Cream Maker, and the results have been just fine. One of these days I’ll nab a copy of David Lebovitz’s famed book The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments, and then I’m sure the ice cream machine will be whirring and churning once again… $46.85 at Amazon
Ina Garten always pooh-poohs kitchen gadgets, claiming that they clutter up space and are more gimmicky than anything else. She probably has a point, but there’s an exception to every rule, and my biggest exception comes in this handy mango slicer. If you’re like me — uncoordinated, clumsy, awkward — chances are that slicing a mango is a pain in the ass. This mango splitter does the job in a second, and is so so so so SO very worth it. Yes, it may be a highly specific tool, but it can make life much easier. $12.09 at Amazon
I really don’t know what inspired me to order a stovetop smoker, but I did it, and I’m happy to report that this simple device makes delicious food. It can be tricky to get the timing right for food (I sadly overcooked one lovely piece of salmon), but at the very least, it will make your apartment or home smell amazing. This is the closest you can get to bringing a campfire inside, and I can assure you that it is certainly worth it. Do yourself a favor though: don’t make my mistake. Get the full-sized smoker, not the mini. $29.99 (mini), $45.99 (full-sized) at Amazon
Anyone who’s been following my recent spate of cocktail-making (see: The Quaff) will know that I’ve been happily mining Paul Abercrombie’s book Organic, Shaken, and Stirred quite liberally. Abercrombie compiled recipes from mixologists and bartenders all across the country, and he presents the best ones to us in his wonderful book. Every recipe features fresh juice and ingredients, and if you’re an organic fiend, you can go so far as to use the organic spirits he recommends (I, however, don’t care so much about that). I’ve loved every drink I’ve made from this book, with some proving to be totally epic (Snap Pea-Irinha, Basil Margarita, Green Tea Mojito, Dark & Stormy). If you’re serious about tasty cocktails, this should be at the top of your list (with the Black & Decker juicer not far behind). $14 new at Amazon.
Just last night I attended a Jose Cuervo tasting, and I’m happy to report I’m a changed man. I sampled many of their goods, and I can assure you that if you’re feeling like a baller, drop some moolah on this pricey bottle of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia. The common perception is that Cuervo is crap, but this bottle is tasty as can be. It’s smooth, spicy, and full of great woody aromas, thanks to an extensive aging process. You wouldn’t be alone if you mistook it for a bourbon. As an added bonus, the bottle comes in a collectible gift box, which can sometimes fetch a hefty sum on eBay. Trust me: I’m not one to sip tequila, but this is one I could certainly enjoy. If you don’t feel like breaking the bank, the two Tradicional items (Silver and Reposado) are also quite tasty. The Silver is spicy and peppery whereas the Reposado is smooth and warm. Hmm… maybe you should get all three. Reserva de La Familia 750 ML: $109.99 at BevMo; Tradicional Silver 750 ML $18.99 at BevMo; Tradicional Reposado $24.99 at finewinehouse.com
Everyone needs vodka; so why not Stoli? This is my friend Sly’s favorite vodka, and if anyone knows vodka, it’s Sly. $17.99 at BevMo
Is anyone surprised that I included Ina Garten’s new cookbook on this list? Truth be told though, How Easy Is That? actually features many interesting and delicious recipes that show a slightly more adventurous flair than Garten’s previous effort, Back to Basics. Tuna tapenade, foie gras, sausage-stuffed mushrooms, and various other dishes keep this collection fun and intriguing. How bad can THAT be? Oh, but if you’re looking for easy, don’t get too excited…$18.90 at Amazon
My love for Korean food is no secret. I’m always the first to rush to Koreatown for some tasty grub, but I can’t always find people to join me though, which is why this cookbook is a godsend. Discovering Korean Cuisine allows home cooks to replicate some of the best dishes in their own kitchen, and I can assure you that the recipes are mostly spot on. Even more fun is that since the dishes all come from Los Angeles restaurants, locals like me can test their home creations against the real thing, which actually is fairly helpful. But even if you’re nowhere near LA, this book is a treasure trove of tasty dishes. I do suspect that some of the restaurants left out secret ingredients, but that’s okay. You’d be hardpressed not to find something delicious in these pages. $13.57 at Amazon
If you’re planning on podcasting or singing a song or simply talking to someone over your computer, I’ve found that my little Blue Snowball microphone has been totally awesome. The audio quality is clear and crisp, and as an added bonus, it’s kind of cute (as cute as a microphone can be). I call it my little Deathstar. $62.20 at Amazon
The funniest show on network TV is Community. Well, it’s Community and 30 Rock. But nevertheless, Community is a hilarious show worthy of more attention than it gets. Luckily, in its second season, buzz on the series has grown, which is why it’s all the more important for you to go back and catch up with what you’ve missed thus far. This package includes all sorts of fun goodies: outtakes, commentary, and mini episodes, among others. It’s definitely worth a shot. $23.49 at Amazon
Sure, you can buy the new Franzen or perhaps throw some money at Oprah’s book club, but for anyone who wants nothing but silly fluff, look no further than this guide to Bravo’s hit Real Housewives series. The volume is more entertaining than you might think, full of catty interviews and wry charts and diagrams. Don’t feel guilty about buying this book: it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. Sadly, while The Real Housewives Get Personal is only about five months old, it’s already woefully out of date. Missing from the tome: new Atlanta residents Phaedra and Cynthia, not to mention the entire casts of D.C. and, more unfortunate, Beverly Hills. I suppose we’ll be getting an updated version soon… $16.47 at Amazon
What are your favorite gift ideas this year?