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Under the Cook’s Tree

What would a top chef, winemaker, distiller and cookbook author pick out for a friend this holiday?

We asked, and your friends shall receive.

Surprisingly, what these food and drink experts cherish most in their kitchens is not the $1,200 professional meat slicer (though that would be nice). For these professionals, one chef’s nearly rotten tomato is another cook’s treasure. Our six favorite recommendations are below.

Food dehydrator

Recommended by John & Robin Teldeschi of Teldeschi Family Vineyards

John and Robin Teldeschi’s Sonoma cooking philosophy is based on tenets that apply year-round, not just at the holidays: Fill your table with red wine, hearty tomato-sauced dishes and plenty of friends and family.

Dried tomato dish.And about that tomato-rich sauce. The couple treat their tomatoes (grown from seeds brought back from Italy) like wine grapes, keeping them just this side of parched for maximum flavor. Once they’ve been harvested, Robin says her food dehydrator from Cabela’s is the secret to preserving the fruits, which she dries by the jar full. She first dries the whole tomatoes on racks, stem-side down so the skin doesn’t tear. Then she slices them and pops the wedges into her dehydrator.

Starting at about $150, these units — especially the commercial version like the one Robin Teldeschi has — can get pricey. But they’re just the thing for someone near and dear who would love to turn tomatoes into tiny sweet candies and beef into road-trip worthy homemade jerky. Available online from Cabela’s.

Strega liqueur

Laurent Tourondel, executive chef at BLT

Strega LiqueurNew York-based chef Laurent Tourondel grew up in France, but at Christmas his heart longs for a little taste of Italy. Specifically, the Italian liqueur, Strega.

He uses the herb liqueur — laced with mint, fennel and saffron — to make his grandmother’s chocolate mousse cake. “It is a very French classic,” says Tourondel of the cake, really more of a chocolate tiramisu with the ladyfingers dipped in Strega rather than coffee. “I’ve been eating this cake since I was really young … and always at Christmas.”

Strega is available at BevMo! and other well-stocked liquor stores for about $33. Wrap up a bottle with a copy of Tourondel’s “New American Bistro Cooking,” a 2007 James Beard Award-winning cookbook finalist ($35 list price), and bookmark the recipe for black and white chocolate cake with creme anglaise — an updated version of his grandmother’s chocolate mousse cake recipe.

Artisan cheeses

Anne Willan, cookbook author and founder of the La Varenne cooking school

Since 1975, Anne Willan has welcomed hundreds of cooks into her kitchen in France, including Julia Child, barbecue master Steven Raichlen, Chicago pastry chef Gale Gand, and New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser. Now that Willan has left France for California, where her grandchildren reside, she spends even more time seeking her favorite gift — perfectly ripened cheese. Even at the best cheese shops stateside, she has seen prized aged goat cheeses that were “far too over the hill” and Emmental Swiss cheese “in dreadful shape, far too many holes all in one place … a crater, really.”

Mimolette Cheese.Her advice? Get to know your cheesemonger, but more important, your cheeses. When in doubt, go with a good sturdy Mimolette, a hard, bright-orange aged cow’s milk cheese made in Belgium and France that’s recognizable by its thick, pockmarked exterior. “It’s best when really quite orange for good everyday eating” she says. A large wedge is “perfectly suitable” — as the British-born Willan is wont to say — for a holiday gift.

Imported mimolette is available online at Formaggio Kitchen and at good cheese shops for about $20 a pound, a gift-worthy wedge. Throw in a copy of Willan’s two-time James Beard award-winning cookbook, “The Country Cooking of France” (available for $30 to $50) for those you really want to impress.

Compressor ice cream maker

Ann Kirk, pastry chef at Little Dom’s

Those freezer-bowl ice cream makers many of us cram in our freezer (on the days we have the space) are quick and convenient, but to get the velvety texture you’d find in fine dining restaurants and high-end ice cream shops, you’ll need a model with a built-in compressor. Until recently, commercial-quality churners have been cumbersome — they’ll hog up half your kitchen counter — and pricey at $1,000 and up.

Lello Ice cream maker.Pastry chef Ann Kirk lucked out when a girlfriend asked her what she really wanted for Christmas. “I told my best friend, half-joking, that I really wanted one of those new home gelato makers with a compressor,” she recalls. Her friend found an affordable Lello model for about $180. “You can make amazing ice creams and sarsaparilla floats all year. It’s the best gift I’ve ever gotten.” Kirk returned the favor. “I got my girlfriend a really nice pair of shoes. We both have a bit of a shoe fetish.”

Look for compressor ice cream makers at cooking stores and online. Musso, Lello and Cuisinart make good versions at various price points. Kirk has the Lello 4070 Gelato Junior.

Pasta maker

Matthew Accarrino, executive chef, SPQR

Matthew Accarrino has always worked in “Top Chef” kitchens — literally. Before taking the helm at SPQR in San Francisco this fall, Accarrino was restaurateur Tom Colicchio’s head chef at Craft restaurant in New York; Pasta maker.a few years later Accarrino landed at Craft in Los Angeles. “When I started working there [Craft New York], it was before ‘Top Chef,'” he says. “Things are a little different now.”

Accarrino’s true love is pasta. “I’ve always loved making fresh pasta and found a way to work it into every menu — now I can do it all the time.” This time of year he’s offering up maccheroni (macaroni) with braised duck leg ragu, stinging nettle torchio (torch-shaped pasta) with garlic crema, and saffron pappardelle (ribbon-shaped pasta) with braised chicken and braised peppers, all made by hand. Even the misshapen pieces, when made by your friends in everyday hand-crank machines, taste just as good.

A hand-crank pasta maker runs about $30. Duck ragu not included.


Antica Carpano Formula Vermouth

Michael Sherwood, owner-distiller of Sub Rosa Spirits

Antice Carpano Formula VermouthThe thought of spending $30 on a bottle of vermouth when your friends are probably perfectly content with their $5 version? Crazy, right? But Antica Carpano is not your everyday vermouth. Sherwood, an artisan distiller with a penchant for complex, herbal flavors, keeps this Italian spirit on hand to make Manhattan cocktails worthy of the big city. (Use a good rye whiskey if you’re going to pull out the Antica Carpano, Sherwood suggests.)

We also like to serve this red vermouth slightly chilled, straight up as an aperitif — just as Antonio Benedetto Carpano of the House of Carpano in Turin would have enjoyed it on the wintry night in 1786 when he came up with the perfect formula of wine and spices. Plus, the vermouth comes in a weighty 1-liter bottle with a fantastic yesteryear label (read: it looks and feels much more expensive than it is).

Antica Carpano Formula red vermouth is available online at Wally Wine and at well-stocked wine and liquor stores for about $30.


Jenn Garbee is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times’ Food and Travel sections and LA Weekly’s SquidInk. She is the author of “Secret Suppers,” an insider’s look into the underground restaurant scene nationwide.

Photos of Anne Willan and cheese by Jenn Garbee.