My gift-giving goal this holiday season is to find presents that are practical, unique, and affordable. Most importantly, I want each gift I bestow to suit its recipient perfectly while improving his or her life in some way. Though I can’t fix problems like financial woes or heartache with one single gift, I can address the home- and food-related needs of my friends and family. After all, don’t they say, “Home is where the heart is,” and “The fastest way to a person’s heart (I refuse to limit that by gender—everyone loves food) is through the stomach?” Clearly, the way to warm my loved ones’ hearts—the purpose of any gift I give—is by giving them a well-stocked kitchen.
1. A Good Knife
A good chef will always have good knives, but some may be missing one or two specific types, or have an aging one that needs replacement. This can be an expensive gift, and some might quibble with the political correctness of giving sharp objects as a present, but a good knife is the single most important tool to a chef. Global knives are particularly popular among chefs, and their 8-inch knife  is a great gift for budding cooking enthusiasts. For those looking to spend less, R.H. Forschner’s highly-rated set of three knives  is a steal at less than $50.
2. Silicone Anything
Silicone is relatively new to the cooking market and it’s revolutionary, amazing, inexpensive, slip-resistant/nonstick, and waterproof. This material also looks great—perfect for design freaks who want their kitchen tools to be sexy as well as functional. The frequent bakers in your life will appreciate a new set of nonstick bakeware  to reduce cleanup time. If your bakers already have too many baking tools, try giving them a silicone baking liner  that he or she can use with cookie sheets, muffin tins, and so forth. To add a personal touch to the gift, try the personalized spatula set  at Williams-Sonoma.
3. Rice Cooker
As an Asian-American who was raised on rice, I created disbelief among my friends by not buying a rice cooker until recently. I was retro to the extreme, thinking that what was good enough for my mom—a pot—was good enough for me. Not the case. Get your friend one and see how it totally removes any anxiety or even thought from cooking any type of rice (or other grains!). This can also be an expensive present, but cheaper models, such as a basic Panasonic model , can do the job just as well.
4. Unusual Spices, Herbs, Condiments, or Sauce
This can be a relatively inexpensive gift, but looks beautiful, smells wonderful, and if chosen well, will lead to memorable experiences for the recipient. What cook doesn’t like to experiment with new ingredients and flavors? One caveat: because these ingredients don’t cost much individually, the quality of gifted items must be top rate! My coworker recommends Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic  for fish lovers, and Herbes de Provence (particularly the organic Morton and Bassett  variety) to season chicken and pork chops. As for condiments or sauces, Bone Suckin’  is a popular barbecue sauce brand. Not sure about your recipient’s preferred brand? Sneak a peek through her cupboards for inspiration when she’s not looking.
5. A Great Cookbook
New cookbooks come out like clockwork and there are millions out there already, but that doesn’t stop cooks from constantly wanting to ogle one they haven’t seen. Check your cook’s library discretely and see if he/she is missing any key classics, such as the latest edition of the Joy of Cooking . This is a great all-purpose cookbook that will suit the culinary requirements of most people. Any volume from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood  series would be a great choice, too. She creates healthy, simple meals in a matter of minutes. If your recipient enjoys cuisine from a particular region, focus on that when selecting a book. For example, Lidia’s Italy  offers a variety of mouth-watering dishes perfect for anyone longing for Italian food.
6. Great Dishtowels
This is a cheaper gift for those of you who are worried about bankrupting your checkbook buying presents during the holidays. However, these can also be the hardest to find. The material has to be tough and absorbent, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find designs that are not too cutesy and more sophisticated in design. If you have old material like this lying around, you can make ’em yourself (cheapest route). Or just look very carefully on Web sites that sell cooking supplies. Cooking.com  has a set of natural Egyptian cotton kitchen towels for under $15. The dishtowels at Williams-Sonoma  are good gift choices as well.
These are also cheaper gifts, yet always welcome, because everyone uses them for entertaining (or just personal aesthetic satisfaction), but they are perishable, so one always needs more. Since they are cheaper presents, spend as much as you can to get the highest quality, because with candles, it really does make a difference. The Yankee Candle Company  boasts an impressive array of scents and there’s usually an outpost store located in most malls (or you can shop online). Soy candles have become popular recently, mostly because they give off a cleaner burn than other varieties. O magazine (that’s Oprah’s magazine) voted Er’go  candles the best candles ever. (The Lavande and Mandarin Vanilla smell especially yummy.)
8. An Herb Plant
When it comes to herbs, nothing beats fresh, but not everyone can get to the store when meal inspiration hits. Giving your favorite cook an indoor herb kit  will ensure that he or she is never without fresh rosemary, basil, or whatever herb is included in your gift. The plants also give kitchens a fresh, uplifting aroma that’s sure to inspire and motivate the recipient to whip up creative dishes. (And maybe they’ll be so grateful for the gift that they’ll share some with you, too!) Just as a living plant breathes new life into any room, a mini indoor herb garden just might resuscitate a bored chef who’s had enough of dried flavors.
9. Handy Tools That Double as Toys
There’s nothing worse than trying to chop onions and dealing with stinging, tear-filled eyes. I don’t need to tell you the dangers of handling a sharp object with blurred vision, so take my word for it and invest in these nifty onion goggles . Perfect for the person who wants to cut up some onions and amuse everyone else in the room by looking so dorky. Plus, they could come in handy for a future Halloween costume. People who like to cook or bake with their kids will love these baking utensils  designed with young ones (or those who are young at heart) in mind.
10. The Gift That Keeps on Giving (for a Limited Time, That Is)
Foodies love to be in the know on the newly-released, unique gastronomic fare on the market. However, not everyone has the time or the money to sample what’s on his or her wish list. The solution? A monthly membership to a food- or beverage-specific club! Figure out what his favorite snack or drink is and inundate him with varieties beyond what’s offered at the local grocery store. Practically any item you can think of has a club in its honor: peanut butter , chocolate , wine , olive oil , and even specialized items like vegan cookies  and are all available as potential presents.
Any of these gifts would be perfect for the person who fantasizes about the perfect kitchen, relishes putting together delectable dinners, or simply enjoys a special edible or drinkable treat every now and then. What better way to make your loved ones happy than by invigorating their kitchens, the centers of sustenance, activity, and family gathering in their homes? This season, opt for the gifts that pull on their heartstrings and apron strings.
Updated December 5, 2008