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Kitchen Call: Shopping for the cook

We’re not quite down to the wire yet. Still two more weekends of shopping pleasure or pressure, depending on your point of view. Cooks and foodies rarely return or re-gift kitchen items, so I took some time to compile a list.

Two admissions: First, this is a combination of my wish list and giving list, and second, I’ve used everything on it in both the home and professional kitchen. I am not a shopping snob. I will shop everywhere from Williams-Sonoma to HomeGoods to Target, in store and online.

And I don’t overlook catalogs like the Vermont Country Store or Harrington’s. Every product has its own virtues and drawbacks, but I concentrate on virtues. Read labels carefully. Make sure when you buy steel that it’s stainless, and if you want cotton, it’s not polyester.

Here are my top 10.

Countertop mixers: The most expensive item on this list might be on your favorite baker’s wish list: The KitchenAid countertop stand mixer. Since my baking abilities are limited, I won’t be buying or opening one of these soon. But a real baker, one who thinks nothing of whipping up a few dozen cookies, a four-layer cake not from a mix or several batches of brownies, will appreciate this. Depending on where you buy it, find it priced anywhere from near $300 at the top of its game to less than $200. Same machine, lower priced, comes in last year’s color, but works just as dreamily. Go for the stainless. It matches everything.

Monogrammed salt and pepper mills: If you want something unique and beautiful, Williams-Sonoma offers a cache of stainless/acrylic salt and pepper mills. Acknowledged as the royalty of monogrammed kitchen items, the shop offers a pepper mill with a carbon steel grinding mechanism and a ceramic grinder in the salt mill that will last a lot longer than the soft metal parts housed in the cheaper models. At nearly $50, they fall into the luxury category, but watch for sales and special offers. Add pink Hawaiian sea salt or whole Madagascar peppercorns from the Penzey’s catalog to complete the package.

Splatter screen: Admittedly, this is practical, not romantic, but saves hours of cleanup even for the neatest cook. Stovetops suffer fewer splatters from messy foods like fried chicken or bacon when the lip of the screen fits over the rim of the pan while the mesh screen lets steam escape. Cheap splatter screens sold in three-packs are difficult to clean and buckle from the heat or after a few turns in the dishwasher. A sturdy one, priced from $40 to $50, made of heavy-duty stainless steel, will live forever. (Look for special offers here, too.) All-Clad makes one with a long handle that fits over most skillets.

Hand utensils: These include anything from a simple wooden spoon to stick-free spatulas. But utensils made of olive wood are a luxury that feel smooth in the hand and never splinter. Prices run anywhere from $3 to $22 each. Tie up a bouquet of them with a pretty red ribbon to tuck into a stocking. Or decorate a package with just one special one wrapped in bow.

Aprons: These are a matter of taste, and just like the new rage for ugly sweaters, there seems to be a rage for ugly aprons. Ugh! Our grandmothers liked theirs frilly, lacy and flowered, but then grandma spent a lot of time ironing them. Instead, look for nice square-shaped chef’s aprons in sturdy material like kettle cloth that washes easily and is allergic to irons. Find them for as little as $10. Good prices and quality are available at Ace Hardware on Salem Street in Boston’s North End. See the Vermont Country Store catalog online for classic white chef’s aprons made of heavy-duty cotton twill.

Olive oil spritzers: You can actually use these for other oils as well. Helps keep food healthier and gives perfect coverage when greasing a pan for baking. Most are just practical and in some version of brushed metal. The Misto brand is easy to find, and a great stocking stuffer, at less than $10.

Bamboo cutting board: The new environmentally sensitive darlings, these cutting boards are thin and lightweight. They don’t take up a lot of space and are easy on the cook. I haven’t owned one long enough to know if they have longevity, but for now, find them priced as low as $5, depending on size, at Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. A great way to present a your homemade loaf of banana bread.

Cookbooks: I could write a whole column on the subject. There are edgy titles like “Eat Like You Give A #&$@*” or “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Or good common sense from the ABC-TV show “The Chew,” which includes fun kitchen wisdom and table designs with the recipes. Try Amazon or Barnes & Noble for good prices and free shipping. But don’t overlook putting hands on a vintage cookbook. One of my students finds treasures sorting through the racks, most recently, early volumes from Bobby Flay, Emeril, Ina Garten and Julia Child. Match others by category, as did another student who paired inexpensive one-subject cookbooks with friends’ favorite foods from potatoes to meatloaf to cookies. Prices here can go from a dollar on up.

Panettone: OK, this is an Italian thing, but anyone who likes Irish soda bread in March will appreciate this now. This delicious raisin-studded bread rises as tall as the proverbial flower pot it was originally baked in. A cup of hot coffee, a toasted slice with butter makes breakfast in a pinch. Get the breads, priced by size and elaborateness of packaging, at specialty shops. For a family with small children, pair one with Tomie DePaola’s book “Tony’s Bread,” a beautifully illustrated folk tale about a village baker expressing his love.

New Year’s Day ham: The ultimate luxury for the cook is to be treated to New Year’s Day brunch at home. Still in bathrobe, he or she just pops a cooked ham into the oven to go with the good-luck baked beans or creamy potato casserole. Send that cook a Harrington’s ham, smoked in Vermont. Harrington’s are the American equivalent of Italy’s prosciutto di Parma or Spain’s jamon Iberico.

Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.

Kitchen Call: Shopping for the cook