Culinary gifts to inspire a cook

A gift to the cook is really a gift to the entire family, one that can give pleasure throughout the year. It is more appropriate than ever before since men are no longer confined to the barbecue and many young people are very proficient in the kitchen.

Most of us aren't eating out as often as we would like or as often as we once did, so any gift that can lighten the daily task or inspire the cook is definitely appropriate for holiday giving this year.

There is a wealth of kitchen accessories from which to choose these days. Most department stores have well-stocked kitchen departments where every utensil and tool made is available. There are lots of specialty cookware shops, too.

Beware of gadgets. I would never give a gadget unless I had successfully used it myself and felt that it was truly indispensable. I certainly don't want any more cherry pitters and I have more than my share of chopping blocks and pastry wheels.

Fortunately most of us constantly give hints of things we would like to own. A friend of mine raved about my cheesecake, lamenting the fact that she'd never managed to acquire a spring form pan. I gave her one for Christmas and included my recipe.

When my niece, newly married, asked me hesitantly if Chinese cooking was difficult, I readily got the signal. I selected a Chinese cookbook with lots of pictures and easy directions which I accompanied with bottles of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil and cans of water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and straw mushrooms.

Almost all cooks appreciate beautiful china. After you've spent a great deal of time and effort on a dish, it's lovely to have the ideal platter or bowl on which to display it. The cook who enjoys stir-frying certainly needs suitable Oriental serving dishes as well as individual rice bowls. Chinese china soup spoons are also a nice touch.

Most cooks would agree that soup tastes better when ladled from an elegant tureen and that enchiladas are decidedly more appealing served on a colorful Mexican platter.

Sometimes people give me food for Christmas. It is vastly appreciated and I wish it happened more often. A kindred soul once gave me a package of bird's nest. I'd hankered after it for years, but always felt that it was too expensive.

Other gifts I've particularly relished were caviar, pate, an assortment of cheeses , and a tasteful collection of all sorts of flours, from oatmeal to buckwheat.

Last year, my mother gave me the ultimate gift. I opened the box to find an entire Smithfield ham. Needless to say, I was serving samples to all of my relatives within minutes.

Any ethnic or gourmet food shop offers all sorts of possibilities for this kind of gifting. Immediately I think of French nut oils, Italian pasta, Dutch cocoa, and Vermont maple syrup.

The consummate gift for any cook is a new, intriguing cookbook. I feel vaguely let down when there isn't one for me under the tree. Practical gifts are appreciated, but a well-chosen cookbook can send the cook to the kitchen filled with fresh inspiration.

I remember two such occasions with pleasure. There was the Christmas when I opened my new book, went out to the garden to pick broccoli and served a creamy broccoli soup for lunch.

Another year we had to go out to dinner on Dec. 26 because I hadn't finished stuffing the squid. They were delicious when we ate them the following night.

Most dedicated cooks enjoy reading a book that includes a scintillating text as well as imaginative recipes. The writings of James Beard and M. F. K. Fisher are excellent, and Emily Hahn's, ''The Cooking of China'' is another winner. There are many new cookbooks published every year so it's easy to select that special book for your particular cook.

I consider cooking an art and think that eating should be a pleasure. Imaginative, well-chosen gifts for the cook can lead an entire family to a wealth of good eating that might have otherwise been overlooked.

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