Dazzling gifts for the kitchen

As a seasoned shopper immune to the most casual purchases, I am always surprised to find myself giving in to the charms of the newest gadgetry for the kitchen - despite the fact that I'm already overloaded with enough equipment to start a restaurant serving 100 or more diners a night. Cookware shops and bookstores have always been my favorites for shopping, but I must admit that some of today's expanded hardware stores often carry an especially captivating assortment of cooking equipment, dishes, towels, and electric appliances.

The food catalogs, of course, provide the most dazzling, gorgeous, zany, expensive, and exotic wares if you are looking for something to delight the most jaded shopper or person on your gift list.

The trendy news in kitchen equipment is that small is beautiful - so if you're thinking of giving an ice cream machine, a pastamaker, or a portable grill, think small. From compact microwave ovens to refrigerators, streamlining is the thing. The charm of a mini food processer when you already have a normal-size or large one may escape some people, but for the ``foodie'' the charm is definitely there.

On the very top of the list for holiday food gifts, both to friends and to yourself, is caviar. Along with saffron truffles, caviar is the most expensive food in the world. If you can give fresh caviar as a gift, fine. If not, and if you have a caviar fan on your list, consider a small, excellent book on the subject, ``Caviar,'' by Susan Friedland (Scribner's, $15.95).

And a new kind of caviar, called lobster caviar, is ready in time for holiday giving. It's not really a caviar - it's lobster roe and it's used as an ingredient in cooking. Caspian Caviars, an enterprising company in Camden, Maine, has found it takes about 50 pounds of fresh lobster to produce one pound of caviar - so the price is steep. Crumbled into individual beads, the roe gives a rich lobster flavor, a fine color, and a pleasant, grainy texture. It enhances sauces, soups, fish dishes, and fish and shellfish terrines. And it's precooked, frozen, and vacuum-sealed, For information, call or write Caspian Caviars, Highland Mill, PO Box 876, Camden, ME 04843; (207) 236-8313.

A fine gift for a Julia Child fan or a beginner cook is a set of her ``The Way to Cook'' videotape series. The double tape set sells for $29.95 and is available in VHS or Beta at Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide. Or write to Williams-Sonoma Mail Order Dept., PO Box 7456, San Francisco, CA 94120; (415) 421-4242.

For the person who likes really fine crystal, how about an Orrefors cookie jar? The jar, designed by Olle Alberius for Orrefors Crystal, will be handsome filled with a friend's favorite colorful candies or other sweets. The price is $169. Contact Orrefors Crystal Gallery, 58 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022.

From the thousands of kinds of imported chocolates you might choose to give Perugina's new Star of Wonder - a star-shaped red and gold gift box filled with 22 chunks of gold-wrapped gianduja. A longtime Italian favorite, gianduja is creamy milk chocolate mixed with ground hazelnuts. It's available for $15 in fine shops, or contact Perugina, 636 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10022; (800) 272-0500.

Someone on your list would surely like the only automatic sushi maker on the market, a unique device that makes up to nine traditional sushi ovals at a time in seconds. About 11 inches high, it accepts up to 1 cups of cooked rice, and is operated by a hand crank. It's really for the most avid sushi fans, considering the price ($99.50). Available from Hammacher Schlemmer, 147 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022; (800) 543-3366.

For a more down-to-earth gift, and one that is proving popular this year, how about an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet for making that true American food that everyone likes? You can scour the flea markets for bargains, but Victor cookware, made with forms from England, combines the traditional cast-iron qualities with a handsome contemporary design. Tight-fitting lids and a special rust-resistant finish are good features of this import. The most popular item is the grill pan, available at a special holiday price of $39.95 - the same price as the 11-inch fry pan. Other special items can be ordered in time for Christmas by calling or writing Chantry, PO Box 3344, Clearwater Beach, FL 33515; (813) 446-1960.

You could surprise and please any gardener-gourmet friends with a gift of vegetable seeds for rare, hard-to-find lettuces such as mesclun, the French combination of seeds of seven lettuces for growing at home in windowboxes. About $3.90 from Le March'e Seeds International, PO Box 190, Dixon, CA 95620.

Although it's fun to read about expensive gourmet gifts, there's really no way to tell anyone else what might be a good buy. One of my favorite practical gifts is a Corning glass double boiler. To be able to see the level of water in the lower pan is handy when making hollandaise and other tricky sauces and egg dishes. Available at most department and cookware stores, about $25.

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