A Benriner Mandoline
The Benriner Japanese Mandoline Sliver ($19.85, pictured) makes short work of all of your slicing and julienning tasks. At one point in my life, I owned a fancy-pants $150 French model. And you know what? It was heavy, bulky, a pain in the butt to clean, and with its straight blade, didn't really do a great job.
The Benriner Mandoline Plus ($49.95), on the other hand, features a sharp, angled blade that cuts much more efficiently than the awkward straight blades or clumsy V-shaped cutters. Walk into any four-star restaurant, and I guarantee you'll find at least a couple Bennies—as they are affectionately called by line cooks—occupying a prominent place in the kitchen.
Faster slicing means more time to spend with each other for the holidays, which may be a good or a bad thing.
An Immersion Blender
The Kitchenaid Immersion Hand Blender ($99.95, pictured) is great for pureeing soups directly in the pot or rapidly breaking up whole tomatoes into rough chunks for sauce. I also use it to make fool-proof beurre monté, or perfect two-person servings of whipped cream. Blending eggs, hot chocolate, dissolving sugar in lemonade, smoothing out thickened sauces, making mayonnaise, it's uses are really endless, insomuch as anything in the universe is endless.
The interchangeable attachments (whisk, mini-chopper) aren't worth the space they take up, but at least its detachable handle separates the blade shaft from the motor, which makes for easy cleaning.
An Instant Read Thermometer
The Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen ($96) might be a little expensive, but it's the only way to ensure that your roasts, steaks, chops, or burgers come out that perfect medium-rare every time. Forget about poking with your finger, relying on inaccurate timing guides, or the nick-and-peek method. A high-quality, fast, accurate digital thermometer will guarantee that your loved one never overcooks a piece of meat again. Win-win!
The Splash Proof Super-Fast Thermapen by Thermoworks has a hefty $96 price tag, but it's money well-spent. It's head-and-shoulders above the competition with a stunning range of -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C), 1/10th of a degree precision, unparalleled accuracy, and a read time of under three seconds. Because of its wide range, you won't need a separate meat, candy, or deep-fry thermometer—a single tool does all three tasks, and how.
A Potato Ricer
The OXO Good Grips Potato Ricer ($24.99) is sturdy, stylish, and comfortable to use. It's the best way to get smooth, creamy, mashed potatoes in record time. With an extra large hopper and powerful lever action, you don't even need to peel or chop the potatoes before boiling. Just cook in their jackets, and press through extracting the flesh and leaving the skins behind.
It's one of those things that you might never think about buying for yourself, but once you get one, you'll never go back to the old potato masher again.
A Used Cast Iron Skillet
Everyone knows that the best pan in the world is that cast iron skillet your grandmother has been frying chicken in for years, giving it a soft, smooth, completely nonstick surface that's good for pretty much anything. It sears, it pan-roasts, it sautees, it fries, it goes into the oven, if does pizza, it even does eggs with no sticking. In other words, it's the perfect pan. What's that? Don't have a grandma who cooked? Your next best bet is eBay, where you can find vintage Griswolds and Wagners for bargain prices.
Look for clean models that are 100% cast iron (no wooden handles, please!) from reputable buyers.
A Good Pepper Mill
If your loved one has been inflicting that pre-powdered gray dust labeled "ground pepper" on your food, my deepest and most sincere apologies go out to you. Do yourself a favor and buy them a real pepper mill!
$45 might seem like a big chunk of change, but a real pepper mill is much better than the plastic disposable type, and it's an investment that will improve practically every savory food item you cook. The Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill ($45) is sturdy, has a tough, nickel-plated grinding mechanism, an easy-to-load design, and a quick grind-size adjustment screw. It puts out a heavy storm of pepper with each twist, and with care, it should last a lifetime.
How many times have you popped a tray of sliced bread in the oven to make croutons, only to pull it out thirty minutes later after it finally sets off the smoke alarm.
A timer, like the Polder 3 in 1 Timer, Clock & Stopwatch ($14.97) can prevent that. It's got an easy to read display, an unobtrusive size, intuitive buttons, a loud alarm, a magnet for sticking to the fridge, and a nylon lanyard for keeping it right around your neck, so there's no way you can forget about your roasting peppers—even if you leave the kitchen.
It's not a replacement for a good thermometer, but it's great to remind you of everything going on in your kitchen.
A Microplane Grater/Zester
My favorite thing to do with a Microplane Grater/Zester ($11.95) is go to town with it on an orange and watch as the little mountain of zest effortlessly grows on my cutting board. Or wait—my favorite thing to do is grate delicate wisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano over my Bolognese.
No, I take that back. My favorite thing is to grate fresh nutmeg on top of my gin flip. (Or is it to sprinkle chocolate shavings over my soufflé?)
No, I've got it: It's being able to throw out my single-tasking garlic press and using my Microplane to grate garlic into tiny, even mince. Or ginger. Or shallots.
So many things to grate, so little time!