2010 Gift Guide: Perfect Presents for the Austin Food Lovers in Your Life
The snow may not be glistening in our lanes, but I bet if we look around Austin we could find a sleigh bell or two to ring. We’re all making our lists and checking them twice, and for some of us, naughty may get someone just as far (if not further) than nice. To make it a wee bit easier for you to shop for the the Austin Food Lovers in your life, or to add to your own wish list, I offer this gift guide replete with specially selected ideas that I know will elicit gasps of joy from local foodies. I can guarantee these gifts won’t be re-gifted or tossed into the white elephant pile. Indeed they may very well be made off with by those who received a tie, coffee mugs, or other lesser gifts. Give any of these to your favorite food lover and they will revel in your thoughtfulness as they celebrate their passion for our local food scene.
Trying to find the perfect gift for the foodie in your life is a quality dilemma. As you peruse this guide, consider for moment that there are thousands in Central Texas who worry every day about where their next meal will come from. They don’t have the luxury of considering a local food experience or artisanal gift because they are food insecure and simply don’t have money to buy food. The Capital Area Food Bank does all they can to ease the burden of our neighbors who don’t have enough to eat. Consider making a donation in the name of your favorite foodie to truly celebrate the joy that food can bring to someone’s life.
Food Gifts They’ll Truly Enjoy
We’ve all been the recipient of questionable gift baskets full of processed and overly-sweet food that we end up “sharing” in the office kitchen or with unexpected holiday guests. While these food gifts have the best intentions behind them, they pale in comparison to the array of locally created and procured options avaialble around town.
- Farmers Market Finds: Spend a couple of hours on a Saturday at one of our local markets to assemble a collection of artisanal goods anyone on your list will truly appreciate. For a breakfast-inspired basket, combine fresh country breakfast sausage from Dai Due and duck bacon from the Kocurek Family with sweet preserves from Confituras and a loaf of bread from Texas French Bread. Or fill someone’s pantry with bottles of goodies from Texas Olive Ranch and Round Rock Honey. The combinations are endless and it’s truly hard to go wrong shopping for food gifts at a local market.
- The Ultimate Cheese Plate: Help make holiday entertaining easier by giving the gift of a custom-created cheese plate from Antonelli’s Cheese. Stop by their lovely shop in Hyde Park and put yourself in their capable hands as they walk you through the process of crafting the perfect cheese combination. Pick up a nice bottle of wine and some crackers and you’ll be on your way.
- Spicy Fun: Herbs and spices can turn any ingredient into a new and interesting dish in no time flat. I know a whole host of seasoned home cooks who love receiving new and interesting spices to fuel their kitchen experimentation while kitchen newbies often find spice blends to be an easy way to safely expand their horizons. The newly opened Savory Spice Shop has an extensive collection of unexpected spice varieties of cinnamon, vanilla, chiles, and more along with custom spice blends, salts from around the world, and quick fix dip mixes. They have pre-packaged gifts that you can pick up in just a few minutes or they’ll spend the time to create the perfect custom gift set for your favorite cook.
- Mixing Oil and Vinegar: All olive oils aren’t created equally. Beyond the question of virgin and extra virgin pressings, there’s the issue of the country of origin (Italy, Greece, Spain, the US and more), and what wonderful ingredients might be infused (truffles anyone). And don’t even get me started on the variety of flavor profiles balsamic vinegars can have. In fact, the world of oil and vinegar is so vast that it’s worthy of an entire store. Enter Con’ Olio, a fun little shop tucked into the Arboretum and devoted to selling the best olive oils and vinegars. You can taste every oil and vinegar in the store if you so desire, and they’ll help you put together the perfect gift basket for that special someone.
- Sweets for Your Sweets: If your fav foodie has a sweet tooth, a whole collection of local artisans are ready to feed it. Austin Cake Ball and Holy Cacao craft tiny bundles of cakey goodness you can deliver to your sweet friend. A dozen or so will keep them well supplied for the days leading up to Christmas and they’ll think fondly of you each time they take a bite. If cupcakes and pies are more your food lover’s style, Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop has you covered. While they do make excellent traditional chocolate, white, and red velvet cupcakes, their holiday and specialty flavors (the Hemingway and Odd Couple are my favorites) will be unexpected and thoroughly enjoyed. Stop by to grab a few to go or order a collection of mini-cupcakes to share with friends. For the chocoholic in your life, Delysia Chocolatier hand-crafts exquisite chocolates like those you’d find in a shop in France. From classic flavors like mint, caramel, and mousse to chocolate infused with the likes of cayenne, Fleur de Sel, and balsamic vinegar, you’ll find the right mix for even the most difficult to shop for foodie.
- A Little Help from Your Friends: When time is of the essence and you need some assistance putting together a gift basket that most definitely won’t find its way to the office break room, the experts at Central Market have you covered. They’ll work with you to craft a basket that’s just right for the recipient (and they’ll even ship it anywhere in the country). Consider an all-Texas basket, an all-organic basket, a breakfast basket with coffee and goodies, or a munchies basket for your favorite snacker.
Explore Austin’s Newest Hot Spots Together
Austin is about to explode with new restaurant goodness! There are no fewer than six chef-driven restaurants opening in Austin in the coming weeks. Some will open their doors just before the holidays and others just after. All promise to be great experiences for any foodie. Treat your food lover to a dinner out together, even if you have to give them an IOU until one of these spots opens.
- Second Bar + Kitchen and Congress: David Bull, formerly the Executive Chef at the Driskill, comes home to Austin from Dallas to open not one but two restaurants in the new Austonian. Congress will be a sophisticated restaurant with a prix-fix menu inspired by fresh, seasonal ingredients. Second Bar + Kitchen will offer a neighborhood dining experience that makes use of the same seasonal ingredients in a more casual environment. Between the two restaurants Bar Congress will be a lounge that offers drinks and dishes that combine the best of both restaurants. Chef Bull’s new restaurants are some of the most highly anticipated in town and many of us believe they will take dining in Austin to an entirely new level. Every food lover in town will be clamoring for their first tastes of his creations and you’ll be very popular with your gift recipients if a trip to Chef Bull’s establishments is wrapped in a bow under the tree.
- The Backspace: Local favorite Chef Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside is opening a pizza place in a space just behind Parkside. And really, it’s not fair to call it a “pizza place” because it will feature Shawn’s trademark showcase of high-quality ingredients in preparations designed to make them shine. Surprise your holiday gift recipient with a fun night of pizza and a movie or night on the town.
- Barley Swine: Bryce Gillmore of Odd Duck Farm to Trailer fame is (finally) opening a full-scale restaurant so h e can serve his exceptional dishes that feature locally sourced ingredient to a larger crowd each night. Expect an array of dishes that celebrate the best products available in the Austin area.
- Haddingtons: From the owner and chef duo that have made Mulberry a local hot spot comes an American tavern with British influences and a strong cocktail program. Chef Zach Northcutt takes his inspiration for the menu from the time he spent in England last year exploring the gastropub scene there. I expect that any dinner at Haddingtons will be a roarin’ good time filled with laughter and fueled by great food.
- Trace: As you might expect, the new W Hotel in downtown will have a superb restaurant to feed locals and visitors alike. While Executive Chef Paul Hargrove isn’t a local chef, the folks at the W have wisely hired forager Valerie Broussard to source local ingredients for all of the food prepared at the W. This shows a strong commitment to supporting our local producer and artisan community. An evening at the W promises to shower your gift recipient with careful attention to detail along with a great meal.
And if you’re one of those folks who like to let a restaurant get its feet wet before you give it a try, there are plenty of established spots that will treat your foodie friends well this holiday season. My personal favorites include TRIO, FINO, Asti, The Carillon, Eddie V’s, Mizu, Jeffrey’s, Uchi + Uchiko, Foreign and Domestic, and Wink.
Share the Bounty of a Local CSA or a Home Garden
There are a bevy of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs around town that deliver fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables to members on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. A CSA is one of the best ways to keep the focus on local food in a home kitchen and they give home cooks the opportunity to find new and interesting ways to prepare ingredients that grow naturally in our area. Instead of sending a year’s worth of fruit baskets or a wine club membership to your food lover friends, consider giving the gift of a CSA from Johsons’s Backyard Garden or Greenling.com. The recipient will be truly surprised and these gifts are the epitome of “keeps on giving”.
For those on your gift list who have green thumbs or who, like me, are trying to find their green thumb, consider giving the gift of their very own backyard garden. Austin Urban Gardens has DIY raised bed garden kits or will come and install the gardens for you. They also have earthboxes for those without backyards. Who knows, a gift from you may just help give a would-be gardener the gentle push they need to take the next step and plant their own garden.
Give the Gift of Learning
I’m often amazed at how many great opportunities there are in Austin for the casual home cook or foodie to learn about all things related to cooking, eating, and drinking. Both Central Market and Whole Foods offer a wide range of classes for students of all skill levels. They have staffs that regularly teach classes that run the gamut from knife skills to baking basics and the ins and outs of international cuisines. They also partner with well-known chefs to give you a chance to learn from the pros as well as winemakers from all around the world for wine dinners. Speaking as a devotee of the Central Market Cooking School in particular, I can promise you won’t go wrong if you pick up a gift certificate to either school.
If you’d like to create a more customized cooking school experience for a group of friends, Beth Pav of Cooking By Design will work with you to craft a unique learning experience. Your foodie friends will be beyond surprised when they find you’ve taken the time to plan a one-of-a-kind experience.
Introduce Them to a Whole New Kind of Cookbook
For those on your list who enjoy cookbooks, you might introduce them to a new way of thinking about cookbooks. Austin-based Keeper Collection offers a collection of interactive cookbooks by popular chefs like David Bull, Paul Petersen, and Monica Pope. Because these cookbooks are electronic, they can be updated with new recipes or annotated with your notes. You can also easily scale the recipe to fit the number of servings you plan to make. Buy a gift certificate for a year’s subscription for your favorite technology-inclined foodie and surprise them with an unexpected cookbook experience.
Embark on a Culinary Adventure
If you want to go beyond a simple gift and create an experience for the most important food lover in your life, you’ll find that the options are plentiful. To help jumpstart your own brainstorming, here are a few adventures I’ve come up with (largely because I’d like to go on all of them myself).
- Take a trip to historic France with Petite Peche. In a remodeled church in East Austin, Chef Danika Boyle recreates the food and music salons that hearken back to earlier times in France. In what can only be described as a truly Austin experience, attendees at the Petite Peche Salons experience a long, relaxing dinner with courses punctuated by exceptional music. There’s plenty of time to enjoy everyone’s BYOB favorites and to get to know fellow diners. These dinners are a true opportunity revel in a love of food and good company.
Relax and enjoy the food. Lake Austin Spa has been rated the #1 Destination Spa in the country to Conde Nast Traveler and as part of their commitment to a quality food program, they offer several Culinary Experiences throughout the year that feature guests chefs and food-centric activities. While any visit to Lake Austin Spa is a special splurge, if you really want to treat the foodie in your life to an incredible experience, this is one of the best ways I know of to do it.
- Roadtrip! Just down the road in San Antonio, John Besh of New Orleans fame just opened a Luke restaurant on the River Walk. A true son of the South, Besh has been hailed as a culinary trailblazer and worked tirelessly in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina. Until now, your favorite foodie had to take a trip to NOLA to taste Besh’s wares, but now his food is just 90 minutes or so down the freeway. Hop in the car and whisk your special gif recipient to San Antonio for a culinary weekend. While you’re there, be sure to enjoy one or two of local favorite Jason Dady’s restaurants and make a stop at the newly refurbished Pearl Farmers Market. It will be a weekend neither of you will soon forget.
- Give an IOU for an Austin experience in 2011. Not a week goes by that there aren’t many opportunities for food lovers to celebrate their passion in our great city. Thinking forward to supper clubs like Dai Due, Restaurant Week, or the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, give the gift of a to be determined experience later in 2011. Keep an eye on my blog for the weekly Foodie Bits post that lays out all of your options, and make Christmas last all year long as you give the gift of Austin food experiences long into 2011.
Do you have a favorite gift you’re giving to the Austin Food Lover in your life that I didn’t mention here? Or does one of this ideas stand out to you above the rest? Share your great ideas in the comments.