Wine is not always the answer when it comes to bringing a gift to the host or hostess of a dinner party. So many occasions over the holidays demand a heartfelt offering of some sort that it's smart to keep a stash of suitable items on hand, so you don't need to rush out in traffic at the last minute to find something.
One friend buys up linen aprons or dish towels at sample sales; another makes jams all summer and also has jars of honey from her bees on hand with a pretty gift tag. I lean more toward jars of chocolate fudge sauce or spiced nuts.
Not everybody is the crafty type, though. Here are some suggestions for gifts for the cook:
Olives and Marcona almonds: Wonderful with the aperitif in case the host or cook is running late and needs something to keep the guests occupied in the meantime. And if not, they'll keep for the next occasion.
Aji amarillo chile paste from Peru: found at many Latin markets and especially at Catalina's Market in Hollywood, which has a whole section devoted to Peruvian foodstuffs. Use the marigold-colored chile paste with mayonnaise for your favorite burger or sandwich. It also adds a clean pure heat to any salsa.
A pound of coffee beans: Espresso beans from Intelligentsia, Stumptown or Blue Bottle Coffee are always welcome, but why not introduce beans from some of the newer coffee shops, roasters and purveyors, such as Woodcat Coffee Bar in Echo Park, Caffe Vita in Silverlake, Copa Vida in Pasadena, or Bar Nine Collective in Culver City?
A bottle of nut oil: Specialty oils — walnut, hazelnut or even pumpkin seed oil — are usually sold in small 250 or 500 ml bottles. Guaranteed to revitalize any vinaigrette, they're strong in taste and should generally be mixed with olive oil rather than used straight. Iridescent green-red pumpkin seed oil, though, is best used to garnish a pumpkin soup with a few artful drops. Surfas has a good selection. And the marvelous La Nogalera walnut oil from three walnut growers in Santa Barbara County is sold online.
An aged sherry vinegar: A good vinegar is hard to find and always a welcome gift. Pick up a bottle of aged sherry vinegar at a gourmet shop or even a wine shop. Sherry vinegar works magic in salads or with marinated vegetables.
A wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano: Pick up some of the famous Red Cow or other aged Parmigiano-Reggiano at Guidi Marcello in Santa Monica or your local cheese shop. Make it the best that they have. And don't be stingy. You need at least a half pound. A pound would be even better.
A pound of Gragnano pasta: Pick up a pound of the renowned dried pasta from the town of Gragnano outside Naples. Just look for the word Gragnano on the label: There are a handful of manufacturers who still work with brass dies to extrude the pasta. The shapes are wonderful and the quality impressive. Guidi Marcello has a good selection. And also Roma Italian Deli in Pasadena (no website, though.)
Vanilla beans: Most bakers would love to have a stash of fragrant vanilla beans at the ready for ice creams, custards and cakes. I've found great ones at Penzeys Spices in Santa Monica and Torrance (they also do mail order and have just redesigned their website). You can also find them at Spice Station in Silver Lake.
A plate of homemade cookies: Mexican wedding cookies, cardamom butter cookies, shortbread, gingersnaps, sugar cookies in the shape of a shooting star -- any of these would make anybody happy. They can save the cook whose own dessert hasn't turned out as expected, can play along with ice cream or sorbet, or can go straight into the cookie jar for another day.
Red Boat fish sauce: Most cooks have experienced only the usual commercial stuff, so a bottle of this marvelous first press fish sauce is a revelation — and a treasure. Available at Whole Food Markets and Sur La Table, plus many Asian markets. Plug in your ZIP Code on the Red Boat website and it will show you the closest store. Hint: It's less expensive in the San Gabriel Valley.
A salt cellar: If you spend a lot of time in flea markets, you can find tiny, interesting bowls or containers — miniature spoons too — for use as salt cellars. They make fine gifts too, or the start of a collection. Fill up with your favorite salt. Mine at the moment is Jacobsen Salt from the Oregon Coast, sold at OK and other stores.
A vintage mixing bowl: Another item to collect from a flea market and save for a favorite cook. Look for a beautiful color or shape.
An antique linen dish towel: Head to the closest flea market to find a selection from France or Eastern Europe. You can also find them at Vintageweave Interiors on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles.
Beeswax candles: Everybody can use extra candles. Skip the scented varieties, which will interfere with the wines, and go for the luxury of plain beeswax tapers tied with a ribbon. Someone once brought me a set of six beeswax votives, a present that I loved and always remember.