CALIFORNIA LIFE & STYLE
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CALIFORNIA LIFE & STYLE

Food lovers' Christmas wish list

When I was a kid we didn't have a lot at Christmas, but we always had the Wish Book, a.k.a. the Sears Christmas catalog. Don't get me wrong, we weren't Waltons poor by any means -- no tangerines and balls of string under our trees -- but in the mid-1960s with four kids on a military salary, there wasn't much room for extravagances.

Instead, we imagined our luxuries. Every fall, along would come the big book in the mail. By early December, it would be as well-thumbed and dog-eared as a family bible. Hours would be spent pondering the possibilities: What would it be this year, a Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army!), or maybe some Monkees-inspired Carnaby Street knockoff clothing.

Or both? Because we were just dreaming, we were free to imagine all sorts of impossible presents, sometimes even simultaneously. And somehow it never seemed that much of a letdown when the big day finally arrived and there was something else, inevitably more practical, under the tree.

In that spirit, this year the Food staff has put together our own Wish Book of dream gifts to get us through this holiday season of fiscal responsibility and restraint.

As you might expect, when it comes to cooking equipment we're a pretty spoiled bunch; some of us have been working in the kitchen for decades. That's a lot of time to accumulate the practical necessities. So when turned loose to dream, we were free to imagine almost anything -- the utterly impractical single-purpose specialty item, or the unutterably beautiful version of the workaday tool.

In reality, probably very few of these actually will wind up under our Christmas trees, but sometimes just wishing is enough to make it almost seem so.

-- Russ Parsons

Ever since I spent a summer reading nothing but Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, I've coveted a samovar, the elaborate architectural Russian teapots that are to the simple pot o' tea what, say, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is to a log cabin. . I found one a few years ago at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, but, sadly, didn't have the money to buy it and ship it home. You can get an electric samovar at www.samovardepot.com for about $150, although what I really want is a Soviet-era samovar (I'd read Anna Akhmatova while sipping tea made in this one; her second husband liked to fuel their samovar with her burning poems) from the Tula Soviet Works like the one that recently sold for $5,000 on www.russiansamovars.com.

-- Amy Scattergood

What I want for Christmas is a 50th-anniversary edition of the Ronco Showtime rotisserie. No joke. This year, a friend cooked the Thanksgiving turkey in an 11-year-old Ronco rotisserie (Recall the TV commercials? "Set it and forget it!"), and what resulted was a delicious, crisp-skinned, juicy and succulent bird. Watching it rotate on the spit and turn golden-brown was mesmerizing. "I love that Ronco. It moved with me from New York to California," my friend said. "It cooks perfect chicken every time." But wait, there's more . . . it was easier cleaning the Ronco than a roasting pan -- there's just a small tray at the bottom of the rotisserie to wash. Weeknight rotisserie chicken dinners, here I come (as long as Santa obliges). About $160, available at retailers such as Sears and Wal-Mart and at ronco.com or amazon.com.

-- Betty Hallock

Here's why I need an almost $2,000 espresso machine this Christmas. Every morning I wake up and while my wife is showering, I make coffee. I turn on my present espresso machine (granted, a very nice Rancilio Silvia) and let it warm up while I'm grinding beans and reading the newspaper. This can take a half-hour. When madame is ready, I pull two crema-rich double espressos. Then I turn on the milk steamer and let it warm up. This can mean another three or four minutes of standing there, pacing, smelling the rich fragrance of hot coffee before the light finally flashes off and I can start blasting the milk. Three or four minutes! That is almost inhumane this early in the morning.

A Pasquini Livia 90 under my tree will end that. It has two heater blocks so it's ready to steam almost immediately. Plus, it's a gorgeous piece of machinery. It is rightly heralded on most espresso websites as one of the best home machines you can buy. And did I mention it's a local product? It was designed right over in Pico-Union, where the family has been making machines -- for home and business -- for years. About $1,800, available at websites such as www.wholelattelove.com and www.1stincoffee.com or you can see it (and lots of other cool machines) at the Pasquini showroom, 1501 W. Olympic Blvd., in Los Angeles.

-- Russ Parsons

Ever since my friend Sonoko lent me her clay rice cooker while she was away in Brazil shooting a movie, I've been craving one of my own, but I couldn't find anyone who imported it to the states. Then I walked into Tortoise General Store on Abbot Kinney in Venice, and there it was, the very same rice cooker, but with a black glaze instead of yellow. Made of a special clay, these heavy pots have a double lid, the better to keep the rice moist. Each of the rustic thick-walled rice cookers comes with a clay trivet and a bamboo server for the rice. Inside is a brochure (in Japanese) and a garbled translation of how to use the pot. Better to ask someone who works at the store what to do. OK, I'm fessing up. I did go ahead and buy it, and though it was expensive, I don't regret it one bit. I'll have it my whole life. While you're there, pick up a palm-sized copper grater in the shape of a tortoise or crane for grating ginger or garlic, $25. Rice cooker, $165, at Tortoise General Store, 1208 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 314-8448, www.tortoiselife.com.

-- S. Irene Virbila

In my dream world I live in a magical house made entirely of windows in Mount Washington; I have two children who speak several languages, and a husband who does something really worthy like saving polar bears. When Christmas rolls around we make all of our gifts by hand -- we're an arty bunch -- and volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Still, I'm such a wonderful mother that my family wants to splurge and get me something really special, something I would never buy for myself but that would make me turn cartwheels in our home garden. So they buy me a stationary bike blender kit from the Pasadena urban homestead Path to Freedom's online store. The kit enables me to prop my bike on a stationary bike trainer and run a blender mounted to the rear rack while I pedal. I put it in the backyard and make fresh smoothies for my kids while they play United Nations; I blend hummus for pita parties; I whip up milkshakes on a whim. Stationary bike/blender $249, at Path to Freedom's online store Peddler's Wagon, www.peddlerswagon.com.

-- Jessica Gelt

I want a pig. Yes, a whole pig. And I promise to use every part. Whole pigs haven't always been easy to come by -- you basically raised your own or knew a farmer. Until now. The well-known American prosciutto producer La Quercia is selling subscriptions to their Acorn Edition II, a program in which they raise organic, acorn-fed, Berkshire cross pigs to order. When the pigs are ready, they're delivered contadino-style (all the fresh parts are sent out when the pig is butchered, while other parts are cured and sent separately when ready). Admittedly, it's nice not to have to break down the pig yourself (especially if you're like me and have a small kitchen), and La Quercia does make the most amazing cured meats. In all, you get more than 100 pounds of pure pig, including tenderloin (2 pounds) and ribs (8 pounds), as well as fresh fennel and garlic sausage (18 pounds), guanciale (3 pounds), pancetta (15 pounds), lonza (9 pounds), coppa (6 pounds), lardo (12 pounds) and whole, bone-in, dry-cured legs and shoulders (almost 60 pounds of prosciutto and spallacia). Oh, and you also get the head, tail, trotters, liver, caul fat and leaf lard (for perfect, perfect pie crusts). One pig, fully dressed, $3,150 from www.laquercia.us.

-- Noelle Carter

I love flopping down on the couch with the Penzeys Spices catalog. Page after page of specialty herbs, spices and seasonings, all ready to be delivered to my front door. But here's the problem. I'm cheap. I don't want to spend money on spices or mixtures that I've never tried before, only to find out that I don't like them and won't ever use them again.

But since Santa Claus is buying this year, I'm stocking up at Penzeys. I'll start with the Baker's Gift Crate crate, which includes all the traditional baking spices plus two types of cinnamon (Ceylon and Vietnamese Cassia. Not sure I could taste the difference, but I will gladly put it to the test.) Then, it's on to the seasoning and spice blends. I've always wanted to try some of these mixtures, but, again, the cheap thing. I'll snap up the four jar Cheese Seasonings collection, which sounds like all-purpose deliciousness for salads, garlic bread, popcorn -- even quick-fix dips. Then, I'll add in the Salad Lover's gift box, which includes seasoning bases for dressings such as buttermilk ranch, creamy peppercorn and country French vinaigrette. And what the heck: A 1-pound bag of Sandwich Sprinkle, please! Grand total for all three, without tax or shipping: $205.57 from www.penzeys.com

-- Rene Lynch

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