Holiday Gift Guide with Alison: Mouthwatering Products for the Gourmand in Your Life

For the past few weeks, I have been whetting your appetites with juicy tidbits from my culinary travels.  However, over the course of the next month I will be taking you on a different journey through a catalog of holiday gift ideas for your fellow foodies.   I am going to begin this showcase with some delectable mail-order treats that can be sent to your loved ones around the country.  Throughout the year, home cooks (and those that delight in enjoying their creations) tend to utilize ingredients conveniently found on their supermarket shelves.  We should take advantage of the upcoming season of giving to introduce them to gourmet products that they may ordinarily forego. Some of the most useful items would be sauces and condiments.  A few of my favorite mustards, for example, actually come from the Peju Winery in Rutherford, CA.  Their Tequila & Jalapeno Mustard is fabulous for pretzel dipping, and the Sesame Mustard pairs perfectly with salmon or even as a replacement for traditional mayonnaise when making tuna salad.   The vineyard also sells spa products, kitchenware, wine-infused chocolate truffles and sauces, and of course their own varietals.  They even create custom gift baskets, making it a one-stop shop for your gourmet needs.  In addition, Stonehouse California Olive Oil has established itself as an award-winning provider of local oils and vinegars.  Their citrus oils, such as the Meyer Lemon, variety is one of my favorites and makes a complimentary marinade for various white fishes.

Another way to butter up your favorite home chef is by designing custom products that take their preferred flavor profiles into account.  For example, fitness fanatics will appreciate energy snacks from Element Bars, either via gift certificates or boxes of custom health bars.  First, the designer chooses the core base of the bar, such as almond butter.  Then, they add dried fruits, nuts and seeds, sweeteners like chocolate or agave, and finally vitamins such as whey protein or omega-3.  A useful "Nutritional Fact" label on the page updates in real-time with each ingredient added to the bar; this comes in handy when choosing one ingredient variety over another.  There are also customizable dips and salsas from Kitchen 125.  Customers choose their foundation, such as tomatoes, avocados, and so on; and then requests specific spices and add-ins.  Marcia, the home cook behind the service, hails from the Southwest and also sells pre-determined dips that incorporate the essences of her upbringing.   Plus, who could forget cookies from Eleni's in New York City.  This bakery is Kosher-certified and does not use nuts in any of their products.  Patrons can design their own themed treats or choose from the shop's wonderfully creative styles.  The "couture" line, for instance, playfully includes pastries decorated like high heels and gowns.  In addition, the festive, seasonal designs are perfect gifts to bring to the host of your upcoming holiday celebration.

Lastly, there are always the "of the month club" services that ship new products every few weeks, so that the recipient can expand their palate and knowledge of a particular item.  Looking past the mainstream vendors, such as Omaha Steaks, you can find higher end providers like Gourmet Monthly Clubs.  This quality service ships handcrafted microbrews, global wine varietals, elegant flowers, fragrant cigars, cultivated cheeses, and epicurean chocolates around the country.  If you are having trouble deciding on the most appropriate membership for your beneficiary, you can always register them for the Whatever Whenever Program, which combines as many clubs as you desire into that yearly delivery.

I hope that these creative holiday ideas have gotten your gift-giving juices flowing.  If you are still contemplating the "perfect present" for your beloved food fanatic, stay tuned for additional concepts over the coming weeks and get your wrapping paper ready!

Weekly Travel Guide with Alison: Napa Valley for Wine Experts

As my palate has matured, I have acquired an interest in learning more about wine, the traditional compliment to a fabulous meal.  When people ask me if I have an extensive wine knowledge, my current response is often the charming, "I know a decent amount...or at least I pretend to..."  Well, in my defense, I am working towards this goal.

In last week's column, I described my San Francisco journey, but that was only half of my Northern California vacation.  I also voyaged an hour outside of the city to sample the exciting gourmet cuisine and New World wines of the Napa Valley region.  My first evening in the beautiful countryside began in Yountville, the culinary capital of the area.  Renowned chefs such as Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello have put this tiny town on the map with their delicious menu offerings and regional ingredients.  Though I did not make reservations at the celebrated French Laundry, I did have brunch at Chef Keller's unique and casual establishment, Ad Hoc.  The concept behind this restaurant is basically putting yourself at the mercy of the chef, arriving to a pre-planned meal courtesy of his daily ambition.  My three-course brunch menu revolved around the amusing Southern alliance of fried chicken and waffles.  With imaginative notions like that, you can expect to be awed with a unique experience on each visit, because even this leading global chef needs to get in touch with his playful side every now and again.

While I enjoyed my hearty brunch, nothing could top my dinner at Chef Chiarello's Bottega.  His garganelli with Sonoma rabbit ragu was the most amazing pasta I have ever had the pleasure to eat, and the dish has become my answer to the famous foodie question of, "What would you choose as your last meal?"  The noodles were perfectly cooked - not too mushy nor overly al dente.  The moist rabbit meat was encased in a divine savory broth that came alive with an earthy mushroom essence.  The rustic dish defined Italian comfort food.

Also, who could forget what brought me to the region in the first place - the wineries.  While the larger, more mainstream vineyards, such as Robert Mondavi, offered longer visiting hours, they tended to provide less personal experiences.  Luckily, my stay at the fabulous Napa Valley Lodge came complete with an accommodating staff that scheduled private appointments and recommended the most efficient itineraries.  We enjoyed excursions such as a one-on-one instructional tasting at the Honig Vineyard & Winery; an extensive sampling atop the picturesque hills of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards; and many more.  However, our most pleasing experience was shockingly at a small shop called Jessup Cellars on the non-descript main drag in Yountville.  The relaxed tasting room presented me with my first rewarding sips of merlot and chardonnay, two grapes I seldom prefer.  I literally loved each of the five varietals that I sampled.  Plus, since their wines were produced in limited quantities and could only be purchased directly through their wine club, I appreciated the experience even more.

Whether you decide to build your entire vacation around Napa Valley or you simply incorporate it into a San Francisco itinerary, visiting this beautiful region is a must for foodies, winos, or even those just searching for an introduction to that lifestyle.  The air is fresh, the cuisine is inspired, and the wine is plentiful - How could you go wrong...!