My Key West Kitchen. Norman Van Aken’s latest cookbook (with son Justin) has been called a “culinary love letter to Key West” and I couldn’t put it better myself. Van Aken first came to the Southernmost City in the early 1970s and stayed to become chef at Louie’s Backyard and other local highly regarded restaurants before going on to become one of the country’s most talented and celebrated chefs. His recipes (and stories) celebrate the artsy, homey, non-commercial soul of Key West, and are the next best thing to being there yourself. $29.95 at bookstores everywhere.
Double-hinged corkscrew. Forget all those ridiculously pricy and complicated contraptions purporting to pull a cork out of a wine bottle, ones designed by Rube Goldberg and requiring an advanced degree in Useless Gadgets to operate. This simple implement makes opening wine a snap, using a hinged, two-pronged lever that lets you pull the cork half out with one, then all the way out with another, reducing the chance of shredding delicate corks and requiring a lot less arm strength. Splurge on a swell one for 12 bucks.
Cuisinart panini press. If you love sandwiches in all their hearty, blue-collar glory, you’ll be amazed how useful this disarmingly simple piece of equipment is. I never wanted one until I got it for Christmas a couple years back. Now I use it all the time to jazz up sandwiches that otherwise would be same ol’, same ol’. Being able to toast bread, melt cheese and warm sandwich innards all at the same time means you sandwich chops are limited only by your creativity and budget. From $50 to $129.
Julienne peeler. I first saw one of these on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, when Thai cuisine maven Andy Ricker used one to julienne a green papaya for green papaya salad. I had to have one right then. It’s got lots of tiny, razor-sharp blades that carve just about any vegetable into long, thin, perfectly uniform strands, which are not only great in salads but as vegetable “noodles” to stand on their own or be mixed with pasta. (Try julienned cucumber, carrot and zucchini tossed with soba noodles in a little sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar.) About $15.
Robert Rothschild mustards. Who need crack cocaine when you have these fabulous mustards, an essential condiment for any self-confessed sandwich addict? Unlike many commercial “gourmet” mustards that get boring after a few uses or don’t really taste any better than French’s, the Rothschild mustards are truly distinctive and taste like they are made with, you know, real food products. My favorites are the sweet-tangy raspberry-wasabi, intensely smoky Anna Mae’s and piquant, herbal tarragon-peppercorn. Eight dollars and worth every penny.