Simmering Ideas

Some Suggestions For Tasteful Holiday Shopping.

By Rebecca Cook

BY NOW THE panic has seeped in. Although the remaining shopping days are few, there's little need for frenzy if the people on your list are fond of eating, drinking or cooking (and who isn't?). While wandering throughout town--and scrupulously avoiding the mall scene--I discovered several gift options that'll please the palates and satisfy the culinary sensibilities of all those dear to you.

Chow I've always considered Table Talk (three locations: 2936 E. Broadway, 7001 N. Oracle Road and 6842 E. Tanque Verde Road) a very dangerous place to shop if you're on a limited budget. They have so many tempting additions for your collection of kitchen wares that it's nearly impossible to come away empty handed. A gift certificate from this store would never go unredeemed, but if you'd like something more three-dimensional, consider the following:

Arizona Artables--decorative, hand-painted platters of various shapes and sizes--are packaged attractively in wooden, straw-filled crates. It's not only beautiful tableware, it could just as easily be framed and put on the wall. Colorful and glossy, they feature several Southwestern motifs, and run about $70 each. If the price sounds a little steep, bear in mind this is no mere platter for serving nachos; it's investing in a lovely work of art. The same could be said for the dishes hand-painted by local artist Chris Bubany, which also reflect a regional influence (as well as some whimsical animal depictions).

Using a French press to make coffee is standard practice for many of us who enjoy a consistently rich brew. But if you can't use the contents immediately, the pot either has to be poured into a thermos, served cold--or worse, microwaved. Buying a French press that comes complete with its own electric warmer is one innovative solution. The complete package is a competitive $40.

Imbibing sophisticates will no doubt appreciate the chromed brass martini shaker, with or without an accompanying set of elegant glasses (shaker $19.95; with glasses $32.95). If you want to splurge, a nice bottle of gin and a jar of gourmet olives would complete the ensemble nicely.

If there's someone on your list who simultaneously enjoys the pleasures of the great outdoors and a fine bottle of wine, a wine tote ($34.95) may be just the thing. Adequately insulated and with secure space for bottle, glasses and corkscrew, all you'll ever need to bring along is a crusty loaf of bread and wedge of quality cheese.

If you're really stumped for a gift, it's hard to beat the understated beauty of a good bottle of wine. Of course, there's no shortage of options locally, and nowhere will you receive more knowledgeable assistance in making a selection than The Rumrunner Wine & Cheese Co. (3200 E. Speedway). Covering all class of wine and all price ranges, the Rumrunner surely has something for every taste and budget. Mention that the bottle you're purchasing is a gift, and the staff will gladly package it in a festive style.

The Beverage House (6250 N. Oracle Road) may be the new kid on the block, but many folks on the northwest side of town are reporting that this shop is also ideal when searching for just the right bottle of wine, or competent advice on how to choose one. Even open on the holiday itself, this is a great place to grab all those last-minute gift items on your way to the party.

Food never goes out of style, and especially not this time of year. While in times past cooks may have taken to the kitchen to concoct a variety of homemade edible gifts, most of us have to content ourselves by taking advantage of manufactured versions of some of these old-fashioned delicacies. A host of flavored oils, vinegars, mustards, chutney, salsa, fruit preserves and honeys can be bought at nominal prices and will undoubtedly tickle the fancy of anyone with a well-stocked pantry. Assemble your own gourmet basket, or spend the extra change and have one put together for you by any number of specialists on the subject: Fancy Dancy Baskets (470 W. Roger Road) has an impressive range of basket sizes and assortments, most featuring a distinctive Southwestern theme (lots of salsa variations as well as cowboy caviar), and many including a good bottle of wine. A decent basket will probably end up costing at least $40, but there's no question that everything in it will be consumed with appreciative gusto.

Individual gourmet food items can be found at a number of locations around town, including Table Talk. Most intriguing there were the flavored dipping olive oils (my favorite's the one spiked with garlic and basil), cactus salsa and raspberry habanero jam. Ted's Country Store (2760 N. Tucson Blvd.) is another good spot to find tasty and unusual treats, many imported. Lemon curd, flavored chocolate spreads, Greek olives, sauces and spices with international flair can be found on the shelves along with a few well-chosen food-related items (coffee and wine accessories, unusual kitchen gadgetry, etc.).

But my favorite place this year to scope out modest food gifts was the weekly food faire at the Plaza Palomino (Swan and Fort Lowell roads). Every Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., vendors set up tables to sell an amazing assortment of delectables, most providing samples that crafty shoppers can happily nosh while making their way through their gift lists. Sip hot, spicy wassail (gift bags available) or gourmet tea (courtesy of the Maya Tea Company & My Chai), or grab a blue-corn chip and munch on spicy salsa mixtures and creamy herb dips. Interesting gifts here include locally produced honey (some infused with the fire of chile peppers) and flavored pecans garnered from nearby orchards, or a bundle of soup or chile mix. While you're there, pick up some organic produce and the yeasty staff of life from Great Harvest Breads, making this a thoroughly enjoyable and utterly painless shopping experience.

One of the latest crazes in the food industry is a penchant for hot and spicy, reflected in the emergence of many specialty hot-sauce stores around the country. Tucson boast its very own with the opening of the Calido Chile Traders (8340 N. Thornydale Road). A tasting table is always set up for your invigorating pleasure, and assortments of concentrated hot sauces can be put together for a gift basket with a mercury reading. Specialty rices, mustards, marinades, bread mixes and pastas are also available for tempering the heat with more earthy tastes.

If you need to send gifts to out-of-town friends and relatives who are avowed aficionados of our region, don't overlook Tania's Flour Tortillas (614 N. Grande Ave.). The folks at Tania's will package and send off tamales, tortillas and salsa to anyone on your list (it's not too late--UPS Next Day Air is an option). Imagine how happy your friends and relatives in the snowy Northeast or Midwest would be to get a package filled with the sunny flavors of Tucson. Food packs can be individually assembled, or let the folks at Tania's suggest what to send. The amount of money you spend is up to you (in most cases, the shipping will cost more than the food, which is very reasonably priced).

Forget the candy canes and go instead to The Chocolate Depot (6541 E. Tanque Verde Road) to pick out sweets of singular taste and distinction. The truffles (gift boxes can be hand-picked with particular favorites) are exquisite, made with sinfully rich and bittersweet Belgian chocolate, and various fillings. Also grand is the English toffee (made with either milk or dark chocolate), a traditional homemade treat that's every bit as delicious as anything you've ever tasted (the risk to your dental work notwithstanding). All the options are delicious.

Yes, if you're reading this, you've probably left your shopping for the last minute, but no matter. As you can see, there's plenty of time to find a gift with true taste. TW

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