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What chefs like to give and get

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ORGANIC TEXAS OLIVE OIL This chef-endorsed Southeast Texas Olive oil is pressed from arbequina and koroneiki varieties grown in groves in Liberty County, just east of Houston.

Every year, it’s the same thing: What gifts to buy for Christmas? This year, we asked our local chefs. Who else to go to for wine and food recommendations?

Below, we’ve asked the following: What gifts do you like to receive? What do you give a food lover? And what are a few wines and other high-octane sips to give to the cocktailians and wine enthusiasts in our life? 

Executive chef Carlos Rodriguez of King Ranch Texas Kitchen

To receive: Homemade tamales. “My grandmothers, both of them, made (tamales) every year,” says Rodriguez, whose go-to is Tamales Dona Tere (8331 Beechnut St.). Other shops that specialize in homemade tamales include Texas Tamale Company (3340 Fountain View Dr.), Alamo Tamales (809 Berry Road) and Tamales Don Pepe (3816 Link Valley). 

To give: Rodriguez frequently gives homemade pickles to friends and family at Christmastime. “They're easy to make and last a long time,” he says, “and it's more personal.”

To toast: Bubbles are always a great gift, says Rodriguez, who is a fan of J. Schram Rosé, a marriage of Chardonnay and pinot noir. He considers it reasonably priced at about $47. 

Another favorite gift item is Fernet Branca, an after-dinner digestif hailed by seasoned bartenders as a rite of passage for cocktailians. Rodriguez stresses that the Italian herbal liqueur is an acquired taste. Dating to the 1800s, the recipe consists of 27 herbs and other ingredients. Seductively complex, this pour makes those who know about it seem cool in social settings.

King Ranch Texas Kitchen House Pickles

From chef Carlos Rodriquez

30-40 small pickling cucumbers
1 quart white vinegar
3 quarts water
1 cup pickling salt
2 pounds fresh dill
32 garlic cloves, whole      

Wash the pickle jars and lids. Allow them to dry completely before using them.

In a large pot, combine the vinegar, water and pickling salt and bring to a boil.

Pack the jars with four or five cucumbers in each jar. Also, you can cut these into spears or chips, which will pickle faster. Next, place about 4 ounces of fresh dill and 4 garlic cloves into each jar. If you want a stronger garlic flavor, you can add as much as you like. 

Ladle the boiling liquid into the jars until the cucumbers are completely submerged. Put the lids on the jars and tighten. Turn the jars upside down and let them sit at room temperature for 24 hours. 

Place the jars in the refrigerator. Whole cucumbers will take at least a week to be fully pickled. If you make spears, it takes 2-3 days, and chips will be ready overnight, although the longer you leave them, the better they’ll be. Makes 8 (1-quart) jars of pickles.

Executive chef Mark Schmidt of Rainbow Lodge

To receive: Cookbooks by European chefs, such as Sex & Drugs & Sausage Rolls by Graham Garrett and inspired…by by Stephen Terry. Another fave is Out of My Tree: Midsummer House by Daniel Clifford, a British chef who went from being a dyslexic child from a broken home to a two-Michelin-star chef. The 384-page book is part autobiography, part cookbook. 

To give: Cool kitchen gadgets, such as a flour mill for a foodie’s Kitchen Aid. The all-metal mill grinds oats, wheat, corn, rice and other grains – from “cracked” to extra fine consistency. 

To toast: R. Jelinek Fernet, an after-dinner digestif enjoyed solo or added to coffee and cocktails. This liqueur from the Czech Republic is described as having a minty bouquet. On the palate, its herbaceous character dominates, with flavors from ripe plums, cloves and anise.

Chef-owner Philippe Verpiand of Étoile Cuisine et Bar and Brasserie du Parc 

To receive: “I love to get fishing and hunting gear, also vegetable garden equipment,” he says. A practical gift, but always appreciated, are sharp shears for snipping and pruning, or else surprise the gardener with a cushioned kneeler to keep him comfortable during planting.

To give: “Always foie gras au torchon! But not only,” says Verpiand, who serves this at Étoile. You also can order it online from D'Artagnan, which supplies foie gras to restaurants. 

To toast: Looking for an impressive French wine that is gentle on the pocketbook? Verpiand suggests Gros Frere et Soeur Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits, a red burgundy, for about $40.

Neil Doherty, senior director of culinary development for food supplier Sysco 

To receive: Growing up in Ireland and the United Kingdom, this chef loves to get plum pudding, minced pies, English Stilton cheese, Medjool dates, and Fry’s Turkish Delight, a chocolate confection made by Cadbury. It was launched in the UK in 1914 and comprises a rose-flavored Turkish delight surrounded by milk chocolate. It’s sold at Cost Plus World Market. 

To give: Yarra Valley Dairy’s Saffy, a jarred feta cheese marinated in olive oil with saffron, lemon rind and cumin seeds. He also loves giving out Maldon Smoked Sea Salt, Yakami Orchard’s Yuzu Juice and Cocina Selecta Spanish Marcona Almonds (ideal on a cheese platter). 

To toast: Stag’s Leap Artemis 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, which scored 93 points from wine expert Robert Parker. On the palate, this rich, smooth wine tastes like black cherries and chocolate. For the gin lover, try one of several by premium Scottish distillery Eden Mill St. Andrews. There is the original, then the famous pink Love Gin, with floral and warm berry notes. Looking for a tequila alternative? Doherty suggests a bottle of mezcal from Los Cuerudos, which makes four varieties using the maguey plants of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

PINK CHOCOLATE For Christmas, pastry chef Pamela Manovich would like a batch of ruby chocolate to make her own candy bars. Pictured: John Kelly Chocolates' Ruby Cacao bar, available at Central Market, is naturally dark pink in color and has an intense fruity flavor with sour berry notes.

Pastry chef Pamela Manovich of Third Coast Restaurant 

To receive: Whole Foods Market’s Chantilly Cake and rose chocolate, a relatively new confection. Three years ago, Swiss-based Barry Callebaut debuted the first new natural chocolate since white chocolate in the 1930s. Rose, or “ruby,” chocolate is made from ruby cocoa beans. It’s a gorgeous rosy-pink hue, with hints of ripe berries. Some great stocking stuffers are the Chocolove Ruby Cacao Bar and Harry & David Ruby Cacao Truffles. 

To give: Wolfgang Puck 7-in-1 Immersion Blender with 12-Cup Food Processor. 

To toast: “Hands down, St. Germain,” Manovich says. “It’s like no liqueur I have ever had.” This artisanal French liqueur boasts about 1,000 fresh, wild elderflower blossoms in each bottle.

Corporate executive chef Jason Gould of Common Bond 

To receive: Unique spices that this Australian uses to create his own seasoning blends, such as wattleseed, featured in many Australian dishes. Harvested by Australian Aborigines 6,000 years ago, it is reminiscent of hazelnuts and chocolate, with hints of coffee. 

To give: “I tried giving people Vegemite, but nobody ever seems as happy to receive it as I am to give it,” Gould says with a chuckle. “Instead, I like to give savory jams and relishes.” His current favorite? Stonewall Kitchen Roasted Garlic and Onion Jam to go with Christmas ham.

To toast: Tequila or bourbon, but “I usually give Bailey’s or another digestif to enjoy,” Gould says. 

Jim Mills, culinary director for Buc-ee’s

To receive: Extra virgin olive oil. 

To give: Spanish Saffron and Ava Jane’s Colima Sea Salt, a coarse and crunchy, moist sea salt from Mexico that is hand-harvested just 16 weeks each year. A big fan of olive oil, the former executive chef of the Houstonian Hotel recently discovered Organic Texas Olive Oil, from Southeast Texas Olive in Devers, less than an hour’s drive west of Houston. The olive oil is sold at Spec’s. Mills also recommends Rancho Gordo’s Cranberry Beans from California (great for minestrone soup); Jovial Foods’ Organic Einkorn Flour from Italy; La Quercia’s Nduja, an Italian Calabrian-style spreadable salami from Iowa (not Italy!) and Carmen & Lola White Anchovies Boquerones in Vinegar and Olive Oil from Spain. 

To toast: Syrah wines from the tiny Northern Rhône River valley south of Lyon, France. Facing south, these angled hills harness the sun and nurture some of the world’s finest Syrahs. One to try? Anything from Côte Rôtie, a vineyard noted for bold, yet precise, wines.

Randy Evans, H-E-B’s director of culinary development for restaurants

To receive: “I love getting homemade baked goods,” Evans says. “My mom loved baking – a warm pound cake, chocolate sheet cake or coconut meringue pie just makes me smile and reminds me of my childhood growing up…The idea of someone taking the time to make a sweet for me does so much more than anything they could purchase online. It’s like getting a handwritten letter.” 

To give: Amazing beef, such as Prime 1 ribeyes or New York strips. For someone who loves barbecue, how about a wagyu brisket? “To complete the gift, wrap it in a soft-side Kodi cooler so it can stay nice and cold while waiting to be unwrapped,” Evans says. “I thought it was the craziest thing ever; my mother-in-law would give her father an ice chest of steaks.” But then Evans realized it wasn’t something her father would do for himself. 

To toast: Evans is a bourbon man. Recently, he received a W.L. Weller Full Proof made with wheat, rather than rye, from award-winning chef Chris Shepherd to celebrate their 25th “friendanniversary.” 

Chef-owner Chris Shepherd of Underbelly Hospitality 

To receive: Boudin from the Best Stop Supermarket in Scott, Louisiana, and Cochon Butcher in New Orleans. You can do a weekend trip (like a few folks we know) or order online. 

To give: “May I suggest Cook Like a Local”? Shepherd teases, about his own book, adding that he’s also a fan of Poole's: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner by Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen. 

To toast: Hirsch Pinot Noir. Shepherd says Jasmine Hirsch is “a dear friend, who has donated so much to Southern Smoke [crisis relief organization], so I love to support … her family’s winery, plus it’s delicious!”

 Cocktail celebrity and owner Alba Huerta of Julep

To receive: Coquito, a traditional Christmas drink from Puerto Rico. “It's similar to  eggnog, but with more charm and decadence,” Huerta says of the drink made with condensed milk, egg yolks, coconut milk and vanilla. 

To give: A homemade chile ristra. “Ristras are the strings of chile you see hanging along fences on patios and portals all over New Mexico. They are also said to bring good health and good luck,” Huerta says. “They are simple to make [and] are a beautiful decoration. They last year-round, and can add flavor and aroma to just about anything.”

To toast: Winter is for schnapps! But not just any schnapps – Rochelt Schnapps, Huerta says. This Tyrolean treasure from Tyrol, Austria, contains meticulously selected and harvested fruit that is fermented and distilled to capture it at ideal ripeness. The brandy is aged an average of a decade and sold in gorgeous emerald crystal bottles. At about $250-500, Rochelt is really meant to be a keepsake for years to come, Huerta says.

Editor’s note: Buzz dining columnist Dai Huynh is a James Beard food-journalism award winner and longtime Houston-based restaurant writer.

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