Back to the stone age
While some cooks wish for an immersion circulator or high-tech blender for the holidays, neither will be as timeless and useful as a serious mortar and pestle, like this heavy Thai-style granite beauty with a large work bowl. You may be surprised at how efficiently it can really smash up a fistful of lemongrass and galangal root. Yes, it's a literal grind. But also surprisingly therapeutic, in a primeval sort of way. - Craig LaBan
Large stone mortar and pestle, $29.99, 1st Oriental Market, 1111 S. 6th St., 215-271-2528.
Increase the cool factor of a home-made lunch with this fun and stylish Bento box with snap-on lid. I like the 7.4-by-4.9-inch size, to keep portions under control, but larger and smaller sizes are available, as are several other bright color choices. Made of high-quality, PBA-free plastic, it is dishwasher and microwave safe. This one simple gift instantly improves the likelihood of bringing, and enjoying, lunch from home. - M.F.
Bento box lunch box, shown in Monaco blue, $32, at Omoi, at 1608 Pine St., 215-545-0963, or www.omoionline.com.
Tea for two
Trade up to the much better world of loose teas, starting with this modern teapot and these whimsical mugs to go with. The well-designed ceramic pot, from For Life Design, includes a mesh tea strainer and flip-up lid for simple preparation. The 12-ounce mugs, in a host of charming designs, make a perfect accompaniment.
So, start brewing and kiss those grocery-store teabags goodbye. - Maureen Fitzgerald
Stump teapot (18 ounces), $28; mugs, $15 each, at Premium Steap, 111 S. 18th St., 215-568-2920, or www.premiumsteap.com.
Hang time pasta time
Last year you bought your loved one the pasta maker. This year's gift, Grandma Nadia's collapsible drying rack, is the hint you'd really like to use it. There's something beautifully old-school and practical about this version packaged (and marketed nationwide) by the Italian Market's own Fante's. Built like a miniature clothing rack, the removable beechwood dowels let you easily transfer a sheet of delicate strands from the pasta machine to the drying rack, where it's easier to keep the fresh dough from sticking together. Now, start boiling the water! - C.L.
Grandma Nadia's Pasta Drying Rack, $24.99, Fante's Kitchen Shop, 1006 S. 9th St., 215-922-5557.
Flask in style
Fireside Camp Supply on South Street West has to be one of Center City's more unusual retail openings of late - a camping-equipment boutique with handcrafted gear for those who just don't find Dick's or EMS hip enough. I, for one, was glad to see owner Christina Saboe was smart enough to include flasks among her inventory of hiker must-haves. These one-of-a-kind ceramic flasks from Philly artist Chase Brown are particularly cool. This way, you'll be able to toast in style on the trail no matter what you pour inside. - C.L.
Chase Brown flasks, $30, Fireside Camp Supply, 2207 South St., 215-834-2555. See chasebrownart.blogspot.com for more locations and flasks.
For the cook in your life
Reward your best cook with this beautiful linen apron and throw in the lovely tea towel, too. The sturdiness, quality, and attention to detail are evident in both products, which are made in San Francisco by Studiopatro. Both are machine washable and only soften and improve with age.
These are but two of the many eclectic items offered by owner Maria DiElsi in her new shop on Pine Street, open just five months. - M.F.
Linen apron, $55, and tea towel, $22, at Janus Gallery and Collectibles, 1135 Pine St., 267-207-5254. www.JanusOnPine.com.
Top barista, now roasting
Elixr is already one of our best cafes for top-notch coffees (PT's, Intelligentsia) hand-poured by the cup over a Chemex. Now owner Evan Inatome aims to become a top bean roaster himself. He's enlisted the expertise of PT's alum David Amos to acquire some of the most precious green beans from coveted microlots of farms across the globe. The Pacamara from Guatamala's El Injerto is special, a perfect balance of deep caramel and appley acidity. It's also pricey (at $22 a 12-ounce bag). Elixr roasts less expensive, also worthwhile beans ($15 for a darkly sweet Mexican). But my favorite may be Elixr's espresso blend ($15) which is rich enough to drink solo, but has a bright and spicy personality that can cut through milk. - C.L.
Elixr Coffees, $15-$22 a 12-ounce bag, at the cafe, 207 S. Sydenham St, 239-404-1730, or online at elixrcoffee.com.
High time for rye (plus rum)
Rye has been reborn as the drink world's darling, a spirit with the grainy spice that gives a cocktail character and edge. Inevitably, there are now luxury variations meant to be sipped solo. And this beauty from Angel's Envy, the Kentucky producer founded by Brown-Forman's longtime master distiller Lincoln Henderson (who died in September), is absolutely as sultry as its curvaceous, wing-inscribed bottle. Henderson's signature bourbon was finished in old port barrels. His rye gets an 18-month turn in barrels that once held Plantation XO rum, and the effect is stunning. The 100-proof four-year-old rye's spice is still vivid on the nose, but mingles with the rum's fruity sweetness, an interplay that shifts back and forth on the palate. This isn't a purist's rye, but it is purely delicious - and worthy of any serious collection. - C.L.
Angel's Envy 100-proof rye finished in rum barrels, $69.99, online only in Pennsylvania at finewineandgoodspirits.com (code 34069).
And there must be chocolate
The exquisite local chocolatier John & Kira's never disappoints, but this toffee may be my favorite product of all. A crunchy, buttery toffee studded with pistachios from Eagle Ranch Pistachio Groves, in south-central New Mexico, is enrobed with a layer of velvety dark chocolate, and topped with the crunch of cacao nibs and more pistachios. This is a hostess gift that will not be forgotten!
John & Kira's Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Toffee, $24.99 at DiBruno's Franklin and Rittenhouse locations through Dec. 31, and at other locations, all listed at johnandkiras.com.