TOP 12 OF 2005

Our favorite products of the year can decorate your holiday shopping list

By Renee Enna
Tribune staff reporter
Published December 14, 2005

Every week, Good Eating's Off the Shelf column features products that we think readers will want to learn more about. But for every product that we feature, there are dozens that we have tried--and eliminated. We taste and/or test everything prior to featuring it.

We look for food that tastes good, gadgets that work--and we also want items to be a step above the competition, or offer something new that home cooks might find worth adding to their arsenal. Value for cost is factored in, and we love it when products are sold in area stores as well as by mail-order.

Here's a look at 12 of the products we were most impressed with, and which might come in handy during the busy holiday season--in the kitchen or as a gift.

1. WUSTHOF KNIFE-LIFE SHARPENER

Two pre-set sharpening angles keep knives sharp and ready to use in this compact-sized gadget. There's also a scissors sharpener that adjusts to varying sizes. It stores flat too. It's $20 at Sur La Table in Chicago and Naperville; by mail, surlatable.com or 800-243-0852.

2. AMERICAN SPOON FOODS VANILLA AND PASSION FRUIT CURDS

Creamy and versatile fruit curds can dress up holiday treats, from scones to thumbprint cookies. An 8-ounce jar costs $6.80-$8 at Fox & Obel Food Market and by mail (americanspoon.com or 888-735-6700).

3. ROBERT ROTHSCHILD FARM HOT PEPPER RASPBERRY CHIPOTLE SAUCE

The sweetness of fruit tempers the chilies for an unusual and extraordinary effect in this sauce. Use it for grilled meats, as a dip, over cream cheese or (judiciously) on sandwiches. A 12.5-ounce bottle costs $5.70-$8 at Sunset Foods, The Chalet Wine and Cheese and The Goddess and Grocer in Chicago. To order by mail: 866-565-6790 or robertrothschild.com.

4. GOOD COOK'S 4-IN-1 OPENER

This handy gadget not only opens cans, but it also leaves a smooth--and safe--edge. A can-tab lifter (saving manicured nails), a grip-twist wrench and a pop-top opener add to its versatility. It's $13 at Dominick's; by mail, visit kitchenkapers.com or call 800-455-5567.

5. B.T. MCELRATH CHOCOLATIER TRUFFLES

High-quality chocolate and fresh ingredients made these confections from the Minneapolis-based chocolatier big winners. Flavors change seasonally; we tried the Lemon Blossoms (dark-chocolate truffles filled with a creamy lemon buttercream) in the spring. For now, you won't be disappointed with the orange-and-caramel filled butterflies or passion-fruit truffles. Each 1.75- to 2.1-ounce package (four butterflies and five truffles) costs $9-$11 at Fox & Obel Food Market and The Chalet Wine and Cheese in Chicago; for mail-order, 612-331-8800 or btmcelrath.com.

6. PAPA LENA'S SWEET RED PEPPER CHIPS AND BEET CHIPS

Chicagoans Danny and Marie Lena make these unusual snacks from a family recipe. The roasted red-pepper chips are slightly soft, piquant but not hot; the crispier beet chips have a toned down beet flavor. A 2-ounce package is $5 at Papa Lena Healthy Gourmet store, 1438 W. Chicago Ave., 312-455-8100; for mail order (three packages for $15), visit papalena.com.

7. MUKKA EXPRESS

This stovetop cappuccino-maker from Italy-based Bialetti won over skeptical coffee lovers. It works like a traditional stovetop espresso maker but has two levels (water on the bottom, milk in the top, with coffee in the filter) to create two servings of cappuccino or caffe latte. The cast-aluminum pot is not dish-washer-safe and comes in plain as well as a black-and-white cow pattern. It's $90 at Sur La Table and Crate & Barrel (plain only) stores; by mail, visit the Web site of either store or go to amazon.com.

8. EPICUREAN BUTTERS

These are infused with a creative array of sweet and savory ingredients. Tomato chipotle, cinnamon raisin, orange coconut and honey pecan were particular favorites, but we liked all flavors. A 6-ounce package is $7 in the dairy case at Whole Foods Markets and Wild Oats in Hinsdale and Evanston.

9. ZIPLOC TWIST 'N LOC

Designed for liquids (think marinades and soups), these plastic storage containers with twist-on lids offer extra security. They're safe in the freezer, microwave and dishwasher. Three 2-cup or two 4-cup containers cost about $3 in supermarkets, drugstores and department stores. We also liked Hefty's Serve 'n Store, interlocking plates and bowls.

10. ZYLISS SOFT SKIN PEELER

A nifty pair of serrated blades on this peeler efficiently removes the delicate/tricky skins of tomatoes, ginger root and pears--but also the tough hides of carrots and potatoes. Another great feature is the price: $7 at Whole Foods Markets and online at amazon.com.

11. BONJOUR LA FROMAGERIE FARM ANIMAL CHEESE MARKERS

These porcelain party animals in cow, sheep and goat shapes identify the appropriate cheeses. A washable-ink marker is included. Each six-piece set (two of each critter) is $15-$17 at Nonpareil, 2300 N. Clark St., 773-477-2933, or online at amazon.com; Sur La Table stores in Chicago and Naperville sell the markers in a larger serving set ($50) that also includes three cheese knives and a platter.

12. BOYAJIAN WASABI OIL

Searing heat from wasabi, tempered with canola oil, gives a sensational lift to marinades and dressings. Alone, it's a dipping sauce for pot stickers and the like; added to cooked vegetables, noodles or seafood, it delivers a heat-filled flavor boost. An 8-ounce bottle costs $5-$6 at Cost Plus World Market or by mail-order: Call 800-965-0665 or visit online at boyajianinc.com.


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