2007 Holiday Gift Guide for the bento fan in your life
It's that time of the year again. Here are some Christmas and holiday gift ideas for the bento maker in your life, or even someone who's just thinking about making bento in the new year. Perhaps that person is you, in which case you could use this as a list for Santa to refer to. I've made some suggestions in all price ranges, because you never know how generous Santa is feeling.
An electric water kettle
An electric kettle is an indispensable part of my bento making routine. If you don't have one already, you will wonder why you didn't get one earlier. Of course, it's also terrific for making tea quickly, or coffee with the French press method.
If you're in the market for one, I highly recommend getting a model that detaches from its base so that you can carry the kettle anywhere, rather than one where the power cord is part of the body. I used to have one of those because it was cheaper, and I tripped myself up (literally sometimes) repeatedly with that too-short cable.
You also want one that has a fairly large capacity. This Braun model gets rave reviews, and looks quite nice in a modern kitchen. (My model is one that I believe is only available in Switzerland, a Fust Primoteq. If you do live in Switzerland you may want to search it out at your local Fust store.)
A standalone upright-type freezerIf you are finding the attached freezer compartment in your fridge to be inadequate, you'll seriously want to think about getting a supplemental freezer. They aren't that expensive - the one pictured here is around $300, not bad for an appliance you'll use constantly. A freezer can streamline your bento making immeasurably. When our old refrigerator broke down, I procrastinated for some time before deciding to get a standalone freezer (You can see what model I got there, which may be useful for European readers), and I am so glad that I did. The best kind of freezer for a bento maker, or any home cook, is an upright model, either with drawers or shelves, which make keeping little bits and pieces of frozen things organized so much easier.We also have a big locker-type of freezer (the kind you could dump your spouse's body in, should the occasion arise) but it's not really practical for everyday use. It's good to have if you are a big time vegetable gardener or hunter or fisher(wo)man, but otherwise the upright model is much more useful.
A large rice cookerA good rice cooker that can cook all kinds of rice, from brown to white to long to basmati, is a wonderful thing to have. A large capacity one will let you make rice in quantity to divide and freeze. I have a Zojirushi that is quite similar to this one, and it's been going for years now. My previous one was also a Zojirushi and I think it may still work! In my opinion, it 's worth paying a bit extra for appliances that keep going and going. It's nicer to the environment too. (If you're in Europe, check out the 220V Zojirushi rice cookers from CasaBento.)
Or perhaps a small, compact rice cookerThis cute 3-cup Zojirushi model seems relatively new. If you prefer to cook rice fresh, or you have a small apartment kitchen, this may be more suitable than a big rice cooker. I just love the form factor of this one. Whatever rice cooker you decide to get, one critical feature it should have is a timer. You want to be able to set it so the rice is ready for you in the morning. A warming feature is not as critical, and should not be used for brown rice or mixed rice, which can start to ferment in a nasty way quite fast.
A pressure cookerWhat does a pressure cooker have to do with making bento? you might wonder. Well, if you are following along with the vegetarian-option oriented, high-fiber, low-fat type of bento featured on this site, a pressure cooker is a terrific thing to have. It is absolutely top class for cooking beans and other legumes fast. It can cook other grains too - as a matter of fact, lately I've been cooking my brown rice batches in my pressure cooker rather than my rice cooker, since it yields plumper, juicier grains. You can also use it for meat and poultry too of course, but to be honest I use it almost exclusively for grains and legumes. I have an inherited Kuhn Rikon model that is about 30 years old. The only thing I had to do to make it work properly was to replace the rubber gasket, which had split. With the new gasket, it works perfectly. It's useful as a regular pot too. But if I were in the market for a new one I would probably go for the short-tall duo here - a short, small pressure cooker would be great for small amounts of beans and so on. There are many different pressure cooker models of course, many a lot cheaper than the Kuhn Rikon, but I'm a bit prejudiced - I trust Swiss engineering.
Small non-stick frying panA small non-stick frying pan is really useful for bento making. For one thing, you can use it to make tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) without needing a special square tamagoyaki pan. (I don't really recommend these, especially the ones widely available in the U.S., since they are not that good quality usually. If you can get a real square copper tamagoyaki pan, that's great. ) 8 inches (about 25cm) or smaller is ideal. You can of course use it for many other tasks, like small quantity stir-frying, making fried eggs, and so on.
A 2-quart Le Creuset (or similar) casseroleI am a diehard Le Creuset fan. I have even been to the Le Creuset factory/outlet store in Fresnoy-Le-Grand, in northern France. Twice. And I intend to go back again as soon as I can. I have several Le Creuset pans, but one of my favorites is this little 2-quart model, which comes in various cute shapes like tomatoes, pumpkins, and this bright orangey-red heart. (I actually got mine at a local flea market, brand new, for 20 CHF (about $18), but I'd pay full price for it, honest.) The little pot heats up very quickly, retains heat well, and is a perfect size for bento tasks. Besides, it's adorable - and what bento maker doesn't love that? Incidentally, be sure you get an enamelled cast-iron 'casserole', not a stoneware 'ramekin'. The stoneware stuff can't be used on the stovetop.
A microplane grater
A microplane grater is one with a very fine grating teeth. It is the perfect grater for someone in a hurry, because unlike big-teeth graters it's almost impossible to hurt yourself on this. It's originally meant for grating zest off citrus fruits and the like, but it's also great (sorry) for fresh ginger, garlic, and many other grating tasks which come into play when making Japanese food in general.
If you're looking for practicality rather than cuteness by the way, don't be seduced by those cute ceramic graters you often see in Japanese goods stores. They are okay to have on the table for grating on the spot, since they are nicer to look at than a metal grater, but not that practical. They are okay for softer things like daikon radish. (Having said that, I do own a couple of very cute ceramic graters.)
A set of small steel cookie and/or aspic cutters
You will often see vegetables and other things cut into cute shapes in Japanese bentos. You'll also see 'bento cutters' on sale on eBay and the like. Ther's no need to pay extra for 'bento cutters'. Go instead for small cookie cutters, available from cake decorating suppliers and your local big box store. They come in a multitude of shapes for any theme you fancy.
For even smaller cut-outs, try aspic cutters. You can also branch out beyond the food realm and look for interesting punch-outs and cutters from craft and leatherworking suppliers - they're used in polymer clay art, leatherworking, paper crafts, scrapbooking, and so on. (Of course, don't use the same cutters for food and polymer clay!)
And how about some bento boxes, wiener cutters, and other cute things?
As I've written here previously, you don't need a specialized bento box to make bento. But it is true that Japanese bento boxes are very pretty, and having the right bento box, or a collection of bento boxes, can help to keep your bento-making motivation going.