Stocking up

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Looking for stocking stuffers or small, practical gifts for your favorite cooks? Here are a few suggestions for gadgets they will actually use:

A salt pig

Yes, some of them have snouts, ears and tails -- but most are just plain, open-mouthed pottery bowls. The word "pig," as it's used here, comes from an old Scottish dialect meaning "earthenware vessel," and it's purpose is to keep your salt dry and close at hand so you can easily season as you cook.

The insides of salt pigs are usually left unglazed so the clay can absorb moisture. But excess humidity isn't really a problem in Northern New Mexico, so any smallish clay bowl can serve as a salt pig: You can find one designed for the job online or choose something from a favorite local potter. The key is to have a wide enough opening to be able to reach into the dish and pick up a pinch of salt without having to use a spoon. Feeling the grains of salt slip through your fingers helps you scatter it more evenly, and ultimately develop a second sense of how much you need to season a dish.

A pepper mill

Nothing beats the pop of freshly ground pepper added to a plate or pot just before serving. That's because crushing the peppercorns releases the essential oils -- and the aroma -- of the spice, in the same way that grinding coffee beans at the last minute enhances the flavor of the brew.

Pepper mills come in all sizes and price ranges, from under $10 to over $100. Most require two hands to operate, but there are battery-operated push-button models for folks whose hands may not be able to manage the twisting. Look for a mill that is easy to hold and turn, with a steel or ceramic grinding mechanism -- acrylic grinders are less sharp and wear out quickly. The ability to adjust the grind from fine to coarse is another good feature, as is an easy-fill opening. There's nothing like peppercorns rolling across the counter to make you throw that mill into a drawer and leave it there.

Serious Eats.com tested more than 20 peppermills in various price ranges and recommends the Kuhn Ricon Vase Grinder ($14.95 on Amazon.com) as the best budget pick. Check with your local kitchen stores as well before buying online - you never know what kind of deal you may find and you'll be supporting in town vendors.

A garlic mincer

Most of us have more kitchen gadgets than we want or need. I laughed when a friend gave me a NextTrend garlic mincer a few years ago. How hard is it to chop garlic? Who needs a gadget to do a simple kitchen chore? As it turns out, my friend had the last laugh. I use that thing everyday to mince garlic cloves as fast (no, faster) than I can with a knife. (It supposedly works with fresh ginger and shallots, too, but I haven't had much luck mincing those.) Made in the USA, the small, round acrylic device is available new on Amazon for under $20; used NextTrend mincers sometimes show up on eBay for about $5.

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