Last fall, when we bought a lamb for the freezer from a local shepherd, he tucked some extra livers into our box. “You’re a chef,” he said, “I know you’ll know what to do with them and they won’t go to waste.”
He was right: our gift bags to our friends last year included ramekins filled with savoury lamb liver paté, perfect with the sourdough bread, chutney and crackers I’d already made for the project.
But here it is three weeks until Christmas. Yikes! How did that happen? The holiday season does creep up on little stocking feet. Don’t panic. Instead, spend a bit of time in your kitchen this month, making some simple gifts that will be appreciated.
What matters most in life are not things, but emotions and experiences. Neither can be wrapped in tissue or tied in a ribbon. A handmade present symbolizes our efforts to make tangible those untouchable things, and the effort they take reflects the best of us at our core. Food makes memories. Ask anyone, at any age, about events that matter or people they love, and odds are good that food is an integral part of the story.
Some kitchen gifts are best started now. Others really are last-minute affairs that can be assembled moments before you change into your party clothes and head out the door.
You may have the ingredients for these gifts already on hand. All you need to do is change their state. Cooking is chemistry, and changing states is a simple matter sometimes—water into steam, sugar into caramel. As in a good fairy tale, the time spent in transformations is sometimes what counts most dearly, not the cost of the makings. And that is what gives the most modest of kitchen gifts their value. Just add ribbon.
Vanilla Vinegar is best with shellfish, roasted beets, carrots and asparagus. Start with good vinegar – white wine, apple cider, champagne. Split 2 or 3 vanilla beans lengthwise, scrape the seeds from the pods, and add them and the pods to the vinegar. Cover and age for a month.
Mixed Olives with Herbs are good anywhere and anytime. Buy good Kalamata, oil-cured or green olives and drench them in olive oil, garlic, hot chili flakes, a sprinkle of herbes de Canada, cracked fennel seeds, lemon zest and pepper.
For Herbes de Canada, mix together dried thyme, lavender, summer savoury, rosemary, parsley, basil, fennel seed, marjoram, sage in any proportion that fits your palate.
Chocolate-Coated Dried Apricots and Ginger require only white and dark (or milk) chocolate. Melt the chocolates separately. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Dip each piece of fruit or ginger halfway into one or the other melted chocolate, then lay it flat on the parchment. Chill. For a frill, dip a fork into the other colour of melted chocolate and wave it over the already-dipped fruit. Chill again.
Rooibos Chai is delicious South African herbal tea spiked with whole cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. For each cup of leaves, add 2 broken cinnamon sticks, a broken star anise, 12 green cardamom pods, 12 whole cloves and 15 allspice berries. For a traditional black chai, substitute 1 cup Darjeeling tea leaves for the rooibos.
Togarashi is a Japanese blend of chili pepper, black pepper, dried orange peel, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds and crumbled nori (dried seaweed). It’s good on scallops, salmon and in wine as a steaming medium for mussels.
Chevre Dip is what my friend Gail calls ‘kitchen crack’, and addictive it is. Buy good chevre, then puree it with olive oil, fennel seed, garlic, black pepper, basil, thyme, parsley, chives, lemon juice and zest, a bait of whipping cream.
The list of good homemade edible gifts is long: sourdough bread, chocolate and almond caramel bark, brioche or challah, paté, sausage, cookies, crackers, preserves. First we eat, then we’ll rummage through your pantry to see what we can whip up. Happy holidays.
These nuts are dynamite snacks, pizza topping, salad garnish, accompaniment to a glass of red wine. Don’t be tempted to sample them straight out of the pan– that melted sugar is hot enough to seriously burn your mouth. Also yum on flatbread, salad, grain dishes or with a glass of bubbly. From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap, 1997).
Makes about 2 cups
2 c. pecan halves
2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. ground star anise
1/2 t. cayenne
salt to taste
Put the nuts into a colander or strainer and pour boiling water over them. Drain well, then place nuts and all ingredients in a sauté pan. Cook over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes, stirring well, until the nuts are dark and glossy. Spread them out in a single layer on a tray or plate to cool.