Monday, December 3, 2007

Savor The Flavor Of Holiday Gifts

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
December 2007

It’s December already! Do you know where your gifts are? Not the one your husband has hidden in his sock drawer and you found quite by accident – proving what you have suspected all along – he thinks that drawer is his secret portal to some magical world where good things, like clean socks, just happen. No, I mean the gifts you will be getting for everyone on your list.

Giving gifts is one of my favorite ways to celebrate the holiday season. I truly enjoy the challenge of carefully considering what will allow me to show each person on my list just how much I treasure their friendship and love, even if I do not enjoy battling crowds of shoppers. Finding the perfect gift for someone is an art, and the true measure of an artful gift-giver lies in her ability to choose something both useful and pleasing, with a little element of surprise thrown in for good measure. In other words, do not give your favorite cook another chotchke with a chef on it! I know you are more creative than that.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a person who already knows what I am about to tell you. I will just go ahead though, in case you are the cook on someone else’s gift list and you’re reading this as you sip coffee from one of your many “Kiss the Cook” coffee mugs. Feel free to pass it along to anyone who may benefit from a bit of inspired holiday shopping.

A good way to begin your quest for the perfect gift is with an up-to-date wish list from the recipient – a cook, for our purposes here. A wish list all but guarantees that your giftee will be mixing it up in the kitchen on December 26, and not in the return line at the mall. Writing down a list, or emailing a picture, which may be even better, falls under the heading “a word to the wise.”

With or without a list, a gift card or cash may be the safe bet, especially if you have trouble finding a certain item or can’t afford it when you do. Another word to the wise here – if someone should give you cash or a gift card, don’t you dare think of it as too impersonal. Consider it from another viewpoint, if you will. What in the world could be more personal than choosing a gift for yourself, especially with a little Christmas green provided by someone who cares enough to give you a gift in the first place? Next year you might want to think about a wish list though!

Research, including careful listening, thoughtful observation, and subtle questioning is a good thing. Every cook has at least one area of special interest in the kitchen and, knowing that, you can home in on exactly what will make her heart sing on Christmas morning. Bakers, for instance, require a lot of very specialized tools. Busy moms are interested in anything that streamlines meal prep time. Cooks who entertain admire serving pieces that make a beautiful presentation. Novice cooks are sure to improve their kitchen skills with good quality equipment. Armed with a little information about your cook’s true kitchen passion, you’re sure to find a perfect gift.

Good ingredients are the key to good food. We, who love to cook, also love to collect ingredients, just as if they were priceless art objects. Ingredients inspire us to be creative and to think outside the box. A lot of great ingredients can be found right in our local markets. Catalogs, the Internet, or local specialty shops are also excellent sources for the latest in ingredients – fresh or prepared. Be sure to do your research though, to find quality brands and reliable sources, as well as the most competitive prices for exceptional ingredients. High prices do not assure high quality if handling, storage, and turn over don’t measure up.

One of my best bits of gift-giving advice for cooks, or anyone else for that matter, is to think consumable – and food is the consummate consumable gift! Everyone needs it. It serves a useful purpose. Sharing it multiplies the joy it brings, and cooks just love it. Therefore, food is the perfect gift for a cook! One caveat though, fruitcakes are expressly excluded in this category!

One thought on food gifts for cooks seems obvious to me, but maybe not to everyone. Every now and then, someone will tell me they are reluctant to cook for me, because they are intimidated or mistakenly assume I am my own favorite cook. Wrong! Good cooks love good food – period! We appreciate the effort that anyone puts into baking or making anything homemade. Just try it and see for yourself. Show up at my door with your prized cinnamon rolls warm from the oven, a batch of your grandmother’s best homemade soup, or some salsa made from your homegrown tomatoes and watch my face light up like a Christmas tree!

By now you know my personal wish list always includes cookbooks and food magazines. Choosing the perfect one for someone else can be a little dicey – you don’t want to duplicate any they already own – but newly released cookbooks are a relatively safe bet. Casually ask your favorite cook for some advice in choosing an appropriate cookbook or magazine for someone with similar interests, and you may discover something on her wish list too. I challenge you to show me a cook who does not read cookbooks or clip magazine recipes!

Following my own advice, I have collected a few recipes for your holiday gift-giving and entertaining, and researched ideas for gifts, most of which are available locally. Remember shopping locally first makes good sense when it comes to specialty ingredients and cooking equipment, because demand creates a better selection and supply, while it supports the local economy. There are a few suggestions for gifts that may require shopping on the Internet, or in the St. Louis area, but not everything you want may be available in the smaller towns in our area.

Please accept these ideas with my best wishes. There are gifts for the cooks on your list, tasty recipes for holiday entertaining, and a few for special food gifts from your kitchen to share the love this Christmas, and throughout the New Year. And do not forget a special little something for your husband – a stocking full of new socks! I hope you find that perfect surprise gift under your tree from someone whose happiness is making you happy.

Specialized Tools– pepper grinders, ceramic serving pieces, vacuum food savers, professional baking pans, vacuum wine saver, kitchen fire extinguisher, knives, small crock pots for appetizers and dips, whipped cream dispenser, instant read digital thermometer, digital oil and candy thermometer, Christmas china.

Ingredients – natural sea salts, imported and domestic artisan cheeses, fancy olive oils, gourmet chocolate, ethnic and imported foods, gourmet coffees and teas, edible gold dust and gold leaf, herbs and spices, or even prime steaks and wild caught seafood are available in larger grocery stores and specialty food and gift shops.

Fresh and Frozen Food from the InternetOprah’s favorite frozen croissants in flavors like chocolate and hazelnut from Williams-Sonoma, authentic French Macarons and Madeleines from Mad Mac in New York, grow your own mushroom kit from Gardener’s Supply, cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory, spices from around the world from Penzey’s Spices.

Cookbooks - Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorrie Greenspan
Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way (2007 James Beard Award Winner) by Lorna Sass
The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without by Mollie Katzan
Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food by Jessica Seinfeld

Meatballs are very popular lately and are showing up in the best food places as entrees and appetizers. Try these for holiday parties and watch your guests camp out at the chafing dish.

1 lb. diced ham
1 lb. ground pork
2 c. fine dry breadcrumbs
1 c. milk
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground red pepper
6 tbsp. vegetable oil, divided
1/2 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. white vinegar
1 tsp. dry mustard

Process ham in a food processor until coarsely ground; add pork and next 5 ingredients, and pulse to combine. Cover and chill 1 hour. Shape into 1-in. balls. Cook balls, in batches, in 2 tablespoons hot oil in a large skillet over medium heat 3 minutes on each side or until lightly browned, adding oil as needed. Place in lightly greased 13- x 9-in. baking dish. Bake covered at 350° for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 30 more minutes. Makes about 50 meatballs.

3 tbsp. water
1/4 c. white vinegar
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
1 (12 oz.) jar cherry preserves
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Stir together water, vinegar, corn syrup, preserves, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes.

If you’re trying to eat more grains and fruit, and want a hearty breakfast to keep you satisfied all morning long, then try this make-ahead oatmeal dish. It’s good enough for a holiday brunch!

adapted from Southern Living magazine
2 c. frozen blueberries
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, divided
1 18 oz. carton regular oats
3 large eggs, beaten
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1 c. unsweetened applesauce
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/4 c. water
1 c. milk
1/4 c. melted butter

Toss 2 cups blueberries in 1 tbsp. lemon juice, and spread evenly on bottom of a lightly greased 13 x 9-in. baking dish. Combine oats, next 9 ingredients, and remaining 1 tbsp. lemon juice in a large bowl, stirring until well blended. Pour oat mixture evenly over blueberries. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 30 minutes; uncover and bake 20 more minutes or until golden brown and set. Makes 8 to 10 servings. Can be frozen in portions and reheated in microwave.

Years ago, when I wrote my first food column for the Officer’s Wives Club magazine at Seymour Johnson AFB in NC, our editor served some delicious blue cheese biscuits with sausage stuffed inside at a staff brunch. I was prompted to search out a recipe on the Internet the other day when I saw a similar pan of dough-wrapped sausages in the freezer case of a local market. Make some for brunch, appetizers, or to freeze and deliver to friends as a holiday gift.

1/2 c. butter
3 oz. Maytag blue cheese, crumbled
Hillshire Farms Lit’l Smokies
1 tube Pillsbury Grand refrigerator biscuits

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter, blend in crumbled blue cheese. Separate biscuits and flatten slightly. Place one Lit’l Smokie on each biscuit; wrap and pinch seams closed. Dip biscuits into butter-cheese mixture and place seam-side down in a cake pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown, and serve warm.

One of my favorite food gifts came from my brother, Jeff, just last year – a Grow Your Own Shitake Mushrooms kit – and it really worked! We had delicious mushrooms for several days and lots of fun watching them grow. These Baked Mushrooms are especially good with roast chicken or grilled steaks.

1 lb. mushrooms
2 tbsp. butter
1/3 c. sour cream
1 tbsp. flour
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 c. grated cheddar cheese
dash lemon juice and cayenne

Sauté mushrooms in butter and pour into ovenproof baking dish. Combine sour cream, flour, salt and pepper in a saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring until it comes to a boil. Spoon sauce over mushrooms and top with cheese, parsley, lemon juice and cayenne. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and cheese is melted. Serves 4.

This is not your grandmother’s fruitcake – it’s really good and easy to make. I got the recipe from a neighbor in Bossier City, LA, and I make it almost every year to keep in the freezer for a quick holiday treat or to give as gifts. It is the only exception to my “No Fruitcake” rule.

1 lb. dates, cut
1 lb. pecans, chopped
1 lb. butter, minus 1/2 stick
1 lb. miniature marshmallows
1 lb. graham crackers, crushed fine
1/2 lb. red candied cherries, cut
1/2 lb. green candied pineapple, cut
1 tbsp. vanilla
pinch of salt

Melt butter and marshmallows in a large saucepan and pour over all other ingredients that have been prepared as above. Mix well and form into logs of desired size. Wrap in wax paper and then foil. Refrigerator or freeze until serving. Bring to room temperature and slice to serve.

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