Gifts of food

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 9, 2009

By Rene Lynch
Los Angeles Times
I’m a bit of a Grinch. When Halloween rolls around, I turn off the porch light and close the curtains. Each Thanksgiving, I give thanks that I have a friend who hosts the holiday dinner so I don’t have to. And I own an artificial Christmas tree with lights already attached because I can’t tolerate all those tangled strands.
The one holiday tradition I embrace wholeheartedly is shopping. Perhaps it’s because I employ the “one gift for you, two gifts for me” method.
This year, though, is different. Like everyone else, I’m cutting back. My husband spent a chunk of the year between jobs, we sprang for some much-needed (and costly) home improvements and, you might have heard, the newspaper business has fallen on tough times.
But I’m not completely abandoning holiday trappings. (I’m a Grinch, not a Scrooge.) So I’ve decided to get crafty. Not Martha Stewart crafty ó there won’t be any sewing, carpentry or glue guns involved. But I figured that with some crafty shopping tactics ó and inviting a like-minded girlfriend to spend an enjoyable afternoon or two in the kitchen instead of queuing up for a parking spot at the mall ó I can wake up after the holidays debt-free.
Which brings me to food gifts. I love receiving food gifts for the holidays. But giving them is another thing entirely.
Have you ever noticed that some food gifts ó infused liquors, for example ó can end up costing you more in time, money and hassle than if you had just given someone a good bottle of hooch and called it a day?
So, what to make?
Christmas cookies are a holiday favorite, and they can be economical too. But I wouldn’t dream of competing with my mother’s spritz cookies ó she sends me about 10 dozen (no exaggeration) each year, and they should be arriving any day now.
The best food gifts I’ve received over the years have been useful items that do not tug at my conscience or my waistline.
My favorites are among the most casual: One friend doled out homemade spice mixes, one for chili, the other a dry rub for ribs, in plastic bags that carried a sticker label. From another friend I got a Mason jar filled with her mother’s salad dressing, a Thousand Island vinaigrette.
With “simple is best” as my mantra, I went shopping. Holiday gifts are so much about the packaging ó and that can be plenty expensive, sometimes more so than the gift inside.
So, I started by cruising several stores looking for food-safe tins, jars, bags and boxes and the like, and quickly realized that nothing would be cheaper than decorative cellophane gift bags, and those tried-and-true Mason jars that you can buy at the supermarket for less than $1 a piece. (Gussy up the metal tops by using pinking shears to cut out two squares from contrasting fabrics, and use ribbon to tie the swatches over the tops.)
Now, on to the most important part. What to put inside?
I started with vanilla-bean sugar. To me, this is a luxury that you’d never make for yourself. And that makes it a perfect gift to give to a baker, or someone who takes their coffee on the sweet side. And it couldn’t be easier to make: Sugar, meet vanilla bean.
It seems kind of kitschy, but once I started thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels, I could not stop. They’re sweet, but not too sweet, during a holiday season likely to be drenched in sugar; kids can make them with adult supervision, and it won’t take all night. I had some pretzels, and bought bags of semi-sweet chocolate morsels on sale, and a jar or three of cookie decorations (also on sale), and I was good to go. (Warning: You need nonpareil decorations and old-fashioned sprinkles for this job.)
The decorated rods go into a clear cellophane bag and are tied off with festive ribbons for immediate chomping.
I wanted something savory too. I riffed off a recipe I read in Nigella Lawson’s new holiday book, “Nigella Christmas,” and marinated feta cheese cubes in a small Mason jar using liberal doses of garlic powder, dried oregano and red pepper flakes and covered it all with a fruity olive oil. Very easy, with hardly any cleanup. Add a box of crackers, and that’s an instant appetizer for a friend who will have endless visitors over the holiday season.
For salad lovers, I’ve made garbanzo bean “croutons.” Rinse, drain and pat dry a can of low-sodium garbanzo beans, drizzle with just enough ó but no more ó canola oil to coat, and add about 2 teaspoons to 3 teaspoons of seasoning of your choice. I went with a Creole seasoned salt. Bake on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet in a 325-degree oven until golden brown and crunchy all the way through, about 60 to 90 minutes, gently stirring every 15 minutes or so. Let cool completely before adding them to your Mason jars. Once again, there was very little cleanup, and as long as I kept a timer handy, I could watch a movie while this was in the works.
I wanted at least one gift that was a “signature.” I turned to granola, of all things ó precisely because I hate most of them. They’re inevitably too sweet or too fattening. In this version, I use the least amount of fat and sweetener I can get away with ó 1/4 cup of butter, 1/4 cup of honey and 2 tablespoons brown sugar ó and added a classic flavor combo: coconuts, almonds and dried cherries. More hands-free cooking, plus a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil made for more easy cleanup.
I made a second round of the stores for inexpensive little items to round out my gifts.
I had started filling my cart at one store with a few hand-picked Christmas ornaments when I noticed I could buy a nine-pack box of pretty glass ornaments for roughly the same price as two or three of the fancier ornaments.
Inspired, I had my strategy: I’d buy in bulk, and then break it all down into individual gifts.
I bought a 12-pack of cranberry-scented candles along with some cheapo (but still pretty) frosted glass votives, then a box of copper cookie cutters and a box of assorted jars of cookie decorations, as well as a pack of holiday dish towels. While I was at it, I also picked up two stacks of potholders, which came three to a package. They weren’t holiday-colored, but ribbons fixed that.
I spread out the booty on the dining room table and mixed and matched: A candle, an ornament and pretzels for one friend; some granola, a dish towel and potholders for another. Vanilla sugar, two cookie cutters strung with a bright red ribbon and a jar of cookie decorations will go to my baker friend.
And so on.
I did individualize some gifts: I splurged and bought a $5 knife sharpener for a friend who has never, ever sharpened her knives. You may wonder how good a $5 knife sharpener can be, and I do too, but it’s got to be an improvement of some sort.
These goodies are all best eaten within a few days, so plan your gift-giving accordingly.
And don’t forget the “one for you, two for me” rule.
Cherry-Almond- Coconut Granola/
This granola is not as sweet as you might be used to. It would be nice sprinkled over vanilla ice cream for dessert, or over Greek yogurt for an afternoon snack.
1 C. shredded or shaved unsweetened coconut
1/4 C. (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 C. honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
2 C. old-fashioned rolled oats
1 C. slivered or sliced almonds, your choice
1/4 C. sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
About 1 C. dried cherries (a 5- to 6-ounce bag)
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle the coconut in a single layer on the parchment paper and toast until some of the edges of the coconut begin to color but the coconut is still mostly white, 3 to 7 minutes (timing will vary depending on how finely the coconut is shredded). Remove and set aside to cool (leave the parchment paper on the baking sheet). Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pot over low heat. Stir in the honey, vanilla and salt, then stir in the oats, almonds and sesame seeds. Add the brown sugar and stir gently until everything is completely combined. Transfer the granola to the parchment-lined baking sheet, breaking up any clumps so the granola is spread out in a single layer.
Toast the granola, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture is golden brown, about 40 to 60 minutes. Remove the tray and set aside to cool, then transfer the granola to a large bowl. Add the toasted coconut and cherries, stirring well to combine.
Total time: About 1 hour. Servings: Makes about 6 cups. Each one-fourth cup: 158 calories.
Snowflake Pretzel Rods 1 12-ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips, more if needed
1 16-ounce bag large (7- to 8-inch) pretzel rods
About 2 cups cookie and cupcake candy decorations, such as nonpareils and sprinkles (colored sugar granules are not recommended, as these may melt into the chocolate)
Melt the chocolate chips in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water, stirring occasionally until the chocolate melts completely. Meanwhile, line a couple of rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place each candy decoration in a separate large bowl. Hold a pretzel rod over the melted chocolate. Use a spatula or spoon to drizzle chocolate over the rod, then spread the chocolate so it evenly coats the rod in a thin layer. (Leave a couple of inches free of chocolate for grasping.)
Acting quickly before the chocolate hardens, use separate spoons to sprinkle the candy decorations over the chocolate coating. Repeat until all the rods are coated and decorated. (You should have enough chocolate to thinly coat the rods; melt a little more if you run out.)
Set the decorated pretzel rods on the baking sheets when finished. Allow chocolate to harden and dry before storing or packaging.
Total time: 30 minutes. Servings: Makes about 45 pretzel rods. Each pretzel rod: 126 calories.