Infuse a little fun into your Christmas gifts
By Deirdre Parker Smith
very day from now through Christmas is going to be busy. And you don’t have time or the money for everyone on your gift list to get the latest gadget or trending fashion.
Go back to basics and make your friends and neighbors something they can use. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, or involve stirring, cutting and baking.
Go the easy route with flavored salts, oils and vodkas. That’s right, vodkas. Or make any or all of those things for yourself.
Most of these ideas require little hands-on time, meaning you can mix the ingredients and move on to your next thing quickly. Just don’t forget what’s in the jar on the counter.
Flavored salts are one of the easiest homemade gifts you can make.
Just use your imagination and this general rule: 1 tsp. flavoring to 1/4 cup salt.
Blend it a day or two before giving it away. The flavor will last about a year, but it will surely be used by then.
Blend with favorite flavors, like thyme or cayenne pepper. Blend a couple of flavors into the salt, like citrus zest and rosemary.
Be sure to use air-tight containers, like small apothecary jars or jars with other tight-fitting lids. Make sure the containers are food safe. Look closely if shopping at the craft store — some items are marked as food safe while others do not indicate. Think clear glass so you can see what’s inside, and consider adding a sprig of fresh herbs to drive the point home.
Use coarse salt, like kosher salt, which is easy to find in the grocery store. If you want to go fancy, use Maldon salt or fleur de sel.
Here’s the equipment you’ll need:
• Measuring cups and spoons
• An oven or food dehydrator
• Mortar and pestle, coffee or spice grinder or a small food processor
• Baking sheet — for drying citrus zest
• Airtight container
Your herbs or spices should be dry and ground, chopped or flaked.
Dry herbs or citrus peel in the oven at a low temperature, around 150-200 degrees, or in a food dehydrator.
When using citrus zest, consider using larger strips of zest to dry, then cut them into smaller pieces or give them a short blitz in the food processor or spice grinder.
To combine salt with a flavoring, simply use your fingers or a very small whisk. Using the grinder or mini processor may break down the salt too much.
Here are a couple of ideas:
Chili-Lime salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1 tsp. red pepper flakes, 1 tsp. dried lime zest and 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika.
Citrus-Rosemary Salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1/2 tsp. dried lemon zest, 1/2 tsp. dried orange zest and1/2 tsp. dried rosemary.
Lime Ginger Salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1/2 tsp. dried ginger, 1/2 tsp. dried lime zest.
Thyme Salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1 tsp. dried thyme. Add 1 tsp. dried lemon zest for a variation. Orange zest is also good with thyme
Coriander-Cumin Salt: 1/4 cup salt, 1/2 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp. dried coriander
Cinnamon-Clove Salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. grond cloves. Excellent on pork or roasted butternut squash.
Sriracha Salt — 1/4 cup salt, 1 Tbsp. sriracha. Preheat oven to 350. Mix sriracha and salt and spread over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Turn off the oven and place salt in and let it sit for 3-4 hours, until fully dried.
Infusing oils is just about as easy as the salt, and you don’t have to fill a large bottle. Infused oils should be used quickly, as a finisher for soups, salads, or as a dip for breads, or to top hummus or roasted vegetables.
Cold infusion requires you to store the oils in the refrigerator, where they will last for about a month.
Heat infused oils do not require refrigeration. These work well with woody herbs and dried chilies. Just remember that the original herb or chili will begin to look a little funky after the infusion. Best to remove it and replace with a fresh piece of whatever the flavor is to let people know what they’re getting.
To heat infuse, here’s the basic method: heat the oil no higher than 150 degrees. Remove from heat and add the ingredients. Cover and infuse for the desired time. The longer the infusion, the stronger the flavor. Rosemary will have a stronger flavor than thyme; garlic can be overpowering — if using in a blend, start with less garlic and taste after it has infused a bit before adding any more.
Start small, using about a cup of oil, so the recipient will be able to use it quickly. It’s hard to find exact ratios, but, as with the salt, use 1-2 tablespoons to one cup oil, depending on the strength of the ingredient.
Fresh cilantro and serrano chiles
Lemon zest and thyme
Chiles, orange zest and garlic
Rosemary and garlic
Ginger, garlic and lemongrass
Orange, lemon and lime
Oregano, basil and garlic
For lemon oil, use 2 lemons (preferably organic) that have been washed and dried. Remove the zest in strips from one lemon with a vegetable peeler, being careful to avoid the with pith. Heat 1 cup olive oil until bubbles just begin to form at the edge of the pot. Add lemon peel and simmer 10 minutes. Take off the heat and let stand two hours. Remove lemon zest and pour oil into a clear jar or cruet.
Make thin strips of lemon zest from the other lemon and put in the jar — this is mostly for looks.
For fresh herbs, crush them slightly with a wooden spoon to release their oils before adding to the heated oil. Let infuse at least 30 minutes, then remove the used herbs. Add a sprig of well washed and dried herb before giving oil away.
For chiles, use a neutral oil such as vegetable oil. Use 2-3 whole dried red chilis per cup of oil. Also used dried chili flakes for more intense flavor.
Herb or chili oil is great in pastas and risottos.
Vodka, especially flavored vodka, continues to be a thing. Forget the bubble gum and candy corn flavors. Make your own for friends who enjoy a nice cocktail with a flavor boost.
Both of these vodkas will warm you from the inside out.
1 750 ml bottle vodka
3 cinnamon sticks
2 Tbsp. candied ginger
12 black peppercorns
10 whole cloves
10 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
Combine vodka, cinnamon sticks, candied ginger, black peppercorns, whole cloves and cardamom pods. Cover and let stand at least one day or up to three days. Strain and pour into bottles. Keeps for up to two months.
Spicy Citrus Vodka
1 750 ml bottle vodka
5 3-inch long strips grapefruit zest
2 jalapénos, sliced
Combine vodka with grapefruit zest and jalapénos. Cover and let stand one day. Strain and pour into bottles. Keeps up to two months.
1/2 liter vodka
2 cups roasted coffee beans
1 Tbsp. sugar
Place beans in a zip-top plastic bag and use a rolling pin or small, sturdy pan to break the beans up.
Using a 1/2 liter glass jar or bottle, put the crushed beans and sugar at the bottom of the container.
Fill the jar with vodka, leaving a little room at the top of the jar. Some beans will float, and that’s fine. Air bubbles are OK, too
Once the vodka darkens, seal the container and shake it for 30 seconds. Place into a dark, cool location; not the freezer.
Leave it alone for five days, shaking the jar each day.
When done, use a funnel with a cone shaped coffee filter and strain the vodka into a clean container.
Give your friend the recipe for this cocktail:
6 parts coffee vodka
1 part Kaluha
1 part Bailey’s Irish Creme
Shake vigorously in a shaker of ice and serve in a martini glass with a few coffee beans floating on top.