- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The only hard part about giving gifts from your kitchen is when you give them away. Sure, that’s why you pulled a few all-nighters decorating cookies. But they look so festive adorning the kitchen counter that you want to keep them around. A sideboard covered with gift baskets moans with loneliness once the gifts are gone in the same way the living room seems forlorn when the tree comes down.

Maybe that’s just one more reason to get an early start on making kitchen gifts. Not only is the work out of the way as the holidays get busy, but you also can enjoy the festive look they add to your home a little longer (not to mention the smug feeling). And all the while you’re looking at them, they will be gaining flavor.

One of the best-received food gifts I’ve reluctantly given away has been a risotto mix. OK, it’s not exactly authentic Milanese, but it is easy and delicious. Accented with dried mushrooms or tomatoes, the mix can be packaged weeks ahead of time in cellophane bags (available at cake-decorating and candy-making supply stores) or packed into jars.

Print out the recipe on a colorful paper scroll or card, and attach it to the bag with ribbon and string. No other gift-wrapping is required.

For a red-and-green theme, stack some pickled peppers in long, tall containers, such as old olive oil, maple syrup or wine bottles. (Replace the old corks with fresh ones.) Jalapeno chilies make an exciting choice to give to those with fireproof palates. Present them with a suggestion to handle the hot chilies with care and to use the liquid as a salsa in itself or to splash a spark into a soup, salad dressing or other sauce.

Another fave on my hot gift list is a bottle of wok oil with a triple jolt from ginger root, garlic and chilies. Look for Asian-inspired or other pretty bottles at gift or kitchen stores. Drop in a whole dried red chili, if desired, as a memo of the adventure within, and give it with a stir-fry recipe to help get the recipients started using their gift.

Perhaps the most requested holiday gift from my kitchen over the years has been an un-fancy, forthright toffee. Based on a recipe published in the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s, it has addicted family and friends, young and old, even the normally self-disciplined.

My son-in-law drops a hunk into his coffee, then enjoys the resulting goop with a spoon and some purring. He makes it himself now, even during the off-season.

To fancify it, I package six or seven large shards in small cellophane bags and tie them with a short length of wide white or gold gossamer ribbon. They look pretty mounded on a silver tray to give to party guests to take home.

With name tags on them, they could double as place cards at a dinner table and a finger dessert, too. (You may want to provide spoons for those like my son-in-law.) It’s even possible to give a couple of no-cook gifts from your kitchen.

One idea is to sew up a few spices in gauze or cheesecloth squares to make spice-and-dried-citrus-only tea bags. Try a combination of whole cloves, cardamom pods, some pieces of cinnamon stick and some dried citrus peel.

You could even attach a string with a metal ringed paper tag (available at office supply stores) on the end for retrieving the bag from teapot or cup. Stamp the tag with a holiday design, or initial it. Stack the bags in sixes and tie with ribbon or cord, or present them in a teacup.

Sugar infused with a vanilla bean is so easy to make that you’ll feel guilty when you see how happy people are to receive it. Simply tuck a split vanilla bean into a cup of sugar (I like to use superfine sugar) in a sealed container and let stand at least two days.

A jar; a covered sugar bowl; or a screw-top glass, plastic or aluminum vial (available at some stationery or paper goods stores) are good container choices. Vanilla sugar is wonderful sprinkled over fruit or on French toast or to stir into coffee or tea. It keeps just about forever and can be topped off as it is used without changing the bean for several months.

Risotto mix

This recipe can be multiplied easily but be sure to mix thoroughly to distribute ingredients evenly before packaging.

1 cup arborio or medium-grain rice

1 ounce sun-dried tomatoes or dried porcini mushrooms (see note)

1 tablespoon chicken bouillon granules

1 tablespoon dried minced onion

1 teaspoon dried minced garlic

In a bowl, combine rice, tomatoes or mushrooms, bouillon granules, onion and garlic. Transfer to bag, jar or other container and seal. For gift giving, attach the cooking instructions for risotto that follow. Makes 1 package.

Note: Purchase sun-dried tomatoes in cellophane packages, not in oil. Some supermarkets also sell diced dried tomatoes in jars. Dried tomatoes and mushrooms can be cut easily using scissors.

Risotto

3 tablespoons butter, divided

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 package risotto mix

3 cups water or 3 cups water plus cup dry white wine

cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons butter with olive oil until butter melts. Add risotto mix, and cook and stir until rice becomes opaque, about 3 minutes. Add water or water and wine, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

Reduce heat to medium; continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender and most of liquid is evaporated, about 20 minutes, stirring more frequently to prevent burning during last 5 minutes of cooking.

Remove from heat; stir in cup Parmesan cheese and remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Serve immediately and pass additional Parmesan at table. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Pickled jalapenos

40 to 50 red and green jalapeno chilies

4 cups distilled white vinegar

2 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Wash chilies, and cut slice from each stem end. Discard stems.

In saucepan, combine vinegar, 1 cup water, salt and sugar; whisk over medium-high heat until sugar and salt are dissolved.

Pack chilies into glass bottles or jars that have been washed and rinsed with boiling water. Add enough vinegar mixture to cover chilies completely.

Seal jars. Let stand at room temperature for at least 3 days. They will keep for several months at room temperature. Refrigerate after opening. Makes about 3 pints.

Three-spice wok oil

1 cup peanut oil

4 thin slices fresh ginger root

4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 teaspoon crushed dried hot red chilies

1 whole hot red chili, optional

In a saucepan, combine oil, ginger root, garlic and red chilies. Cook over low heat 15 minutes. Let cool. Strain into jar or bottle. If desired, drop in a whole chili. Seal. Keep refrigerated. Makes 1 cup.

Shrimp with cabbageand peppers

2 tablespoons three-spice wok oil

to 3/4 pounds medium shrimp, without shells

1 small head bok choy (Chinese cabbage), cut in 1-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper cut in 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chicken broth

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Heat wok over high heat. Add three-spice wok oil. When oil is very hot, add shrimp; stir-fry just to coat with oil. Add cabbage and bell pepper, and stir-fry 1 minute. Stir in chicken broth and soy sauce. Cover and simmer 30 seconds. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Toffee addiction

1 pound butter

2 cups sugar

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

teaspoon salt

10 ounces milk chocolate, chopped

3/4cup chopped toasted almonds

In a large, heavy skillet or saucepan, combine butter, 3 tablespoons water, sugar, vanilla and salt. Melt over medium-high heat.

Stir constantly and rapidly with wooden spoon, brushing down sides of pan from time to time with wet brush. Continue cooking and stirring until mixture starts to turn tan. The darker it is, the more crystalline the toffee.

Pour mixture onto rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with chocolate. When chocolate looks glossy all over, spread with spatula, then sprinkle with almonds, pressing nuts lightly into chocolate.

Cool 8 to 12 hours. Break into chunks.

Makes about 4 pounds.

Vanilla sugar

1 cup superfine or regular granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean

Split a vanilla bean and tuck it into a cup of sugar. Pour into a sealed container and let stand at least two days. Pack into any pretty container, from a covered sugar bowl to a screw-top glass or a plastic or aluminum vial.

Vanilla sugar is wonderful sprinkled over fruit or on French toast or to stir into coffee or tea.

It keeps just about forever, and it can be topped off as it is used without changing the bean for several months.

Makes 1 cup, but recipe can easily be multiplied.

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