Bah, humbug! The official beginning of the Christmas shopping season seems to kick off a little earlier each year. In case you didn't notice, this year it leapfrogged Thanksgiving and started in the second week of November. One day there's a pumpkin patch, then -- poof! -- it's a Christmas tree lot. By the year 2034, Yuletide shopping will be rolled back so far that it'll collide with the previous Christmas and we will experience the living hell of year-round holiday Muzak and shopping-mall Santas. As with tabloid journalism, overzealous consumers are as much to blame for this invasion of our sanity as perpetrators of seasonal greed. My solution: Send retailers a message by staying away from their stores until mid-December. Save your money, make your lists of who was naughty or nice, scour those catalogs -- just don't shop until you can see the whites of Rudolph's eyes.
A better way to buck the system altogether is to make your own gifts. If you have a lot of foodies on your Christmas shopping list, let your fingers do the shopping by crafting a gift that will spice up their day and save you a bundle of cash to blow on post-season sales. Herbed olive oils are very popular these days, and for good reason: They are an instant 911. A splash will instantly resuscitate pastas, pizzas and vegetables, and magically convert a plain piece of toast into a sophisticated slice of bruschetta before your very eyes. With a little creativity, you can customize labels and make your offering totally unique. Contrary to anything the folks at Williams-Sonoma might like you to believe, there's no secret recipe. Just connect the following dots.
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- Use clear wine bottles, Orangina bottles or any other decorative bottle you can get your hands on. Bottles that previously contained fancy oils (preferably that someone else overpaid for) are also ideal. Be sure to wash thoroughly before filling.
- Purchase your olive oil in one-gallon cans from a Middle Eastern market or your local bulk food store. Ask for a robust oil, but don't splurge on anything too virginal, since the delicate flavoring will be overwhelmed by the herbs.
- Fresh rosemary sprigs
- Fresh thyme sprigs
- Dried Italian herbs or herbes de provence
- Dried chili peppers
- Peeled garlic cloves (if you choose to add these, the cloves must be removed within four days to avoid scary health problems that could ruin Christmas dinner)
- Whole black or multicolored peppercorns
- Labels and hand tags: Just improvise. Use fancy paper, or make a prototype and then color copy it. If you've got kids, steal their crayons, or better still, let them do the designing. If you go the label route, pick up a spray can of 3M super 77 Spray Adhesive at your local art store or Staples outlet.
- Spouts: Liquor pouring spouts can be found in most grocery stores, as well as all restaurant supply stores and Williams-Sonoma. For the initial presentation, cork the bottle and hang the spout around its neck.
- After corking the bottle, dip the top in melted paraffin wax or sealing wax.
TECHNIQUE (OR LACK THEREOF)
- Simply stuff a selection of the flavoring ingredients into the bottle and add oil. As a general rule, the more the merrier. Make sure the contents are totally submerged in the oil to prevent mold from forming. It generally takes four days for flavors to impregnate the oil.
Le Secret: Stick a chopstick or fondue fork in the bottle to create an appealing arrangement.
The Adventure Club: Save up the Sunday comics and use them as wrapping paper.
Liability Disclaimer: The International Olive Oil Council's manual states that flavored oils should be refrigerated and consumed in two days. Let this fact be your guide. Although I am not encouraging you to follow my irreverent ways (in this particular instance), I keep my flavored oil for months and display it on my kitchen counter.
Music to Flavor By: Jane Siberry, "Child" (Sheeba Records): This is an atypical collection of seasonally inspired songs -- without the sugar coating.
If arts and crafts are not your thing, here are a few gifts that most foodies would love to find under their tree.
10 great gifts for foodies
1. 10-inch non-stick sauti pan -- Silverstone makes a fine pan for $25. All-Clad makes the Cadillac version for $100.
2 8-inch chef's chopping knife, $60 & up
3. Large solid colored Fiestaware dinner plates, $20 each -- Can't choose a color? Mix and match.
4. Seeds and soil for an herb garden, $20
5. Wooden Caesar salad bowl, $40 & up
6. Small braid of garlic, $15
7. A coffee plunger, $20, and a grinder, $20
8. A year's subscription to a food magazine, $18 to $30 -- Saveur gets my vote.
9. The new Joy of Cooking, $30, an excellent crash-course cookbook for new cooks and seasoned foodies alike
10. "The Surreal Gourmet," $15, or "The Surreal Gourmet Entertains," $17 -- Hey, my mother likes them! (Call 1-800-FAUX-PAS.)
Three cool stocking stuffers
1. A honey bear
2. An IOU for breakfast in bed
3. A chunk of imported Italian parmesan Regiano
... and four gifts not to buy
1. An apron that says "chefs make better lovers," or anything similar
2. Potholders in the shape of fish or lobster claws
3. The latest "better mousetrap" corkscrew
4. An electric pepper grinder, or one made out of acrylic plastic
Next week: Appetizers for your Christmas party: Citrus-olive tapenade and Chipotle dry rub shrimp with a cilantro dipping sauce