A Little Ingenuity Goes a Long Way With Homespun Holiday Food Gifts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HAVE you vowed not to become panicked by the shopping-day countdown this year? Or even to avoid the commercial frenzy altogether?

For a gift that may be just a bit more personal, imaginative, and homespun than one sold at the local mall, think food.

Cookies never go out of style, but there are many other ideas for edible gifts that are also sure to please.

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If you didn't put up any jams or jellies last summer, don't worry. There's still plenty of time to assemble one or more of these quick and easy holiday gifts:

Flavored vinegar. Start with a base vinegar, such as cider vinegar or rice vinegar, and some clean bottles. Pour the vinegar into the bottle, and then add any type of fresh herb, or combination of herbs, that is appealing to you. Basil, oregano, and thyme are flavorful options. For a spicier vinegar, try jalapeno peppers or garlic.

Cap or cork the bottles, and let them stand in a cool, dark place for a week or two. Then strain the vinegar, re-wash the bottles, and refill them with the strained vinegar, adding a fresh sprig or two of your herb. Cork or cap.

For a sweeter taste, add raspberries or strawberries to one quart of vinegar. Bring to a boil in saucepan, reduce heat, and simmer five minutes. Remove from heat and let stand overnight. Strain the solids out and bottle.

#Flavored vinegars have many uses. They are great for vinaigrettes. You can blend with cream cheese for a dip or spread. Mix them with honey to glaze ham. Or use them to marinate meats, fish, and poultry, using 1 tablespoon vinegar per pound along with seasonings.

Packaging flavored vinegar can be as much fun as creating it. Look for interesting bottles at kitchen stores or antique shops. They need not be expensive.

Infused olive oil. This is a bit more complicated to make than flavored vinegars, but it's worth the trouble. Because vinegar is an acid, you don't have to worry about bacteria growing in it. But oil is a different story. So while you can't just add fresh herbs and garlic to olive oil and store it in the cabinet, you can ''infuse'' the oil.

This involves heating the oil for about two hours at a low temperature (about 170 degrees F.) with an additive (herb, pepper, garlic, etc.).

Then, after it has cooled, strain out solids with cheesecloth. Infused oil can be kept at room temperature, but if you plan to keep it for a while, store it in the refrigerator. Put oil in the same type of bottles as those for the vinegar. It's great for cooking, on baguettes, or on salads.

Think bulk, only smaller. Call your local grocer to see if you can arrange to buy a bulk size of a nonperishable food item, such as a 25-pound box of garlic or a 50-pound bag of hazelnuts or walnuts. Or see what the warehouse superstore has to offer. Many health-food stores carry a variety of different kinds and colors of popcorn kernels. Be creative.

Package the items in a basket, cover with colored cellophane, and tie with a festive ribbon. Or for the popcorn, use self-closing jars or bottles and tie with a ribbon.

Gift baskets. Those fancy food baskets shown in mail-order catalogs are tempting, but costly and less original than ones you could assemble yourself. Sure, it'd be ideal to fill the basket with homemade foods. But don't knock yourself out if you don't have time to whip up a quadruple batch of pesto.

Your own gourmet food basket, for instance, could include dried pasta, tomato sauce, and a spaghetti spoon. Or a recipe for gourmet pizza, a pizza pan, and a pizza cutter. Or buckwheat pancake mix, syrup, and a spatula. The options are endless.

Again, presentation is important, so dress up baskets with cellophane, festive ribbons, dried flowers, or whatever else you like.

Flour power. There's nothing quite like homemade pasta. Most food processors and upright mixers have dough attachments. The only cost is flour and eggs (about 2/3 cup flour to 1 egg), so you can keep costs way down. If you don't have access to a pasta maker, which eases the dough-rolling process, you can roll out dough on a floured surface with a rolling pin until it's very thin. Hang dough over a rack to let it dry, for about an hour. Then cut the dough into desired length, package it in plastic bags, and tie with a ribbon. (Consult a cookbook for precise recipe.)

Spice mixes. Either sprinkled on vegetables or used as a ''rub'' on meat, fish, or poultry, these mixes add loads of flavor.

Here are a few recipes to try:

For homemade curry powder, mix together 1/2 tablespoon ground cardamom, a pinch of cayenne, 1/2 tablespoon cloves, 6 tablespoons coriander, 1-1/2 tablespoons cumin seed, and 1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric.

To make your own chili powder, bake red chiles at 400 degrees F. for 3-4 minutes. Remove chiles from oven, pull off stems, shake out seeds, and let them cool. Grind chiles in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle.

For an herb mixture, combine: 2 tablespoons dried parsley, 1 tablespoon dried tarragon, 1 teaspoon dried chives, 1 teaspoon dried basil, and 3 tablespoons dried chervil.

Or, experiment with your own mixtures. Package in a self-closing jar or shaker, and decorate with a bow.

Merry mustard. Homemade mustards are easy to make. And this recipe is perfect for the holidays. It's a pretty, cranberry-tinted pink color, and it tastes great on turkey or ham sandwiches:

Cranberry Honey Mustard

3/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1-1/2 cups cider vinegar

1-1/4 cups dried cranberries (sometimes available under the brand name ''Craisins'')

3 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon salt

In a pot or jar, combine the mustard seeds, vinegar, and cranberries. Cover and soak for 48 hours, adding additional vinegar if necessary to maintain enough liquid to cover the seeds. #Scrape the soaked seed-and-cranberry mixture into a food processor and process until the mixture turns from liquid and seeds to a creamy mixture flecked with bits of cranberry.

The process takes at least 3 to 4 minutes. Add the honey and salt. You may need to add additional vinegar as necessary to create a creamy mustard. Keep in mind that it will thicken slightly upon standing.

After about one week of aging, the cranberry flavor seems to settle into this mustard and make it all the better, but it is perfectly good to use immediately.

- #From ''The Mustard Book'' (MacMillan) by Jan Roberts-Dominguez

Of course, there are many other creative options for edible gifts. Once you get started, you'll want to steer clear of the mall every year.

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