If we believe the hype, this is the most wonderful time of the year, but years of fighting the blues has taught me one thing: The only way to keep my head above the proverbial water (and out of the holiday punch bowl) is to keep everything as simple as possible.
For this seasonally-affected cranky pants, that means lots of fresh air (versus hot gusts from a wall vent), loading up on vegetables (to offset the eggnog load) and scaling back on conspicuous consumption. These days, the gifts I give (and like to receive) are decidedly DIY, low-tech, with a little mindful tinsel thrown in for good measure. What follows are a few of my favorite things.
1. Chocolate Bark
If you can melt chocolate, you can make chocolate bark.
Here’s what you do: Chop up a handful of your favorite dried fruit and nuts (or throw into the mini chopper), maybe a hint of sea salt and stir into a bowl of melted chocolate (which you can do in the microwave). My secret ingredient is candied ginger. Pour your chocolate-y mélange onto a parchment paper-lined tray and stick in the fridge to chill for just 25 minutes. Ta-da, instant candy loveliness that kicks those yuletide-colored M&Ms to the curb. (P.S. Stored in a tin, bark turns into a super-glam hostess gift.)
Cost: $12-$15 for a batch of a few dozen pieces
Recipe deets HERE.
Granola isn’t just for breakfast; it’s the all-purpose, high-protein, on-the-go snack, whether you’re on the subway or in a reindeer-powered sleigh. Instead of zip-top plastic bags, I like to gift granola in canning jars, which instantly make everything kinder and gentler, but also keep the granola fresher for longer (if the lucky recipients can keep their hands off it). Nothing complicated about this recipe (link below); mix all the dry goodies together, and coat with a warmed “glue” of maple syrup, honey and oil. Bake the whole mess for 45 minutes, and voilà, you’re a veritable granola-making elf.
Cost: About 10 bucks for a 10-cup batch, which will fill five 16-ounce/2-cup canning jars. Throw in an additional $12 or so for a case of jars, which I promise will come in handy down the road.
Recipe deets HERE.
I’ll admit; this one takes a few hours and your undivided attention (translation: Stow those electronic devices, please), but with the help of a friend, you’ll get a two-fer: A whole bunch of gorgeous, hand-crafted preserves and some quality time with a darling dearest. Since home preserving is all about seizing the moment with seasonal produce, this time of year is all about celebrating citrus fruits from California, Texas and Florida. Mandarin oranges are an excellent choice for marmalade-making virgins, as their rind is easily peeled and both tender and mild in flavor (which I can’t say for grapefruit). The result: a more sweet than sour affair.
Cost: About $30 for 14 four-ounce jars or seven eight-ounce jars (includes a case of jars, which you can get at the hardware store).
Recipe deets HERE.
Here’s the skinny on this great stocking-stuffer gift.
Back in the day, I waited tables at a stainless steel diner in West Philadelphia after graduating from University of Pennsylvania. I’m still in touch with waitress pal Rachel Ostroy, who now lives in Los Angeles. Rachel has designed Neat-os, a line of snazzy-looking reusable, canvas bags that are both durable and BPA-free (freezer-safe, too). I’ve used them to store greens in the fridge but also to tote kitchen tools when traveling or doing off-site cooking demos. In the world of practical magic, Neat-os are about as sexy as it gets.
Cost per bag: $8.75 (“4×7” snack size), $9.75 (“7×6.5” sandwich size), $15 (gallon-size)
Where to find them: Neat-Os.com
There’s nothing simple (or low-tech) about imported vodka made from Fair Trade certified quinoa grown on small farms in Bolivia. But I like the spirit of this product, in which independent farmers are doing it for themselves and getting a living wage for their crops. Besides, this is the first vodka I’ve ever sipped like a cognac, rather than pounded with a chaser to mask the turpentine effect. A nice and smooth surprise. Santa baby, you up for a night cap?
Where to find it: Available in about 15 states, including New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Find out if the booze outlet in your neighborhood carries it HERE.