DECEMBER 15, 2010

We’re smack in the middle of the Holiday Season and it seems as if every other commercial is geared towards selling you on some gift that you need to buy your loved ones.  I love buying my friends and family the perfect gift but am often stumped on what to get.  Since I love cooking and most people love eating, I have been making gifts from the kitchen over the past several years to go along with my purchased presents. 

On our team at Cal it’s tradition to have a Holiday party where we exchange Secret Santa gifts and the only requirement is that you make your gift; food doesn’t count.  I think after one too many cookies were gifted in those first few years, Teri (our coach) put the kibosh on the kitchen-made creations.  

I wasn’t very into crafting when I first started at Cal, so I put little effort into my hand-painted picture frame and expected it to be on par with the gifts of my teammates.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the Martha’s of the Cal women’s swim team.  While there were a handful of equally lame gifts there were far more impressive ones, which served to separate the team into the have’s and have-not’s of talented crafters.  Having learned my lesson I attempted to step up my game in the following years, putting far more effort into my creations.  My skills improved and I have actually grown to enjoy making gifts, but “crafty” is still not a word I would use to describe myself.    

Since I have two Meyer lemon trees, I’ve made limoncello for the majority of my adult recipients over the past few years.  This is not an authentic Italian recipe, but an easy one with delicious results: If you want to attempt this recipe there are a couple things to keep in mind: 1. Use organic lemons since you use the peel, and 2. This limoncello requires 3 weeks of infusing, so it’s too late for Christmas gifts.  Sorry!  

I made the mistake of starting my limoncello around this time last year so I trolled the Internet in search of other ideas for gifts and found all sorts of beautiful jams and preserves that I knew my loved ones would enjoy.  When I was little my mom would make jalapeno jam for all her giftees, and I remember the bubbling, caldron-like enamel pot, the strange jar-lifting device, magnet wand, two-part lids, et cetera. Intimidated by the process and worried by the thought of giving someone botulism, I decided to stick with my original idea, skip Christmas gifts and give everyone their New Year’s limoncello.      

Last summer the promise of a bumper crop of tomatoes from my garden encouraged me to give canning another try.  For my birthday last August my parents gave me a canning kit and the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, 100th Anniversary Edition” and my sister gave my dozens of glass jars.  I was committed.  Canning is an old art (it’s been around since Napoleon’s era), which is reflected by the sometimes antiquated recipes that I found in this book.  Canned squirrel?!? I admit those pesky little creatures often destroy my veggie beds, but I haven’t reached the point of canning them quite yet.  Check back with me next summer and I may have changed my no-canned-squirrel policy...  

Although I phoned my mom a total of seven times during my first attempt, canning is actually not that difficult.  The key is to be organized and take your time.  Read all the instructions and don’t deviate from the recipe.  Since you’re putting in so much effort anyways, use garden-grown ingredients or those from local Farmer’s markets.  The seasonal produce will be delicious, abundant and affordable. I purchased several books on preserving to supplement that classic “Ball Guide” and my favorite has been Ashley English’s “Canning & Preserving.” It has a bunch of contemporary recipes in addition to the classics.  Some of the delicious recipes that I used for gifts this year are Fig Thyme Jam, Peach Lavender Butter, Apple Cardamom Butter, and Jalapeno Mint Jelly.

Most of these recipes require an hour or two, but time and effort is what counts the most in gift giving.  It shows how much you care and that you planned ahead.  (And as a bonus, you avoid Holiday-crazed shoppers at the mall.) I still haven’t mastered crafting quite yet, but I definitely have the water bath method of canning down. Over the past several days I’ve been packaging my preserves and other goodies into baskets, tying them with festive ribbons, and placing them under our tree.  I’m hoping that Santa will leave me a pressure cooker so that I can graduate to low-acid canning recipes such as Lemon Verbena Lemon Curd.  Yum!