Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holidays, Graces!

I'll be signing off through the holiday week for various family visits, gatherings, and travels up and down the east coast. Consider it research for future posts.

I bid you a temporary farewell with one of my fave Christmas classics:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gracious Grab Bag Gifts

The 'grab bag' seems to be in vogue this year as a gift giving trend, and I kind of like it. It enables a group (family, office staff, book club, or overeaters' anonymous support group) to enjoy the gift-giving tradition of the season without having to buy gifts for each person in the circle. Each participant purchases an item valued at a predetermined amount, and when the group gathers together the exchange begins.

The exchange can be a simple grab bag arrangement, where all the gifts are placed in a large bin and each person pulls one out, or it can be set up as a "Yankee Swap" (aka "Chinese Auction") in which numbers are drawn out of a hat. The person with number one chooses and unwraps a gift. Number Two then chooses; if Two prefers One's gift, they swap. This procedure continues for everyone at the gathering until the very last, with each successive number having the option to choose from all of the previous gifts. You will see that the Kiehl's bath and body set is frequently commandeered, whilst the reindeer embossed dishtowels languish disconsolately with their unlucky recipient.

After all guests have drawn and opened their gifts, Number One resurfaces and has free range to pick any of the gifts in the room. (In case you are wondering, Two is the least advantageous number in this setup; I ended up with a Wham's greatest hits CD last year as a result of my unfortunate lottery draw.)

In order to avoid this cruel fate (or to be labeled as the person with the worst taste in the crowd,) here are some suggestions for modestly priced gifts that will be frequently swapped and swiped...

  • Itunes or Starbucks gift card
  • Bottle of Champagne and non alcoholic cider for New Years Eve
  • Gourmet coffee/tea
  • Wine/spirits/beer
  • selection of mustards or hot sauces
  • Hand cream and anti bacterial hand gel
  • fleece or cashmere gloves
  • scarf and/or hat
  • bath/body products and/or hair products
  • olive oil/balsamic vinegar
  • chocolates
  • christmas ornament
  • books (this can be risky, pick a recently published award winner.)
  • magazine subscription of recipient's choice
  • scented candles

And nobody does these like "The Office"....I suggest avoiding the holiday oven mitt!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Grace's Homemade Gifts

Not sure what to get your boss? Feeling a budget crunch? These homemade gift ideas will help you stay on the Gracious path as you navigate these rocky shoals....

Friday, December 17, 2010

Be Our Guest, Be Our Host, Be a Grace

The following question came in yesterday from a regular reader; my guess is that she may have been in a host/guest situation in which one party did not keep his/her Grace on at all times. But of course my reader, who is a Grace, is far too Gracious to point that out. I infer this, of course, because she asked the question; if both guest and host behaved correctly, the inquiry would not be necessary. What do you think, Graces?

Dear Grace,
Do you agree with this statement: "When you go to someone's house, you accommodate them, not the other way around."?

Grace Says:

Yes and no. Graces are always considerate of other people, so whether we are hosting or guesting we are mindful of others' comfort and ease....kind of like the hospitality extended and received in "Beauty and the Beast." Wouldn't you love to have dancing, singing, serving, (mostly serving) furniture and housewares?

But to answer your question...
I have always been a proponent of "When in Rome....", meaning that when you visit someone, you try to adapt to his habits, even if they are not your cup of Darjeeling. Whether it means drinking a cloyingly sweet port with the appetizers, attending a lecture on the many species of algae inhabiting local ponds, or eating cold pizza for breakfast, good guests go with the flow....within reason.

The flipside of this, of course, is that as a Gracious host, you attempt to, well, be a Gracious host. If your guest is allergic to cats, you clean the guest room before his arrival and keep Fluffy out of there for the duration of the visit. If your guest is a strict vegetarian, don't serve steak with a side of sausage and salad topped with bacon bits for dinner. If she likes to exercise every day, make arrangements for some fitness time; this does not mean you must partake--a pass to the local gym or directions to a walking trail should suffice.

Whichever side of this equation you are on, I hope your counterpart maintains the Gracious standard.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Office Party Etiquette

'Tis the are some tips on how to keep your Grace on at the office party:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Going Postal

So there I was in the post office yesterday. Yes, December is a challenging time to go, but it was necessary. I should say up front that the postal workers at my post office are uncharacteristically nice and helpful. This seems to be an aberration in the profession based on my experience in other postal facilities, but I am thankful that this aberration occurred in my ZIP Code. I have often wondered about the theory posited in the movie Men in Black II, which claimed that many postal workers are actually alien beings living on earth disguised as humans. But I digress.

I waited on line to mail some gifts and procure stamps for holiday cards. A fellow customer had been assiduously filling out forms for international shipping and learned as she approached the counter that she had done so incorrectly. The clerk was helpful and kind; she explained the proper procedure, and advised the woman to redo it, and upon completion to return to the counter, not wait in the now serpentine line again. To say the customer was a sourpuss is an understatement along the lines of "Krakatoa was a minor rumble". She grumbled to the clerk, shot daggers at those of us on line, and generally exuded aggressive misery.

Abruptly, she turned toward those of us waiting and snapped, "Who smoked a cigar? It is totally rancid. You should go outside right now." Naturally, no one admitted it (though she did have a point, cigar smoke does linger unpleasantly--but she certainly wasn't going to get anywhere with her approach.) When those of us receiving her wrath shifted uncomfortably, she said, "No one will admit it." Attempting to lighten things up, I said, "Well, under the circumstances, who would?". It became even clearer at that moment that she and I would never be good friends. She continued her not quite sotto voce rant on the foulness of the odor clinging to one of us, and finally finished her transaction.

What is a Grace to do?

Well, you know how I feel about scenes--chew the tongue off first. My attempt to break the ice, which was a reasonable option were we dealing with a slightly reasonable person, failed. At that point, the best choice is silence, peppered with vigilance; you never know when a nut like that might just "Go Postal."

Finally, the Anti-Tobacco League left, and a man (normally I would say "gentleman", but you'll soon see that the label doesn't fit) approached me and began picking at my coat. It was made of down, and sometimes the filling escapes. I looked at him oddly, as he mumbled (it was a big day for mumblers at the local PO) "what have you got here?" "my, my, my, you're losing something," and the like. I glanced quizzically at the postal clerk, with whom I am friendly, and she gestured for me to move away. When I got up to her station, she whispered, "He's a total pervert. He always comes in here and looks for excuses to touch people. One of these days he's gonna get socked!"

I exited stage right with all possible dispatch and planned to have my remaining gifts sent via online orders.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Tipping, Grace Style

'Tis the season....Everyone and his mailman is looking for a holiday tribute for providing you with a clean house, safe children, a groomed dog, a landscaped yard, a fed get the picture.  In these lean times, here are my guidelines on how to prioritize, and what to do if your budget simply can't accommodate the customary cash offerings....

Monday, December 13, 2010

NFL Etiquette?

I am well aware that this sounds like a contradiction in terms. You know I am big proponent of staying in your lane. So I am not here to expound on the lack of etiquette demonstrated by the NFL players in general. I do not expect them to identify a salad fork or draft the proper wording on a formal invitation. But I do expect them to adhere to the codes of conduct that govern their game. It sounds incongruous, I know, but there is an etiquette of football. It's called sportsmanship.

That's why I was so disgusted to learn of the following two incidents that occurred during yesterday's games:

A coach of the NY Jets intentionally tripped an opposing player and injured him.

Trippee Nolan Carroll left the game immediately following the incident but returned at a later point. Teammate Channing Crowder remarked: "He stuck his leg out and tripped him? He should be ashamed of himself. A grown man from the coaching staff? That's high character.” There's a first for everything: an Inside Linebacker on the Gracious path.

Although the other incident that chipped my polish did not involve aggressive interference leading to actual bodily harm, it was egregious nonetheless. Can't Desean Jackson just play well, enjoy his success and move on? Must he rub the other team's nose in it by stopping on the one yard line and collapsing into the endzone? These peacocking displays are obnoxious, hubristic, and ultimately do not serve the team. Let's not forget, Jackson does have a bit of a problem with premature celebrations:

So come on, guys. We're not asking you to serve afternoon tea and scones; we're just asking you to stay on the Gracious side of the line of scrimmage.

Friday, December 10, 2010

RSVP, Damn It!

With the holidays upon us and parties being thrown like rice at a wedding, now is the time for all good Graces to come to the aid of the party. Shout it from the rafters: RSVP is not optional. Repondez s'il vous plait does not translate into "let the hostess know at some point maybe if you feel like it and remember to unless you get a better offer for something more exciting that night". Nor does it mean "wait til the last minute, then call the hostess and say you're bringing your parents and 5 friends who happen to be in town for the weekend, all of whom are on restricted diets". Or God forbid your uninvited kids.

When you are fortunate enough to receive a kind invitation from a generous host (or even a repugnant invitation from an abhorrent acquaintance) you absolutely, positively must respond. Promptly. I feel even more strongly about this than writing thank you notes--and you know how militant I am about thank you notes.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been forced into the undignified position of calling invitees 3 days before a party and asking whether they plan to attend. By then, I am so irritated with these louts that I hope the answer is a sheepish no, but as a Grace, I would rather wear pleated pants than be caught short as a host, so I hunt down these miscreants to insure an accurate count and ample supplies. For them. Talk about a flawed system. (well, ok, maybe not pleated pants, but you get my drift.) Provisioning for a party is work (I love it, but it is still work), and it should not be complicated by playing russian roulette with the number of filets mignons you buy at $18.00/lb, or even the number of cocktail franks at $1.29/lb, or for that matter, the number of pizzas you plan to order. Caterers need head counts, and hosts should not pay for guests who have no intention of showing up. If you are one of those people and you are reading this, there is hope for you yet--we will set you on the Gracious Path.

Nearly as bad as the non-rsvp offender is the waffler. This is the charmer who says right up until the day of the party, "I may come by early or late if I have time." or "I am going to a matinee, then dinner, but I will try to come on my way home." Or the lovely who says, "We planned to go out to dinner but will try to come for a drink beforehand." Is this helpful? NO! They don't think about the fact that I now need to consider appetizers and drinks for 2 more, and the possibility that they may just decide to hunker down and stay for dinner once they get here. Do I order 2 more lobsters on this eventuality?

I kid you not, I received an email one morning (10 hours before my party was scheduled to begin) that read "I am sure I am the last person on your list to rsvp. I really want to come but I am going to the boat show today, then out to dinner in Chinatown, but I'll try to come later if I can." Gee, thanks. I was tempted to respond: "Thanks for letting me know. Maybe we'll open the door if you ring, or maybe we'll just leave you standing on the steps." But of course, Graces end up compensating for others' boorishness. I wrote back, "We hope you'll be able to make it; would love to see you." I erased my first draft, not wanting to appear snarky. But I felt very snarky.

Another RSVP no-no: Asking who else is coming. If the hostess volunteers this information, fine. You may graciously respond, "sounds like a fun group," or "Great! I met Greg and Marcia at a benefit last week and loved them. Can't wait to see them again," or "I'll look forward to meeting them all Saturday." Or say nothing. You never want to be the person who says, "Ugh, I can't stand George and Laura. If they are coming I simply won't be able to." This puts the hostess in an awkward position, and, frankly makes you look infantile. I can think of few scenarios which justify backing out at this point, but if you truly think coexisting with said invitee(s) would ruin the party, then be honest: "Abigail, I have to tell you, we are in the middle of a contentious lawsuit with Carol and Mike. Their dog killed our cat last month and we are suing them for wrongful death. I think it would be better if we declined your generous invitation and got together with you and John some other time. Please don't give it a second thought; how could you have known? Have a wonderful party, thank you for thinking of us, and let's pick a date to have dinner very soon. Are you free on the 7th?"

Required: Swiftly Verify Plans. That's what RSVP means. Learn it. Live it. Share it.

Because if you don't, and you simply show up, you are no better than a party crasher. And you know how we feel about them...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Dos and Don'ts of Re-Gifting

Pretty soon, your holiday decorations will be put away, your thank you notes will be sent, and your gym regimen to battle the bulge from all those Christmas cookies will be in full swing. At that point it will be time to deal with The Gift. And Graces, like the Boy Scouts (homophobia notwithstanding) must Be Prepared.

We all get one. That total lemon that you wouldn't be caught dead in a ditch with but the fact remains, it's yours. The life size poster of your nephew playing basketball. The sweater with a reindeer on it. The set of decorative plates depicting frolicking kittens. The cuckoo clock. The complete set of Danielle Steele novels. The scarf with a piano key pattern.

Last year, mine was a pair of gold, elbow length gloves studded with rhinestones, suitable for either Ginger on Gilligan's Island (were she to be marooned in a non-tropical location) or the King of Mardi Gras. My solution was simple, I gave them to my daughter for dress up. She was overjoyed. When and if a time comes when the giver catches me, I will play the mommy card: "you know how it is; when your child shows such rapture in something it is hard to say no. And she is so careful with her prized dress-up items that I know she will keep them in pristine shape for me. Her closet is in much better order than mine; I am thinking of putting her in charge of my jewelry next!"

In general, I am a proponent of regifting. It is economical, saving you both time and money. It epitomizes recycling. It means that hopefully someone, somewhere, will enjoy the gift you didn't. But it has to be done with care. In order to regift successfully, I abide by a few Gracious Guidelines:

1. Don't regift where you eat. By this I mean you must ensure that there will be no overlap and zero chance of your getting caught. If you "won" the piano key scarf in the office grab bag, don't give it to your assistant for her birthday next week. Give it to your piano playing niece as a "congratulations on your recital" present. (It might even buy your way out of attending said concert.)

2. Ugly is ugly, don't pass it on. No one (not even Colin Firth) should wear a reindeer sweater. Do not participate in the propagation of this scourge. Cut it into pieces and use it as a cleaning rag.

3. Use the little white lie. When Aunt Tillie asks about how you are progressing through the complete works of Danielle Steele, tell her that you are saving them for your upcoming trip to read on the beach.

In case you are unfamiliar with its origins, here is the etymological source of the term "ReGifting". Thank you, Seinfeld.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

With Friends Like This, Who Needs Frenemies?

Dear Grace,
I recently invited 2 friends to attend a benefit, in fact the biggest social event in our town this season. I did not ask for reimbursement for the ticket expenses, but rather invited both as my guests. We planned to meet for dinner beforehand, then proceed to the party. While one guest (Guest 1) met up with me more or less on time, the second guest (Guest 2) was nearly an hour late. Guest 1 and I discovered that Guest 2 had met up with others instead of joining us for dinner--without telling us, so we ended up waiting for her.

On our way to the gala, Guest 2 asked if I had the tickets, as she wanted to meet up with some other people beforehand. I explained that our tickets were electronically traceable to my credit card, which had to be presented, along with IDs at the door, so separate entry it wasn't possible. We arrived with time to spare so we decided to have a drink in a nearby bar before moving onto the event. At this point, Guest 2 did offer to buy a round of drinks, then complained that the beverage I chose was too expensive.

At the party, Guest 1 and I sat together, enjoying the spectacle and the crowd. Guest 2, seated directly to my left, abandoned our seats as the event began, again to see other people. Guest 2 left us repeatedly throughout the evening. After several hours, Guest 1 and I had had our fill and were ready to leave. Guest 2 had not returned, so Guest 1 and I left. Guest 1 escorted me home in a taxi, which she paid for, then proceeded on her way. Later, Guest 2 texted me, to find out if I left and why. I have not responded.

My question is - does Guest 2 owe an apology to me and Guest 1?

Grace Says:

The straighforward answer is yes, Guest 2 should apologize, and also send a thank you for your generous invitation. The reality is, however, that based on the horror story you shared, the owed apology is likely to arrive with the freezing over of hell, the needle appearing out of the haystack, or the camel fitting through the eye of a needle and the flight of pigs--pick your cliche. And dare I suggest, pick a replacement for 2; she doesn't deserve you.

You may want to batten down the hatches for the inevitable confrontation--people like 2 invariably skate over their own appalling behavior and instead focus on a bone they believe they have to pick with others. Justifiable though your departure was, 2 will undoubtedly make this entire contretemps about your 'abandonment'. Beware of that, and be done with 2. There are lots of other numerals out there who would love to go to a party with you. Maybe you should stick with the odd numbers? No one needs a frenemy, just ask the Mean Girls:

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Thanks, But No Thanks

Dear Grace,

I always enjoy reading your posts! I would love your ideas on the following--my dear and wonderful husband is always so thoughtful and considerate in his gift giving to me. When he does buy me something that I know I may not use, and I know I would enjoy something more do you think I should exchange it? I would never want to hurt his feelings nor dampen his spirit in gift-giving, but Hanukkah is here, and I want to be prepared. Thanks for your advice.

Grace Says:

This is a tricky one, indeed, and like many scenarios, the answer is "it depends". If your dear and wonderful husband (by the way, does he have a brother?) bought you a very expensive item that he hoped you would wear daily and it just isn't to your taste, then you should probably fess up. Try your own version of the following script: "Darling, I really love the tiara you got me for Hanukkah, and I know you bought it thinking I would wear it all the time. When I opened it, I thought I would , too. But I am finding that it isn't really workable for me chasing the kids around the park and careening through the grocery store. I am in a quandary--because I truly love the tiara, but I hate to think that it will spend most of its life on my shelf, and only come out for a few very formal occasions. Part of me would love to trade it in for an eternity band that I would wear 24/7. What do you think?"

If the gift is a smaller ticket item and you can consider appearing in it in public occasionally, then keep it, break it out from time to time and hold your tongue. Keep up the good grace in your appreciation and sensitivity to your lovely husband--and, really, tiaras can be au courant if paired with the appropriate ensemble.

Since you mentioned Hanukkah, I was reminded of Adam Sandler's hilarous 'carol'; couldn't resist sharing it. Enjoy, and Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sometimes a Recipe is Not Just a Recipe

Dear Grace,
I strive to be a Grant, I really do. But I got myself into the dog house last night over what I thought was nothing--but my wife disagrees. Here's the scenario:

I was watching a game when she came home last night from a work event. She said hello, then went to the computer and printed out something. I figured she was taking care of some household accounting; we had paid bills together earlier in the day. She came into the den and handed me the papers. I thought it was something I had to sign so I looked up from the game. It was a recipe--for mulled wine.

I hate mulled wine. She knows that, or I thought she did. I looked confused, having expected an electric bill, then must have frowned at the recipe. She said something like "What's your problem?" I was still mystified and said, sort of bemused, "I don't like mulled wine." She grabbed the recipe, huffed off, and shouted "Fine! Then I won't make any for you." She has been in a snit since yesterday and I really can't figure out what I did wrong. Was I rude? I don't even know what to apologize for--hating mulled wine? Please help.

Grace Says:

I'm sure you are a Grant. The fact that you are seeking a solution to this instead of storming off in an equivalent huff tells me that. The decision you need to make is whether you want this episode to be fair or finished.

If you seek fair, then Wife should come to you, hat in hand, and apologize for her irrational reaction to an innocuous response on your part. Realistically, that may not happen, and requiring it may only escalate this contretemps. As Bill Clinton learned the hard way, sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. (Or, in your case, sometimes a recipe is not just a recipe.)
When considering the cigar, sometimes one must take into account how the tobacco was grown, where it was harvested, the factory in which it was processed--ok, this metaphor may be getting a bit out of control, but I am driving at the following: you don't know what may have preceded the mulled wine outburst. Wife may have had a miserable time at the work event, the household accounting session you had earlier in the day may have stressed her out, the frenzy of the holidays may be overwhelming her.

For all you know, the mulled wine may have been a version of her dear departed granny's brew that was part of the family's Christmas tradition dating back generations, has been lost for a decade, and she just located it on the internet after exhaustive research. (Incidentally, I agree with you about mulled wine; due respect to the hypothetical granny, if the wine warrants sugar and spice it is probably not worth drinking, and if the wine is good enough to drink then it should not be adulterated thus. But I digress.)

Option B is to make it finished, definitely the more practical approach, and the only one you have the ability to implement. There are two approaches here. My preferred method is to forget it and move on; if she is over it without reliving the exchange, then (with apologies to the Fab Four) let it be. If the episode needs to be revisited in order to be put to rest, approach your wife and say, "I really didn't mean to hurt your feelings about the mulled wine. I was distracted, I thought you were handing me something else, and I didn't know the recipe meant so much to you. I am sorry that my reaction was hurtful, and even though I probably won't drink it, I will help you grind the nutmeg and cinnamon if you like."

Any girl worth her Grace would forgive you under the circ's. (I mean, for heaven's sake, you were watching the game and she shoved a recipe under your nose.) If she doesn't, well, you may want to seek advice of an entirely different sort.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Gift Giving 101

My advice on gifts is nearly always to bestow something consumable--not necessarily ingestible, but something that can be used up. The theory behind this is that even if the recipient does not love your choice, it is not permanent. No doubt you have great taste, but nothing is worse than bestowing an antique Limoges teapot on a household that is an altar to Philippe Stark.

My mother-in-law, who has exquisite and expensive taste, was the unfortunate recipient of a life-sized countertop monkey statue with an outstretched hand to hold bananas for optimal ripening. This was particularly awkward because the giver was someone who works nearby and visits almost daily. Every Friday, like some religious ritual, the monkey is stored in the mudroom cupboard for the weekend.

We have all received the equivalent of the banana monkey at some point in our lives. We hope that we have never given one. In order to ensure that your gifting is Gracious, I offer the following tips:

  • Don't buy gifts based on what you like. The giftee might adore you, but your affection for Lladro and marzipan? She doesn't share it.
  • Be wary of wearables. There are too many places to go wrong: size, color, cut...
  • Be doubly wary of anything that might be considered "home decor". Remember the banana monkey! No one wants a table runner as a gift, "art" is the most subjective of all subjects, and a friend who thinks you want (or even need) a paperweight is an odd sort of friend.
  • Gift certificates are not a cop-out. My aunt gave me one recently to Williams Sonoma, and I think of her every time I use my new pepper mill. It's such a kick to walk into a store and buy something without spending any money.
  • Still in doubt? Ask the giftee's spouse/significant other, close friend or sister. They're the ones most likely to suggest something that won't end up re-gifted or in the back of the closet.
  • If you still think she's going to love the banana-monkey, at least make sure she can return it. Just in case she already has one.

Enjoy this clip from Will and Grace on the hazards of giving a handmade objet d'art....

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Savory Surprises

My homemade gifts are always of the consumable variety. Doubtless there are people who make lovely ornaments, wreaths, or handpainted plates to bestow as potentially cherished gifts. But glue guns, stencils and anything involving silk flowers or wired ribbon make me hyperventilate and break out in hives. I avoid craft stores like the plague. My creativity is culinary, and I love to spread it around during the holiday season. Food gifts work; they are economical, personal, and best of all, not permanent--like the cake plate adorned with your nephew's face or the purple and gold
wreath that prevents your door from shutting properly.....Here, as promised, are some more ideas for the Graces among you who prefer to bestow a savory treat.

1. Parsley Pesto

When the mercury drops, basil, which is the traditional herb for pesto, is hard to come by. If you do manage to find it, it's ruinously expensive and of dubious quality. Parsley is ubiquitous and cheap, and happens to taste great, so I concocted this delicious, accessible, off-season alternative to our fave summer sauce.

4 cups flat leaf parsley, rinsed
4 cloves garlic, peeled
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tbsp pine nuts
generous sprinkle of crushed red pepper

Equipment: Cuisinart or blender, small jars or containers.

Mix all ingredients in Cuisinart or blender til completely blended and smooth. Distribute into gift sized jars or plastic containers. Pesto keeps in the fridge for about a week or frozen for several months. It's great tossed on pasta, spread on bruschetta, scooped by the teaspoon into minestrone soup, or slathered on grilled/roasted fish or chicken.

Variation: substitute arugula or cilantro for the parsley.

2. Honey-Mustard Dressing

4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup mustard
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup vinegar

Equipment: Cusinart or blender, small jars/containers

Puree til all ingredients are mixed,and dressing takes on a smooth, creamy consistency. Distribute into jars. Honey Mustard Dressing keeps in fridge for about a week. This is great as a salad dressing or as a dip for crudites.

3. Mango Chutney

1 large mango, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 Tbsp white vinegar
1 Tbsp chopped jalapeno pepper (optional; may omit or substitute hotter pepper)
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp turmeric
freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients in 1-1/2 qt microwave safe bowl. Microwave for 7 minutes. Stir, cool, then cover tightly and store in refrigerator. Chutney keeps for 1 week in fridge and is divine on roasted or grilled fish.

4. Dinner

No specifics here, rather some guidelines. Who wouldn't love a cook-free night during the holiday season? This allows you to play to your strengths and give a most welcome gift. Do you make a magnificent mac and cheese? A mean meatball? Perfect Puttanesca sauce? Excellent enchiladas? Superb soup? Ok, enough alliteration, you get my drift. If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to give something that will be really appreciated (just don't give the bacon clam chowder to your Kosher neighbor or beef chili to your vegan hairdresser.) Assuming that you avoid these pitfalls, mix up a batch and deliver it; it can be frozen for future use, or heated for immediate consumption.

Here are some general strategies:

  • Always use disposable containers--unless the dish/pan is part of the gift. Aluminum baking dishes, one-use Tupperwares, or even giant Ziploc bags work just fine. It sort of undermines the gesture if the grateful recipient has to deal with the hassle of returning your soup tureen long after enjoying your delicious minestrone.
  • Choose something that has shelf-life. (Remember, during the holiday season, there are lots of nights out, parties, and events that make traditional dinners at home somewhat scarce.) Your creation should be an item that can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, or is freezer-friendly. Avoid souffles and sushi.
  • Affix heating/serving instructions to the dish--better yet, write it in Sharpie marker directly on the foil or container.

Perhaps you'll take a cooking class this season to glean further inspiration. If so, I hope it does not resemble this one, from Will and Grace--I do miss that show!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sweet Surprises

With the economy in the tank, there is widespread concern about how to express regard and affection for our nearest and dearest, not to mention both the inner ring and outer ring of people on whom rely to make our lives run smoothly--nannies, pet sitters, hairdressers, mailmen, and the like. In lieu of cash or other extravagant material goods, I offer the following suggestions for homemade treats in these lean times.....You'll notice, I'm sure, that fruitcake is conspicuously absent from the list.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things.....

1. Christmas Bark

1 bag Ghirardelli White Chocolate Chips
1 cup crushed peppermints--candy canes or pinwheels work fine. (Put candy in large ziploc bag and smash with a meat tenderizer, rolling pin, or other heavy, blunt instrument.)

Equipment: 1 baking sheet, parchment paper, cello bags and ribbon

Melt the chips in a microwave bowl on 30% power for 4 minutes. (White chocolate has a tendency to burn, so be sure to keep the power at 30%). When melted, stir til smooth. Add the crushed peppermint and mix well. Spread on baking sheet lined with parchment. Refrigerate 15 minutes, til completely solid. Break into bite-sized pieces and put in the cello bags, tie with ribbon. Note: This keeps in the fridge for weeks, so make a few batches and keep on hand for unexpected gift needs--a bag of homemade Christmas bark accompanied by a tip for the postman or dry cleaner is a very nice, personal touch. There are many variations to this recipe. Use dark or milk chocolate, melt 4 minutes on 50% power (it is much less tempermental than white chocolate) and mix with nuts, dried fruit crushed peppermints or shredded coconut.

2. Chocolate Sauce

1 bag Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Chips
1 cup milk
1/4 cup dry, unsweetened cocoa powder

Mix milk and cocoa powder in small saucepan, heat til bubbles form around rim of pan. Meanwhile, pour chips into medium sized, heatproof bowl. Pour heated milk mixture over chips and stir til smooth. This keeps in the fridge for 10 days or frozen for several months. It's great as fondue or atop ice cream--heated in microwave on 50% power or on stove at low heat. A tablespoon or 2 can be mixed with hot milk for a particularly indulgent cup of hot chocolate.

3. Caramel Sauce

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp sea salt

Mix sugar and water in medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat for about 15 minutes, til sugar melts and entire mixture browns. Remove from heat, add cream. Sauce will bubble up. Stir constantly til smooth. Add butter and salt. Cool slightly, pour into jars and refrigerate. This only keeps for a couple of days, so don't make an enormous batch for distribution 3 weeks in advance--advise recipients to heat it gently and stir before serving.

4. Cookies

Everyone loves cookies, and there are literally hundreds of recipes to choose from. Check out, the back of the chocolate chip bag, or the top of the oatmeal canister for ideas. No matter the recipe, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Always use baking parchment. Cookies never stick to it and it eliminates scrubbing.
  • Always have waxed paper in the house. When you make a batch of dough, separate it into 8 inch long, 1-1/2 inch in diameter logs which you can wrap in waxed paper and store in the fridge (for a week) or the freezer (for a month or more). When you need some cookies, simply slice off the number required, bake them and voila--perfect, freshly-made treats. This is great for gift-giving, but also for general consumption--nothing's better than a right-out-of-the-oven cookie, but you may not want 4 dozen of them sitting on your counter. With the dough log approach, you have great quantity control.
  • Use cello bags tied with ribbon for economical, attractive presentation.
  • Choose a basic recipe that offers variety. Make a double or triple batch chocolate chip dough, but before adding the chips, separate the dough into a few different bowls. Add chocolate chips to one, white chips and macadamia nuts to another, dried cherries or raisins to another, 1/2 cup of strong coffee and a few tablespoons of Kalhua to another. This also works with oatmeal cookies--mix some dough with raisins, some with chocolate chips, some with chopped apricots, others with cashews. Also with basic butter cookies--make some vanilla, some lemon, some coconut, some chocolate. This way, you will only have made one type of dough, but a produced a significant variety of cookies.

5. Truffles

1 bag Ghirardelli double chocolate chips
3 oz butter
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Equipment: 5x9 inch loaf pan (or pan of similar size and dimension), parchment or wax paper, cello bags, ribbon.

Line pan with wax or parchment paper on bottom and up sides.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave at 50% power. Stir til smooth. Add egg yolk and whisk til just mixed. Pour chocolate into prepared pan and refrigerate til firm, approx 45 minutes. Remove from fridge and check texture. Chocolate should be firm but still soft enough to cut without breaking. If it is too hard, leave it at room temp for about 10-15 minutes. Unmold chocolate and cut into 3/4 inch squares. Put cocoa powder in shallow dish, dust your hands with cocoa, and roll each square in cocoa to coat. You can leave them square, or if you believe truffles must be round, roll them into balls between your palms and coat them with the cocoa in the dish. These keep for 10 days in the fridge or 1 month in the freezer. Put a dozen or so in each cello bag, tie with ribbon, present to eager and awed recipient.

6. Sweet and Spicy Nuts

Heat oven to 350.

4 c nuts (I use pecans, but this works with just about any single nut or a mixture)
1 egg white
1 c sugar
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice (or more to taste)
1 tsp salt

Beat egg white til it bubbles. Add nuts and mix. Add all remaining ingredients, mix again. Spread on cookie sheet and bake 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even roasting, til nuts begin to brown. Cool completely and pour nuts into cello bags; tie with ribbon.

Speaking of gifts, ya gotta love this clip from Modern Familywhere Phil expounds on his gift giving prowess, and well, other skills.