Magazine article Sunset

Gifts for or from a Cook

Magazine article Sunset

Gifts for or from a Cook

Article excerpt

Is there a food lover on your holiday gift list? Consider offering a food discovery package. The ones shown here require only brief assembly. Once prepared, they'll keep from several months to a year.

Gourmet stores sell most ingredients--vanilla beans ($1.50 to $3 per bean), truffle oil ($15 to $20 for a 2- to 3-oz. bottle), cob popcorn (30 cents to $1 apiece), and dried mushrooms ($3 to $13 per oz.). These items are also available by mail order.

Vanilla beans

Use the strongly aromatic beans whole, or split them to get more flavor from the thousands of tiny seeds inside. After using whole or split beans, rinse, pat dry, and store in a cool, dark place to reuse. Fresh and reused beans will keep indefinitely immersed in alcohol or stored airtight.

Vanilla sugar. Put 1 or 2 vanilla beans into a jar; fill with sugar to cover. Seal tightly; shake jar every few days for about l month. (To speed up the process, whirl chopped vanilla beans and sugar in a blender; store for at least 1 week, then sieve sugar.) Use sugar over fruit and in desserts. Replace sugar as used.

Vanilla extract. Place 1 vanilla bean (split, if desired) into a narrow bottle. Fill bottle with brandy, vodka, or rum to completely cover bean. Seal airtight; let stand about 1 month in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally. Use to flavor desserts, or as called for in recipes.

Truffle oil on popcorn or pasta

Olive oil infused with the essence of crushed white truffles takes on the distinctive musky smell and flavor of the highly valued fungus. Use sparingly as a seasoning oil; long cooking dissipates flavor. Imported oils, especially those from Italy, seem to have the strongest scent. Store in a cool, dark place up to a few months.

Truffled popcorn. Mix 1 to 2 teaspoons truffle oil with 1 quart popped corn. Add salt to taste.

To pop cob popcorn, place 1 cob popcorn (6 to 8 in.) in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold top over several times and set bag in the middle of a micro-wave oven. Set time for 4 minutes at full power (100 percent). Cook until popping slows to 2 to 3 seconds between pops, 2 to 4 minutes. Listen closely; do not overcook. Makes about 1 quart.

Truffled pasta. Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons truffle oil with 4 cups hot cooked pasta. Add freshly grated parmesan cheese and pepper to taste.

Mushrooms in a basket

Make up a woodland basket with a choice of dried mushrooms: Morels are deeply cratered and have elongated dark brown caps and earthy flavor. Chanterelles are golden brown with pronounced gills; flavor is mild and nutty. Porcini (cepes), in dark brown slices, have intense, pungent aroma and flavor. Shiitakes have wrinkled dark brown caps and intense, rich flavor.

To use mushrooms. Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Rub with fingers in liquid to remove grit; lift from liquid. Discard stems, if tough. You can also use the flavorful soaking liquid; carefully pour off water, discarding the gritty sediment that's left behind.

Use mushrooms (whole, sliced, or chopped) and liquid in pasta sauces and rice dishes, and with poultry and meats. One ounce dried mushrooms is enough to season 6 servings. Store airtight in a dark place at room temperature for up to 1 year.

Fruit-flavored vinegars

For easy-to-make flavored vinegars, you start with purchased white wine vinegar and heat it with berries, citrus peel, or exotic passion fruit or tamarind. As the mixture cools, the vinegar absorbs flavor and color from the added ingredient. …

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