Just Maybe the Best Homemade Holiday Gift Ever

It happens every year about this time. I begin scrambling for the perfect Christmas gift idea for my long list of friends, neighbors and colleagues. My criteria is that the gift has to be homemade and easily mass produced. It needs to be consumable, attractive and appeal to a wide range of tastes. It must be something that will survive the mail, and above all it needs to be affordable.

As of a week ago, I’d pretty much narrowed this year’s gift to one of the most decadent condiments on earth—Bacon Jam. I needed to make a test run to determine if the stuff is as outrageously delicious as is being reported and if it’s reasonable in terms of time and money to make it in mass quantities.

It’s been three days since I finished up the test run and the results are unquestionable: This stuff is crazy delicious. Like candy but more savory. The amount of Bacon Jam that fits into a half-pint (8 oz.) glass jar is quite generous because a little Bacon Jam goes a long way!

I have run into a challenge that could make the gift of Bacon Jam impossible for all but my local friends. I’ll let you know about that together with a possible solution for the problem. But first let me show exactly how to make Bacon Jam together with what I’ve decided is the perfect recipe.

How to Get More of Your Favorite Fast Food for Less (Even Free)

In these days of rising food prices it’s fun to keep a bevy of money-saving tips and tricks up your sleeve. You won’t need a coupon a code or even a private word with the manager on duty to take advantage of these little-known hacks—all perfectly legal, morally ethical, too. As for the quality, nutritional value and taste for what follows? That’s where you’re on your own.

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CHIPOTLE

As fast food goes, it’s hard to beat Chipotle Mexican Grill. The food is fresh and quite tasty. Now boasting 1,142 locations throughout the U.S. and one (so far) in Canada, Chipotle is, in the opinion of your humble columnist, as good as it gets. Here are a couple of ways to make it even better.

Nachos. It’s not on the menu, but it’s easy to get nachos at Chipotle. Just order a burrito bowl and then ask if you can get chips instead of rice at the bottom. No extra charge.

Double-wrap. If you want a sturdier burrito, ask for two tortilla shells when you give your burrito order. Fans of this method say it keeps the burrito from bursting, which can be a problem with a well-packed Chipotle burrito. No additional charge.

This Year’s Homemade Holiday Gift: A Preview

A couple of weeks ago on the very same day I heard from two friends (you know who you are Andrea and Carolyn) letting me know that they’d made perfect homemade Christmas gifts of Homemade Madagascar Vanilla, and to rave reviews! Of course, I ate up all the love and great feedback. But I wasn’t surprised. I keep a big bottle of the stuff in my pantry and reach for it several times a week. It is amazing. And as a gift, homemade pure vanilla extract is elegant, unique, and simply lovely.

If you’re thinking of making gifts this holiday season, you’ll find complete instructions, links and labeling ideas below. Check the calendar and you’ll see that you have no time to waste. This high-quality pure vanilla extract requires time to brew.” But first, I want to let you know about the homemade gift I am auditioning for this coming holiday season.

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Slightly more complicated to make than Madagascar Vanilla Extract (which is ridiculously easy), I’m almost certain this year’s Bacon Onion Jam is going to hit it out of the ballpark. I’m still refining the recipe, figuring out costs and searching for the best resources for the ingredients plus jars and labels.

Pressure Cookers are Back Safer than Ever

Pressure cookers, those big monster pots we recall from childhood, are making a big comeback, and bringing good news with them: They are not the spitting, noisy, steam generators they once were. Modern improvements have made pressure cookers as safe and easy to use as slow cookers, but with decided advantages.

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To understand what a pressure cooker is, think of a pot that you use on the stovetop that has a locking lid. When the liquid inside boils, it is trapped. The steam that is generated builds up pressure creating a higher cooking temperature and shorter cooking time. The pressure is measured in PSI (pounds of force per square inch), a term you’ll find in pressure cooker recipes.

Pressure cookers have a gasket or rubber ring that creates a seal, which, for safety reasons, is essential. Safety valves that automatically release pressure if it builds too high, and safety lids that are impossible to open until the pressure has reduced are huge improvements over old models from yesteryear.

Pressure cooking has so many advantages that you might wonder how you ever lived without one once you give it a try.

Become a Kitchen Magician with Leftovers

Famed chef Julia Child preferred to call them “remains of the day.” To the rest of us, they’re just leftovers. It’s a term that can mean anything from half a pan of lasagna to a dab of mashed potatoes that sit in the fridge until they turn green, at which time we feel a lot better about throwing them away. These days, that’s like throwing cash in the garbage.

photo credit: grubstreet

photo credit: grubstreet

The secret to stretching the food dollars is to find a delicious use for every last bit of what you buy. You need to see all leftovers as ingredients for new dishes, not just multiple go-rounds of the same thing in an effort to get rid of it. Here are some ideas that have helped me to see leftovers in a new way:

COFFEE. Freeze leftover coffee in cubes to cool off hot coffee. Add black coffee to pot roast to create rich, brown gravy.

HALLOWEEN OR EASTER CANDY. Take all the chocolate candy and break it up into little pieces. Place the pieces into a zip-type bag. Many recipes call for a cup to a cup and a half of chocolate morsels. Use these to replace the morsels. Freeze until ready to use.

COOKED HAM. Brown the last bits of cooked ham in a small amount of butter or margarine in a skillet. Beat a few eggs with water or milk and grated cheese, if desired. Pour scrambled egg mixture into skillet with ham. Cook, as usual, over low heat.

Another option for ham is to thread chunks of it onto skewers, alternating with fresh pineapple chunks and squares of sweet red or green bell pepper. Brush kebabs with butter and grill until browned. Serve with rice and fresh asparagus.

Join a CSA for Your Health and Your Wealth

Being a savvy consumer can mean a lot of things. It can refer to a person who knows how to get the lowest price on whatever he or she is buying. It can also mean finding the best value—the highest quality product for the most reasonable price. Or, it can refer to someone who shops ethically, according to his or her values.

photo credit: GoodEarthFarm.net

photo credit: GoodEarthFarm.net

However you define “savvy consumer,” becoming one requires research and education about the products that you buy according to your individual priorities. When it comes to shopping for food, today’s savvy consumers know where their food comes from, and, if they do things right, they save money, too.

While stories of contaminated goods permeate the news, the locally grown food movement has been gaining momentum. At the same time, the high cost of food is challenging all of us to find new ways to cut costs without sacrificing healthy eating..

Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are popping up all over the country. Through a CSA, consumers can choose to buy shares in a local farm and then receive portions of the farm’s produce once it is harvested. In some areas, CSAs have become so popular that there are waiting lists to join.

Go local. Food that has not been genetically altered, harvested prematurely or infused with chemicals to be able to withstand a 1,000 mile or longer journey from the farm to your table tastes better. Members of CSAs tend to eat seasonally. And they eat very fresh produce, which has been proven to be much more nutritious.

How to Bring Back Applebee’s® Crispy Orange Skillet

Not long ago I got a desperate message from C. J. Coffman who lives in Michigan. It seems that he and his family are crazy about a certain item that mysteriously disappeared from the Applebee’s® menu a couple of years ago—Crispy Orange Skillet.

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Coffman is not the first reader I’ve heard from about this turn of events. Early on, readers wanted to know how to make this entree themselves, as it could become pricey to eat out as often as their cravings dictated. But then a couple of years ago, this hugely popular dish just up and disappeared from the menu! Applebee’s response continues to be that they appreciate customers’ feedback, but that they make changes to their menus from time to time and we never know when favorites will make a come back.

Coffman closed his letter by telling me what a big fan he is of this column, which was a good move on his part. I’m not above a little flattery from time to time.

Movie Night: A Poppin’ Good Time!

If you love popcorn (who doesn’t?) you might be interested to know that the typical American consumes 68 quarts of the stuff every year.

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If you mostly eat concession stand movie popcorn, those 68 quarts are costing a bundle. To get a handle on that cost without giving up the joy, why not have more at-home movie nights (your local public library is likely to have all kinds of movies on DVD you can borrow for cheap or even free) when you make your own popcorn? Add a little variety to your popcorn and you might find it not only cheaper, but better to stay home now and then.

Kettle Corn

  • 1/2 cup un-popped popcorn kernels
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Place the popcorn, sugar and salt in a large pot with vegetable oil. Cover then place over medium heat. When you hear the first pop, shake the pot and continue shaking back and forth to ensure that the popcorn kernels and oil do not burn. Once the popping has slowed, remove the pot from heat. Servings: 5.