It's the day before Christmas, and you're desperate. I've culled past gift guides for a few last-minute presents that would make great gifts. Most are promises for the future - but then anticipation is one of life's great pleasures.
Kishus from Ojai
The Kishus are coming. Soon.
Alice Waters introduced me to these tiny tangerines, which carry a little sunshine into the cold winter world. I can’t think of anything more fun than bringing out a handful (yes they’re that tiny) and watching a child’s delight in the sweet juicy fruit.
The season is very short – just a few weeks in January – but you can sign up to be alerted when they start shipping. If you’re wracking your brain for a last minute gift, this is a wonderful one. It’s a few weeks away, but your friends will thank you each time they peel a tangerine and experience that deep, golden flavor.
Artisanal Soy Sauce
Nobody goes out and spends twenty bucks on a bottle of soy sauce. At least too few people do. Which makes this a perfect gift opportunity.
Artisanal soy sauce is one of those magic elixirs that makes everything taste better. If you’ve never had it, you won’t believe how different it can be from the commercial kind. (And if all you’ve ever tasted is the really cheap supermarket soy sauce that is basically caramelized water, you have a real revelation ahead of you. Just the jump from that to, say, Kikkoman, is huge. The leap into one of the hand-made brands is another enormous step forward.)
You can buy a few different brands of fine soy sauce from Corti Brothers in Sacramento. You can buy it other places as well, but when you go to the Corti Brothers website you can also download the most opinionated, illuminating and interesting newsletter in the business. I learn something every time I read one of Darrell Corti's entries. That's another great gift – and it’s free.
Rare and Wonderful Balsamic Vinegar
One of the first theories of gift-giving is to offer your friends the indulgences you most covet but feel guilty about buying for yourself. Great aged balsamic vinegar definitely falls into that category. I love it, find it endlessly useful in the kitchen – and am always reluctant to spend the money for the best.
Buying it for friends is another matter. It is, I think, a perfect gift. Choosing which one to buy is a constant problem, but here is a suggestion. Aceto Balsamico of Monticello is a wonderful elixir, with deep, concentrated flavor. (And this year's is the best ever.) Organic and hand-made, it is aged in Italian casks for thirteen years. It is rare – only a thousand bottles are sold each year. And – here’s the amazing thing – it is made in New Mexico. Paul Bertolli of Fra' Mani first told me about it, and I am forever in his debt.
This is, obviously, a present for someone you really care about. But if they dole it out the way that I do, a drop here, a drop there, it will last all year. And they’ll think of you each time they taste the mysteriously deep, dense flavor.
Salted Caramel Bourbon Sauce
Got ten minutes? Then you can make this terrific sauce that requires nothing obscure in the way of ingredients. (If you have no Bourbon, you can substitute Scotch, Cognac or Armagnac - or simply leave it out altogether. )
One suggestion: Before you begin, read David Leibowitz’s wonderful post on making caramel,here. Caramel can be tricky, and it will save you a lot of trouble down the line.
And another: Use a larger pot than you think you'll need. I use a 5 1/2 quart casserole. Trust me - it makes everything easier.
Cut 3/4 of a stick of the best butter you can get your hands on into small pieces and put that next to the stove. Let half a cup of heavy cream come to room temperature. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of Bourbon. Now pour a cup of sugar in an even layer into a large, heavy, light-colored pot and watch it melt over moderate heat. When it begins to liquify around the edges, begin stirring with a spatula, watching carefully. When it is completely liquid, has turned a deep copper color, and is just on the edge of smoking, stir in the butter until it is completely incorporated into the sugar. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream mixture. It will hiss and sizzle and generally act nasty. Ignore it - this is the nature of caramel - and whisk until you have a smooth sauce. Add a generous quarter teaspoon of coarse salt (or a bit more if you've used unsalted butter).
This is great on just about everything, and it will keep for a month or so in the refrigerator. (Rewarm the sauce in the microwave for a minute before serving.) Divided into half cup portions and poured into pretty jars, it will make three friends very happy.
And last but not least.....A hard to find and very seductive brandy
It was pretty much love at first whiff. The first time I tasted this aged, plum brandy the aroma came surging toward me out of the glass. It was so mellow that I imagined a crackling fire, violins playing, a cashmere hug. I folded my hands around the glass and the aroma lingered, still seducing me with its perfume long after the liquor itself had vanished.
I love cooking with Vieille Prune; add it to apple sauce, or chicken liver pate, or just toss a drop into a ragu – and whatever you’re making becomes softer, rounder, more appealing.
For years you couldn’t buy Vieille Prune in America, and I faithfully brought bottles back from France for my friends. I usually bought mine at La Maison de la Truffe in Paris, because I loved the old-fashioned writing on the label. This wonderful liquor is still shockingly rare in the United States – and isn’t that one reason to offer it as a gift? – but I’ve found a source in California. If anyone knows another place to buy Vieille Prune, I’d still love to know about it.