Elegant Food Gifts That Require No Baking
Starring Sugar, Salt, Vinegar, Oil
Chef Ouita Michel developed this amazing list of easily prepared food gifts for the December 15, 2015 episode of Hot Water Cornbread: Kentucky Food Radio.
Packaging note: Use clean small bottles you have saved from other uses, or buy inexpensive cases of canning jars from grocery stores. Fancier bottles are available online and at large home goods or department stores. In Lexington, Kentucky, Good Foods Coop sells high quality spices in a bulk section for extraordinarily affordable prices.
Infused Sugar Syrups. Mix sugar, sorghum or honey in a 1:1 ratio with water (so, one cup sugar, one cup water, for example.) Warm the mixture a bit and add herbs like rosemary or mint, fruits like lemon or apricots, or savories like chili peppers. Let stand until completely cool; overnight is good. Strain into clean jars or bottles. Serve in drinks of all kinds, hot or cold. Pour over yogurt, ice cream, pound cake, or roast meats or vegetables.
Lemon Confit. Wash and thinly slice 6 lemons; remove seeds. Arrange the lemons in layers in a glass baking dish. Make a simple syrup, 1:1 ratio, equal parts sugar and water. Pour over the sliced lemons. You can add other aromatics at this point: rosemary, lavender, etc. Cover with foil and cook in a very low oven, about 200 degrees, for about 2 hours or until the lemons are very tender but have not lost their pale color. This is also great when made with oranges. Use the syrup and the slices of lemon as well over fish, on pound cake, on roast beets, and (sparingly) in salads.
Chai Tea Syrup. Ingredients: 12 crushed cardamom pods, 5 cinnamon sticks, 8 peppercorns, 10 cloves, 1 piece of ginger, 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, 5 cups water, 2 star anise, 1/2 tsp. ground allspice, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/2 cup honey or sugar, 10 black tea bags. Combine all the spices and the water and sugar. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the tea bags and steep until cool. Strain and cool. To use, add to hot or cold milk.
Sugar Cubes. Use either little candy molds (available from craft stores) or a small square glass pan. The ratio is fixed: 1/4 cup sugar to 1/2 teaspoon of water or liquid. You can use bitters, rosewater, orange blossom water, or a little food coloring all in the water if you like- but the total liquid measure cannot exceed the ratio of 1/2 teaspoon liquid per 1/4 cup sugar. Combine the sugar and liquid well. Sugar will only feel damp. Press into molds or into the small pan. If using the pan, use a knife to score the damp sugar into squares or diamonds as soon as you press it into the pan. Dry in open air over night. Then pop the cubes out of their molds or finish cutting the squares.
Vinegar makes both delicious food and a safe, effective, inexpensive cleaning product. Consider pairing a tasty orange vinegar (using the pulp of the orange) with an orange vinegar for cleaning that makes good use of the outside peels.
Infused Vinegars. Ingredients: 2 cups white vinegar—either distilled white, cider, rice or white wine; 5-6 sprigs of your favorite herb; Ouita's are tarragon, rosemary, a clove of garlic. Heat vinegar gently until it is nicely warm to the touch, about 105 - 155 degrees F. Add the herbs. Infuse for 2-3 days. Strain into a new bottle and add a fresh sprig for looks if you like.
Orange Vinegar as a flavoring agent. Peel away all skin and outside pith from two oranges—blood oranges are great. (Save the peels for the cleaner, below.) Puree the orange pulp in a food processor. Add one tablespoon orange juice concentrate. Strain. Combine with 1/3 cup white wine vinegar. Reduce gently by half on the stove until lightly thickened. Cool and bottle.
Orange Vinegar as a cleaner. Ingredients: white Vinegar, left over orange peels. Pack a jar full of your orange peels. Cover with white vinegar and let sit 2-3 days, and then bottle it.
Infused Oils. The basic method is to warm the oil gently, just until it feels hot to your touch, and add your infusible ingredients. Let steep over night and strain through a coffee filter or cheese cloth. For Annatto Chili Oil, use 2 cups salad oil, 1/4 cup annatto seeds, 1 Tablespoon cumin seed, 1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper or a couple of your favorite dried chili peppers. Chipotles are great!
Hot and Spicy Asian Style Oil. Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups light oil such as Canola, 5 star anise, 2 bay leaves, 3 Tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns, 3/4 cup Szchuan pepper flakes, 1 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer the star anise, bay leaf and peppercorns together in the oil. Strain into the chili flakes and salt. Let sit and do not strain further. Bottle it in clean jars.
Infused Salts. Citrus Salt Ingredients: 2 cups sea salt, or just a regular salt is fine. Use a vegetable peeler to and remove the zests—outer skins—of one lemon, one lime and one orange. Combine the zests with the salt in a glass baking pan. Bake at a very low temperature, around 200 degrees, in the oven for two hours or so. Let cool. Blend together in a spice grinder or blender. Bottle in small, clean jars.
Other Infused Salts. Rosemary salt, Szechaun salt, cumin salt, rye salt and more all follow this same basic method: lightlytoast the salt and the ingredients together in a clean skillet. Grind in a spice grinder. Ouita's grandmother's secret spice mix for everything: equal parts, salt, black pepper and granulated garlic.