In this post I’m going to talk a little about gifts and maybe throw in a few money-saving tips.
There are times in my life when I realise how incredibly lucky I am to have had certain things in my childhood. I’m pretty sure I’ll always have a love affair with food, but it’s not until recently that I’ve really had my eyes opened to the eating habits of others. For so many years I’ve taken for granted that I learned how to cook at my mother’s, and later my brother’s, side. I assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that everyone learned in this way. I also didn’t realise how special my family’s tastes are. With a mother that grew up in South Africa before braving the middle east alone and a father who had also travelled extensively as a young man, we grew up eating all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. We knew all about falafel before they became trendy. Holidays to Europe would involve gorging on baclava and cassoulet, trying the local dishes and wines with glorious abandon. We ate sosaties and bobotie. We tried ostrich, crocodile, kangaroo…most of these before and during my early teens. We never had a fear of seafood like some people.
When it comes to gifts, if you are a cook there are a lot of wonderful things you can do for those that can’t. Often the provision of a birthday cake is of more value to the recipient than the purchasing of a more expensive gift. I don’t think you can underestimate how much people appreciate the fact that you’ve given them your time and effort rather than simply shelling out cash. It means more. An alternative is to make a batch of mini Christmas puddings in October when you’re making your family pudding and give those as Christmas gifts. For Easter, flapjacks are incredibly easy and cheap to make and all you have to do is press a mini egg into the top of each square while it’s still warm and soft from the oven.
Chutneys, pickles, jams and reserves are a lovely and simple thing to do, especially at Christmas. My family are big on cheese. We love it and will eat it at most special occasions. You will never walk past a Spicer fridge or cheese hutch that doesn’t have a selection of at least 3 cheeses in it. Actually the fact that some of us have cheese hutches probably says more about us than the actual selection of cheese… A trio of chutneys and/or pickles as a simple Christmas gift is really nice. Caramelised onion chutney, beetroot chutney and possibly a fruit chutney of some sort (damson…mmm) would be a sensible starting place. The advantage of making these yourself at home is that they are easy to make in bulk and the ingredients (fruit/vegetable, vinegar, spices and sugar) are relatively inexpensive to buy. Chutneys and pickles will last an awful long time if they are stored correctly, so making one batch in the run up to Christmas will set you up for the year, as well as providing several gifts to give away.
If you are the kind of person that really believes in grass-roots living and cutting of the carbon footprint, make it seasonal. Make preserves all year round and it doesn’t have to be expensive. A trip out with the family to collect elderflowers and blackberries from local parks will set you up with the makings of cordials, jams and even wines, with the added benefit of being some fun time out with the family. When we were living in Suffolk, wild mushrooms grew all around our area. They made the most amazing cooked breakfasts! For a little more information on foraging, check out this article by The Ecologist:
It’s easier than you’d think. It’s healthy, it’s free and it’s greener living. There are several places that actually run foraging courses. My father and I attended a mushroom foraging course at Thetford forest one year and had a great time. I’d strongly advise you to take a course if you do intend to pick wild mushrooms as some can be poisonous. If you are in any doubt, stick to foraging other things.
One final note in relation to this is that it’s a good idea to scour the sale items at your supermarket. The fruit and vegetables are usually perfectly serviceable and when you’re boiling them up with strong flavours, they don’t need to be in prime condition. In fact, being extremely ripe is a good thing in many circumstances. Pineapple jam, for instance. Unusual, quirky and totally delicious.
The secret to quick and easy gifts is keeping jars. We all use them, we buy various foodstuffs in them and then most of us recycle them. Start keeping them – coffee jars, jam jars, those pots you get sea salt or anchovies in…keep them all. Keep off-cuts of ribbon or fabric throughout the year. Many of you won’t be crafting people, but you’re over-looking the less obvious offcuts. How many of us cut those irritating loops out of the shoulders of our tops and chuck them away? Have you ever actually looked at them? They’re usually made of fine ribbon in an array of bright colours, in lengths that are perfect to tie around a small bottle or jar. If you get a present for your birthday with a nice shiny ribbon on, it doesn’t matter that part of it is knotted. You can still salvage some of it towards your Christmas gifts. When it comes to labels, I tend to recycle the cards I’ve been given. Most people don’t write on the inside of the front cover, so cut around whatever image is on the front of the card and use that for your tag.
If you’re not a cook, chances are you probably know people that aren’t either. Cake mixes with personalised labels are a great gift and they fit perfectly in coffee jars. The other nice thing to put them in is the old fashioned syrup tins. We always had one in our cupboard because we ate it on waffles all the time. If you are going to make up a cake mix to give as a gift, I’d recommend starting with a decent brownie or muffin mix as they tend to involve putting everything in a bowl and stirring, so it doesn’t matter that the dry ingredients are already mixed. It’s a little less daunting for non-cooks to get pre-weighed out ingredients with a cute label that says “add x eggs and x ml of water and bake at xxx degrees for fifteen minutes.” Use off-cuts of ribbon or fabric and cut out squares of wrapping paper to make your labels to give them that little touch of glamour. The other advantage of this is that the cakes they make are wholesome and natural, unlike many bought cakes and packet mixes which are loaded with e numbers and preservatives.
Last year I made my own vanilla extract. It’s a luxury item to buy. The high quality stuff is about five or six pounds for a 250ml bottle, which is incredibly expensive. I had no idea that it was so simple to make. All you need is time, vodka and vanilla pods. I bought a high quality branded vodka for the sole reason that it was on sale at two thirds off. For a litre bottle, I used 15 vanilla pods and after approximately 8 weeks of shaking and storage in the wardrobe, it was ready to use. I have used it in cooking, in drinks and even in some of my homemade cosmetics. The vanilla and coconut body scrub is AWESOME. Giving away small bottles of it as part of homemade food hampers or parcels is a really nice thing to do, especially if you know someone who is a cook and will appreciate a fine quality ingredient. I found a tutorial to show you how to make it. I didn’t cut my pods into sections, I split them down the middle, but the principle is the same. See here:
Now I can hear you shrieking that 15 vanilla pods is a massive capital investment, but it’s actually not. Totally aside from the fact that the extract will never go off and a litre will last you about ten years if you don’t give any away, you need to get savvy about purchasing herbs and spices. The average vanilla pod at a supermarket will cost you a pound each. They’re an expensive commodity to buy at regular stores and what you get is not always the highest quality. When I was researching making the extract, I was advised to purchase on Amazon. I thought that was a little crazy, but took the leap of faith and did it anyway. I purchased 20 premium luxury madagascan vanilla pods for £6.50. When they arrived I couldn’t believe the quality of them. The smell was just extraordinary and at less than half the price of supermarket pods, I will never purchase them anywhere other than Amazon again.
People often make the mistake of assuming that the racks of neat little herb and spice jars at the supermarket are the only way to buy them. What they don’t realise is that most supermarkets (not all, but a lot) have larger bulk stocks that are usually hidden away in the ethnic food aisles and wholefood aisles at a fraction of the cost. Go investigating and you’ll be surprised at what you find. If you have siblings or friends that cook, it’s worth asking around to see if any of them want to pool with you on the purchasing of dried herbs and spices in bulk. If you can purchase them wholesale and split the cost even three ways, it’ll save you a fortune. It seems like a bizarre idea, but we all know that there are some herbs and spices you find in every kitchen. If you can car pool, why can’t you herb pool? To buy them alone, they’re an expensive but vital commodity to any kitchen.
With regard to fresh herbs, clearly the best way to save money is to grow them. If, however, you are like me and don’t have green fingers, it leaves you in an awkward position. I can’t even keep a Jerusalem Rose alive and they only have to be watered once every 50 years. There are some ways to deal with this. I have some silicone ice cube trays, although any old ice cube tray will do, and I use them to store fresh herbs and pesto in easy single serving portions in the freezer. If you can buy fresh herbs when they’re on sale, or you have some left over after cooking a specific recipe, either freeze them whole in a sealed bag or mash them in a food processor with a little oil to make a thick herb paste and freeze them in your ice cube trays REMEMBERING TO LABEL THEM. When you’re ready to cook, you can just pop them straight out into sauces, or leave them in a small saucer to defrost first. I also store my pesto this way – I was fed up of it going mouldy before I’d managed to eat the whole jar. I freeze both red and green pesto. You can also store garlic in this way, although I double wrap garlic to keep it from tainting other food in the freezer. I don’t think it would make great ice cream! I haven’t attempted the storage of tomato puree in this way, but I can imagine it would be fine.
Here’s a post on freezing herbs. Scroll all the way down to the bottom because they have some lovely ideas about freezing herbs for drinks. I think fresh strawberry, cucumber and mint ice cubes would be outrageously good in summer barbeque drinks!
So I hope that’s given you a few ideas, even towards cutting costs in relation to labelling presents. The next Giftbox Kitchen post will be about fun things for kids in the kitchen.