It's been a rough year for Santa.
He's underwater on the mortgage on his North Pole digs, and Mrs. Claus had to take a job at Walmart to make ends meet. He laid off 20 percent of his elves because of slack demand for toys and outsourced his gift fulfillment department to India. His sleigh needs new runners but he can't afford to replace them, and he's still paying off last year's dry-cleaning tab to get all that chimney soot out of his uniform.
Then Donner and Blitzen got sick, and because his insurance carrier raised its rates three times in the last year (Thanks, Barry!), he had to cancel the reindeers' health insurance. So now he's got six reindeer to do the work of eight, and they're pretty pissed off about it. But what are they going to do? A job's a job.
It's been a rough year for the rest of us too. But by pinching pennies and scavenging dimes and nickels from underneath the sofa cushions, we can probably scrape together enough loot to spread a little Christmas cheer in the direction of our favorite Person of the Food Persuasion. And do leave some milk and cookies out for Santa, though frankly he'd prefer Wagyu ribeye and a bottle of good Bordeaux.
Tuscany Blend, The Spice and Tea Exchange,
1 oz./$4.29. Most commercial spice mixes are an abomination, but this
mélange of powdered herbs, garlic, onion and assorted spices is one of
the easiest ways I know to add life to anything from vinaigrettes to the
ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Toasted Spice Rub, Napastyle,
4.2 oz./$8.50. The only other spice mix I allow in my pantry
(Napastyle's Fennel Spice Rub is there too but it's on back order) is
this sweet-smoky-spicy blend of fennel, coriander, peppercorns,
cinnamon, pepper flakes and chili powder. Great on chicken and pork.
San Marzano Tomatoes.
Publix, 28 oz./$3.49. What foie gras is to chicken livers, canned whole
tomatoes from the volcanic soil of San Marzano, Italy, are to the icky
red stuff commonly sold at your local megagiantsupermarket. Just be sure
to get the real thing, not San Marzano-style tomatoes.
Dulcet Moroccan Mustard.
Whole Foods Market, 7 oz/$4.50. As a certified mustard junkie, this
wickedly piquant mustard that practically explodes with Moroccan spices
is my new go-to condiment. It makes even an ordinary ham 'n' cheese
sammie a real treat or try mixing it into chicken or tuna salad.
Pineapple-Mango Jam, Sarabeth's Kitchen,
18 oz./$10. You'll never buy grape jelly again after tasting this
sweet-tangy blend of tropical fruits that's just as good as a glaze on
ham or pork as it is on your breakfast toast. It's also available in
smaller sizes at Whole Foods and Carmine's Gourmet Market.
Carnaroli Rice, Riso di Molinella,
2.2 lbs./$6.99. Arborio rice is the variety of rice most frequently
recommended for making risotto, but I prefer Carnaroli, whose abundant
starch produces a risotto so decadently rich and creamy you'd swear it
was loaded with cream and butter.
Heirloom Beans, Rancho Gordo,
1 lb./$4.95 to $5.95. Here's the gift for your vegetarian friends.
You'll be amazed at the difference in quality and freshness of these
beans compared to the usual grocery store variety. My favorites are the
cannellini, flageolet and borlotti. But they're all good.
Truffle Oil, JR Mushrooms & Specialties,
1.86 oz./$9.92. It's become fashionable to diss truffle oil in hoity
foodie circles lately, and when overdone it can be pretty cloying. But a
drizzle of truffle oil on garlic bread or over sautéed mushrooms or
especially on home-made mac 'n' cheese. . . No flies on that.
Bittersweet Smoked Paprika, La Chinata,
5 oz./$9.95. If you want to add a haunting, exotic flavor to foods that
tastes familiar. . . but then doesn't, this Spanish product packs a lot
of punch for a little money. Use it to season beef or pork, or add it
to a lemon vinaigrette and brush it on grilled shrimp or scallops.
Achiote paste, El Yucateco,
15 oz./$7.99. A staple of Mexican marinades, this blend of ground
annatto seeds, tomatoes and spices adds a flavor to all sorts of foods
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that cannot be duplicated. Mix a spoonful with orange juice, garlic,
oregano and oil as a marinade for grilled chicken or fish.