Simple Art of Cooking: Give the Gift of Homemade Goodness

Tapenade. Photo credit: Berenguier Duncan

“Imagination, creativity and good food are never far apart.”

My friend Judy loves to knit, and her colorful scarves are gifts from her hands and her heart. Her passion reminds me of my love of cooking, especially during the holidays.

Spiced pecans are much loved, and a generous batch makes a great holiday gift. Do-ahead tapenades, such as olive, anchovy or garlic herb mix make tasty hors d’oeuvres, served with crostini or your favorite mix of crackers. Spoon the tapenade into pretty glass jars wrapped in festive ribbons and bows. Nothing spells holiday like homemade from you. Have a blessed and very happy holiday.

Prepare these sugar-spiced nuts for entertaining, or a gift from your kitchen.

Yield: 4 cups spiced nuts

4 cups pecan or walnut halves
1 3/4 cups turbinado sugar
3 3/4 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 to 8 tablespoons heavy cream
2 to 3 generous dashes of cayenne

Preheat oven to 350°F.

1. Spread pecan halves on a cookie sheet and toast for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

2. Place remaining ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to the edge of a rolling boil, adjust heat then cook at a brisk simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. Add the nuts and stir to coat evenly in the syrup for a minute or two.

3. Transfer nuts one-layer deep to a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Allow to cool completely. Heap the prepared nuts into a small bowl or use as a garnish on a salad. Can be prepared up to a week ahead and stored in a cookie tin lined with wax paper. Spiced pecans make a great holiday gift.

Garlic spread that is perfect for entertaining can be prepared in advance and whipped out of the fridge for a quick appetizer.  

Yield: 1/2-cup purée

2 large bulbs garlic, broken into cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh marjoram
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
Pita toast wedges or crackers for serving.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

1. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves in a mixing bowl and pour the oil over it. Toss to mix, then transfer to a small baking sheet and top with rosemary. Bake in preheated oven until tender, about 35 minutes. Peel the cloves while still warm and discard the rosemary. Allow garlic to cool.

2. Place roasted garlic cloves in food processor fitted with knife blade or a blender with oil remaining in baking pan, then add thyme, marjoram, tarragon, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Process or blend until a smooth purée. Taste to adjust seasoning if necessary and refrigerate in a suitable container until ready to serve. Serve from an attractive bowl on a platter, garnished with snipped chives and surrounded with pita toasts or crackers.

Whip up this classic tapenade to serve on crusty slices of French or Italian bread for a delicious do-ahead party appetizer.

Yield: about 1 cup

4 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups oil-cured black olives, pitted

1. Place anchovies, capers, lemon juice, garlic, thyme or oregano, dry mustard and pepper in work bowl of food processor fitted with knife blade and process just until blended. Pour oil through opening in feed tube in a slow, steady stream. Add pitted olives and pulse several times, until mixture is a bit chunky.

2. With a rubber spatula scrape into a serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate up to one week until ready to serve. Serve with crostini or crackers.

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