What Gives? Tracy’s Guide to Last-Minute Gifts

Isn’t it great to be done with your shopping in plenty of time? You can sit by the fireplace, relax, and sip a mulled something-or-another? Wait, what? You’re NOT done? Well have no fear, I can help. But first, understand that there are a three levels to this problem; the key is knowing which level you’re in.

Yellow-Level Alert: You’re here if you still have a day or so to whip together a gift. You have time to make and/or pick up something, though it’s got to be quick.

Orange-Level Alert: You’re here if you have just a few hours, as in: my aunt is coming over this evening and I’m thinking I should have gotten her something! If this is you, then all you really need are a few basic supplies either from home or the nearest grocery store to turn out a great gift with a homemade touch.

Red-Level Alert: You’re here if your aunt is standing in the next room, she's already given you a beautiful gift; and you have nothing to give her in return. Never fear. You’ve got Internet access? You’ve got options. Even at this level of urgency.

Read on for gift suggestions appropriate for whichever level you find yourself in.

Yellow Alert

•    Find a favorite recipe that you’d like to share, then copy it onto a recipe card. (Here are some nice ones that that you can print on cardstock at home). Then hit the co-op or grocery store for ingredients. If you have a great spaghetti sauce recipe, then buy dried pasta noodles, cans of tomatoes, nice jars of dried oregano and red pepper flakes. Place everything in a metal colander lined with a simple kitchen towel (vintage would be cool) and tie on a bow. Dinner inspiration!

•    With a day or two to let ingredients comingle, stir together some easy seasoned salts. The possibilities are virtually limitless here. Start with coarse, inexpensive kosher salt and then add flavorings. If you like Italian, add oregano, red pepper flakes, and basil. Greek? Oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg. Or, for a nice blend to mix with olive oil for bread dipping, combine rosemary, grated lemon peel, and red pepper flakes. You get the idea. Make large batches and put into glass jars or tins, then make a label that includes ingredients and suggested uses, such as “mix with room temperature butter to spread on a baguette and broil,” or “add to olive oil for dipping,” or "generously apply to beef before searing.”

•    This is the time to hit Penzey’s (two locations in the Twin Cities: Uptown and St. Paul) for an assortment of spices. You don’t necessarily need to do the pre-packaged gifts (though these can be wonderfully impressive). Just pick up one, two or all three of my favorites: Sunny Paris, saffron, and a good pepper blend. These spices can be a tad spendy, so most folks consider them a luxury that they wouldn't usually buy for themselves. But these are three amazingly flexible, a-little-goes-a-long-way ingredients to have in your kitchen – for the "seasoned" cook and the novice alike.

Orange Alert

•    In under an hour, you can whip together a quick batch of simple syrup. Why? Syrups are great for sweetening cold beverages, drizzling over cakes, using as a simple glaze for fresh fruit, or amping up a favorite martini. Some flavors I would suggest are orange or lemon (use a vegetable peeler to scrape thin slices of clean peel from the fruit, and don’t get the white pith); vanilla bean (use real beans, halved lengthwise, and scraped of seeds – it all goes into the syrup); or any one or a combination of peeled, fresh ginger or handfuls of herbs, such as mint leaves, thyme or basil. In general, put two parts sugar and one part water into a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until dissolved and a few bubbles start rising to the surface. You don’t need to get this to a full boil. Add your chosen flavoring, turn off heat, and let steep for 30 minutes or so – longer if you have time. Strain into a clean glass jar (the vanilla syrup will still have the beautiful, telltale black flecks floating in it; this is a good thing). Add ½ ounce of plain vodka as a preservative and keep in the fridge. (May I suggest this extra-special concoction: pear vodka, vanilla simple syrup, and a squeeze of lemon juice, topped with a bit of champagne. I’m just sayin’.)

•    Let’s face it, spiced nuts are a simple thing to throw together. But depending on the recipe, this may require some kitchen time. So for a last-minute gift, I’d advise against trying to bake your own. Instead, customize a version from store-bought ingredients. General proportions? Two roasted, salted nuts plus one roasted, seasoned nut plus one dried fruit. My favorite recipe goes like this: buy roughly equal amounts of: cashew pieces, Marcona almonds, and some sort of spiced or seasoned nut. For this last bit, I like to stick with a single nut (versus a mixed-nut version) so you can control the quality of the final product. I love a balsamic or tamari roasted almond, or a hotly spiced pecan. Then add another part of dried cherries or cranberries and shake together. If the nuts are already well-seasoned, you may not need to add anything else. Otherwise, give it a sprinkle of cumin for a smoky flavor or cayenne for some additional heat. Shake well to combine. Divvy up into favor bags or even Ziploc bags. Add stick-on gift labels and stop feeling guilty for waiting so long to shop.

Red Alert

Fast and easy is what you need at this level. Here are four ideas you don’t even have to leave the house for.

•    Quick! Print a gift certificate at Storm Sister for cool earth- and skin-friendly bath products; Juut for a massage; Amazon for a Kindle or a book; or maybe Nordstrom for some cozy boots. These are available online and can be printed out, stuffed into a pretty envelope or gift bag, and made to appear as if they’d existed all along. (Why more retailers don’t make this option available, I don’t know!)

•    Make a donation to Kiva in the recipient’s name. Kiva is a micro-lending organization that you can feel great about supporting. You choose the amount and complete the transaction. The recipient hops online later and chooses a business or person he or she wants to lend to. The loans are repaid over time and then the gift recipient can choose another worthy cause to support. It’s a beautiful circle to improve the livelihood of well-deserving people who need a little help getting started. The stories are absolutely awe-inspiring.

•    Register for a cooking class. Kitchen Window and Cooks of Crocus Hill, to name two, offer online registration for a wide variety of cooking classes. Register both yourself and the gift recipient, print a description of the class, throw in an IOU for dinner, and you’ve got a fun evening that’s a gift for both of you.

•    Speaking of IOUs… if used wisely, IOUs can be your last-ditch option for red-alert gift giving. But you’ve got to do them right: (1) they must come from the heart; (2) they must be given proper creative attention; (3) they must be customized so that they don’t look generic or impersonal. Here’s a perfect example, recently given to me by a good friend: an IOU for a half-pound of tea at Tea Source (our favorite place to sit, chat and sip tea) and an IOU for an afternoon to share with her. Perfect! Another example is a recipe card for the recipient’s favorite meal, along with an IOU for preparing it together. He or she gets the food, the recipe, and your company, all in one fell swoop! So even if you didn’t buy ahead, you can still give a thoughtful and meaningful gift.

See, even without that 4pm December 24th run to the mall (you know who you are), you can recover from your shopping procrastination. Now, good luck and happy gifting. And be careful out there!

Tracy Morgan is a Twin Cities foodie and the owner of Segnavia Creative, a marketing services consulting company located in St. Paul, MN.