Ok – Christmas is just a few days away – and if you find yourself, like I do, a bit overwhelmed and wishing you could have accomplished more, but are thinking now is now and here we are – never fear! I am here to throw some gas on the fire! No, no – I mean, alleviate your stress by giving you some ideas for easy-to-make really cool last-minute gifts from your garden and kitchen.
The truth is, I started this blog post back in November when there was still plenty of time to get my act together. But things have a way of becoming a blur between late October and the New Year – and life has a way of throwing a wrench or two in the mix, too.
Strategy for Success
At this point, I can see my procrastination techniques for what they are. There’s no time to lose. I need a strategy that gets the most done as quickly as possible. With me here?
My ultimate advice (not that you asked) is this: If you are reading this right now – which I assume you are – I thank you and I am humbled, because there is a lot to read out there – but when you are done, shut down your computer.
Understand, I come from a time when information was hard to come by. We cut recipes out of magazines and wrote our favorites down on cards and traded with friends. The reason we had “Mom’s Best Company Salad” was because it worked and that’s what she had. Now, we consult the Internet and suddenly have a zillion options. For example, try “elderberry syrup recipe” (in quotes, to narrow results), and you are instantly provided 253,000 links. The Internet can be a resource, but in this case, a curse that adds to the very thing we are trying to avoid: overwhelm.
Are you one of those who opens a dozen links and then starts making comparisons? Indecision can seriously get in the way of progress. When we do this, we also open a series of debates:
- What kind of sugar, if any – honey, molasses, cane sugar, coconut sugar, agave… how many ways can we stress our immune system?
- The alcohol debate: do you give it as a gift at all? And if so, what kind – gin, vodka, brandy, rum – or some kind of moonshine? If we don’t want to use alcohol, could we use vinegar, glycerine, or honey instead?
- What are we making, exactly? A tincture? Syrup? Elixir? Cordial? Oxymel? Sipping vinegar or “shrub?”
- Are we using the best methods? Heat / no heat, decoction, extraction, tea, infusion? Dried herbs or fresh? Do we weigh our ingredients or toss in handfuls and call it good?
You get the idea. I can’t do anything. I have to learn everything first.
At some point, we need to trust that we already know enough.
TRUST that we have in our tiny heads the capacity to come up with creative ideas; that we are resourceful enough to make do with what we have; that we might even create something entirely new if we allow ourselves to break away from the “rules” outlined in a recipe.
In the end, I often return to a few trusty hardcover books for guidance and then just enjoy the creative process.
This is key – because what is the worst thing that can happen? You ruin a bunch of alcohol? Ha! Unlikely that any will go to waste, even if it doesn’t turn out as expected, right?
As someone must have said, “There’s no one way to make spaghetti sauce.” That speaks to me.
Tips for Last-Minute Endeavors
- Batch prep whatever you can: take a tip from the cooking blogs. Many berries, ginger, garlic, and assorted herbs can be used across multiple recipes.
- Heat your liquids to speed things up – be it oil, vinegar, honey, or alcohol. The key is to heat it very gently with very low heat – and don’t let it get too hot.
- Don’t worry about time requirements. Christmas is just a few days away? No matter. Anything that needs to “cure” can be bottled up with a label that says, “Ready February 15” – or whenever. It might be all the more appreciated to have something like a new supply of fire cider after other things have been used up (especially in mid-February, right?)
- Take a quick inventory of what you have. Seems obvious, but sometimes there are surprises. The problem with a post like this is that what you make depends on what you have, which varies from person to person and year to year. I collect, dehydrate, stash in a bottle of vinegar or alcohol, freeze, or can in jars assorted herbs and fruits all year. I think I know what’s on the shelves, but also find surprises. One year, I grew a lot of black mustard and gave garlic-horseradish-mustard sauce. This year, we had a bumper crop of medlar fruit, which I turned into jams, vinegar, and wine (vinegar and wine are still in the making). I recently came across a stash of nasturtium seeds, purple basil, and chive blossoms, each in a jar of vinegar. Nice find.
- Semi-Homemade / Homegrown – Buy a Few Things. Not every ingredient necessarily comes from your own backyard (I didn’t try to explain my intentions when I went up to the cashier early one morning and plopped down a bottle of vodka, brandy, and rum, for example – although I left quite numbed with sticker shock after the taxes added up!). Maybe you’d like to make some sauerkraut with your neighbor’s cabbage and radishes? Maybe your next carrot cake will be with carrots from your local farm stand? My point being, supporting your local economy is so important at this time of year when we are bombarded from all sides with advertising from businesses with big marketing budgets. Plus, your local growers are full of great ideas.
Last-Minute Gift Ideas: Final List
I know many of you are going to look at this and think – but wait – that’s not helpful to me at all! I don’t grow goumi berries and don’t even know what they are!
No worries, friends. These are not meant to be recipes – just fire starters. Substitutions are invitations.
Ok – Here’s what I’ve been doing the past few months and days:
Jams & Preserves:
Those who know me know that I grow a few uncommon fruits, which means I am always trying to come up with ideas to process them. But here’s an idea: do you have something from a few years ago that you could repurpose into something new? For example, you could turn canned pears into a ginger pear sauce or some other treat? Personally, I will be making grain-free thumbprint cookies with green tomato “mincemeat.”
- Applesauce – tried and true – and always nice to add in cakes and muffins. Granted, canning is not on everyone’s “easy” list, but crockpots and blenders make the processing go quickly, and when you think about it, it’s just pouring something in a jar, capping it, and boiling it. Not hard at all. Once you’ve canned, you understand why our grandmothers relied on this simple method of capturing sunshine.
- Quince Jam – we love this! Pairs nicely with ginger and citrus.
- Medlar “Butter” – made a spicy version this year with orange peel, cinnamon, and cloves
- Arbutus unedo / Strawberry Tree fruit jam – a little gritty, but interesting! I find these fruits growing in random areas around town. Many people don’t know they are edible and quite tasty. A small jar of this would be great as the filling between two layers of cake.
- Canned Cornelian Cherries – Extracting the pits from Cornelian Cherries is no easy task – so why bother? Simply can them whole, topped with a simple syrup. Beautiful in the jar and a delicious treat. I have heard some people soak them in a brine like olives, but I have not tried that.
Juices and Purées:
We grow a lot of berries that are chock-full of antioxidants and phytonutrients: seaberries, aronia berries, goji berries, goumi berries, autumn olives, hawthorn berries, honeyberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, jostaberries, and rose hips, as well as the usual strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Sometimes fresh is best, but I usually end up freezing them so I can eventually gather a bunch, and then make things with them later. I have read that freezing helps to break down the cell walls and makes the nutrients more easily extracted. Simmer them very gently in a little water, let them soak, squeeze out the liquid through cheesecloth. Freeze in ice cubes for later or use in blended drinks, vinegars, and etc. Or – you could use the juice to make gummy bears!
Gummy Bears: Gummy bears are a fun way to eat superfoods. Pictured at right are some made with Sea Buckthorn / Seaberries (Hippophae rhamnoides). An easy way to extract the seeds is to run them through a juicer. (We have a very old model of this Champion model, and it still works over 25 years later!) I purchased some inexpensive molds that made the finished bears look like the real deal.
I have not tried making these with agar flakes if you are vegan, but I would think it would be totally possible. We used 3 T gelatin (we used Great Lakes Gelatin) to every cup of juice and sweetener of choice. I have made these with elderberries, aronia berries, and strawberries. These do not keep, so freeze them if you aren’t going to eat them right away. The good thing is, they are a great last-minute gift or snack; they don’t require a month of steeping. Plus, you control the sugar; no need for corn syrup, cornstarch, or any additive you can’t whip up in your own kitchen. It’s a great way to get your antioxidants!
Dried Fruits & Nuts:
We did a lot of hiking this year, and dried fruits are always a healthy snack. These ideas are a mix of homemade and purchased ingredients:
- Trail Mix – Nuts, fruits, seeds… and maybe a few chocolate chips.
- Power Bars – turn your dried fruits, nuts, and seeds into cookies.
- Healthy Granola – make your own; you know exactly what’s in it.
- Dried Apples – always a standby at our house, sprinkled with lots of cinnamon.
- Dried Quince – I spread the purée on a sheet, sprinkled with nuts, and dehydrated it. When dry, I cut it into squares. I think in Spain they call it membrillo.
- Dried fruits soaked in fruit juice – What a revelation! A jar of this is instantly exotic! Try putting a few dried plums (aka prunes) in orange juice. Who knew? Think of the combinations: cherries in pomegranate, pears in cranberry…. I will be dehydrating more of our Italian prunes next year. This was a real treat and worth sharing. SO easy!
- Nuts – maybe you have local walnuts or hazels available to you, but even if not, a mix of nuts baked with a Cajun kick or a light honey-cinnamon twist makes a nice high protein snack. A friend recently gave us some of his chestnuts – whoaaa! Thank you!
Probably the easiest thing on this list: stick herbs in a jar and top with vinegar. I keep several jars going all summer long and just keep adding to them. The kinds of herbs and varieties of vinegar are what makes it interesting. Of course, vinegar will react with canning jar lids, so top with plastic wrap first or use a plastic lid. Our thrift stores always seem to have small glass bottles that are perfect for making something so simple look oh, so fancy.
- Herbs: The combinations here are endless. I almost always have rosemary, sage, thyme, tarragon, chives, salad burnet, and nasturtium seeds and blossoms.
- Fruits: Don’t stop with herbs. What about fruit vinegars, such as blueberries, black raspberries, apricots, cherries, figs? Yum.
- Medlar Vinegar: In this case, I wanted to make my own vinegar, not pour commercial vinegar over fruit. I filled a half-gallon jar with very ripe medlars, added a cup of sugar, and added ½ cup of raw apple cider vinegar as a starter. The juices started flowing from the medlars and it is currently fermenting. I will let it go past the alcohol stage and turn into vinegar. In the past, this was some of the very best vinegar I’ve ever made.
- Four Thieves Vinegar: Also known as “Marseilles Vinegar – the story originates from medieval times when some thieves never caught the plague while robbing the dead. Must have been desperate times; personally I wouldn’t risk it. There are lots of variations to the basic recipe, which includes rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, pepper, garlic and vinegar. Go easy on the lavender, in my opinion. Some people add oregano, marjoram, and mint. In my last batch, I also added some anise hyssop. Wormwood, one of the original ingredients, would make it decidedly bitter, but it has a reputation for killing everything from cancer to malaria, as well as being a good flea repellent, so maybe I will throw some in on my next batch, just in case…
- Fire Cider: Hooray for Rosemary Gladstar in protecting the right for all of us to create, use, and even sell her famous traditional fire cider! When a company tried to trademark the Fire Cider name and prevent anyone else from using it, they were met with such public outrage that the trademark was overturned. You can read about it more here. Like Four Thieves, this is another one with many variations. In fact, Rosemary Gladstar wrote a book on it: Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar. In my most recent batch, I left out the hot peppers, but I included lots of garlic, onions, horseradish, ginger, and even some fresh turmeric and rosemary. Some people like a little lemon. Top with vinegar, give it a shake, and let the flavors infuse. I have always waited to add honey, but was convinced at a recent gathering of friends that adding honey right from the beginning is actually very good. Straining the mixture is optional. Frequently sipping it straight or mixed with hot water, lemon juice, and honey is the best way to nip a cold in the bud.
Shrubs and Oxymels:
There is a lot of overlap among all these recipe ideas – but if you infuse fruits and herbs in vinegar and sweeten with sugar or honey, you have what people used to call a “shrub,” aka, sipping vinegar, or an oxymel. What’s the difference? I think of Shrubs as being made mostly with berries or other fruit and a sweetener that can be honey or sugar. I think of Oxymels as being made mostly with herbs, honey, and vinegar (Oxy means acidic; mel means honey).
You can sip it as is or add to water (sparkling?). Think blackberries, cherries, currants… Add-ins might include some sage, fir needles, lemon balm, mint… maybe a little lime. Sometimes I toss in a few dandelion blossoms, rose petals, or wild fennel, depending on what is available. Great on a hot summer day or any time of year, really. It’s like a homemade electrolyte. For gifts, I like making a concentrate. For daily living, I make a simple diluted drink. It is fun to go out and pick whatever is available, thereby creating something that represents our garden and the season.
Here are some ideas I made this year:
- Raspberry-Thyme Shrub and Blackberry-Sage Shrub – some berries, a few sprigs, a splash of vinegar, a little sugar, and water. Stir. Sip.
- Rosehip Oxymel: Simmered rosehips in water, let them soak, strained through cheesecloth and muslin. Used 2 parts rosehip juice, 1 part honey, 1 part apple cider vinegar.
- Hawthorn Shrub: 2 parts hawthorn juice, 1 part honey, 1 part apple cider vinegar
- Turmeric Oxymel: Fill up a pint jar with a heaping cup of sliced and diced fresh turmeric root, a heaping teaspoon of crushed peppercorns, and equal parts apple cider vinegar and raw honey. Cap and give it a stir now and then while it soaks. Great way to get more turmeric in your diet!
- Seaberry / Sea Buckthorn Shrub: I didn’t get around to making this (yet) this year, but it’s a great way to eat seaberries. Seaberries are quite tart; the honey makes a nice sweet-sour balance.
Honeys and Syrups
You soak herbs in honey – what could be easier? Or make a syrup with herbs, berries, sugar, and water or juice. More sugar usually means a longer shelf life; still, syrups need to be refrigerated.
- Fermented Garlic Honey: I agree, this one sounds strange (right up there with garlic ice cream – like, who ever thinks that is a good idea, right?) But hear me out – it will curb a cold, cough, or sore throat faster than anything else, and will probably kill parasites, too, if there are any lurking around. Put peeled garlic cloves in a jar and top with honey. Leave a little headroom for the fermentation process. Some people like to chop up the garlic first. I gave them a bit of a smash to get the chemical reaction going, but I didn’t chop them up all the way. Maybe next time I will. How easy is that? Be careful with this one, though, because the honey draws out the juices in the garlic and it starts to ferment and bubble a bit. You need to push the garlic down under the honey now and then and watch that it doesn’t bubble up and out. My advice: put a plate beneath the jar and lick up the drips. Surprisingly mild. Definitely good for whatever ails you.
- Ginger Honey: Fill a pint jar with sliced ginger and top with honey. Let the honey slither down and add more until the jar is full. Like with the garlic honey, the honey extracts the juices from the ginger and the whole thing gets quite liquid-y and, well, ginger-y. Delicious. Eat it from the spoon, mix it in tea, use it in baking. Better make two jars while you’re at it.
- Hops Honey: Cover your hops blossoms with honey. Hops tend to be rather dry; keep poking them into the mix. Great to add to your sleepytime tea.
- Elderberry Syrup: I used berries I had picked fresh and frozen, but dried berries could also be used. I simmered the frozen elderberries in water with ginger and cinnamon sticks; strained the berries and added an equal amount of honey and a small amount of brandy (totally optional) to increase the shelf life. I have made this before with added licorice root and marshmallow root, but some weren’t real keen on the taste.
Liqueurs and Cordials
I think of liqueurs as sweetened fruit steeped in alcohol. Alcohol is great at extracting the properties of herbs, so you can always add a few in and call it medicinal.
- Rosehip Brandy Cordial: Same as the rosehip oxymel but with alcohol instead of vinegar: 2 parts rose hip “juice,” 1 part honey, 1 part brandy.
- Arbutus unedo / Strawberry Tree Fruit Cordial: 4 parts berries, 1 part sugar, 1 part honey, 2 parts brandy. Let it set for a month or more. Great way to use a little leftover fruit. I admit, this one turned out a little weird. I might give it more time.
- Leftover Fruit Liqueur: Took the squeezed out berries from making elderberry syrup and rosehip decoction (nearly filled a quart jar); added ½ c honey; topped off with brandy. I will try this on a cold wintry night, for sure.
- Leftover Hawthorn Berry Liqueur: We have a large black hawthorn tree and I always try to get a few berries into the freezer before the birds get them all. Hawthorn is great for the heart. I took the squeezed-out berries from making syrup, added a little juice back in, and topped it off with vodka to fill the jar (in this case, 1 ½ c). I added 10 dried prune halves to give it a little sweetness and capped it with a plastic lid. Going to let it soak for a month and then add some honey to taste.
- Backyard Forest & Hawthorn Blend: Described in my previous blogpost, “November Gatherings,” this concoction sounds a bit complicated but is basically hawthorn and cranberries simmered with fir branches, an orange, ginger, and a bunch of herbs and spices, which are then left to soak and are then strained. I mixed 2 parts of this decoction with 1 part honey and 1 part brandy. Easy peasy.
- Rosacea Spiced Rum: I made this last year, inspired by Danielle at Gather Victoria (I love her blog so much I signed up as a patreon). Put in a half gallon jar a bunch of fruits and flowers from the rosacea family: sliced up quince, apples, rose hips, hawthorn berries, rose petals. Add a blood red orange, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a little honey, and a bottle of rum. Yo ho!
Dried Herb Blends
Did you dry a bunch of rosemary, sage, and thyme? Horehound, chamomile, burdock? Dandelion roots? The options here are endless, but I think many people appreciate a fresh culinary blend, some herbal salts, a tea blend or coffee substitute. How about a chai tea blend from purchased spices – or maybe a mug, some cocoa mix, and some homemade marshmallows? Your own version of sleepy-time tea?
Other Kitchen Crafts
Herbal wreaths? Cinnamon-clay ornaments? Potpourris? These are all on my to-do list. I may get to them; I may not. It’s not hard to throw a few pine needles and a cinnamon stick in a pot of water on the stove, after all. It might be nice to put some in a bag and let someone else simmer them on THEIR stove, too, right? A wreath doesn’t have to be a wreath. It can be a handful of herbs tied with a bow. Clay ornaments are fun to whip up for the kids to make. My point being, things don’t have to be complicated.
True confession: Tossing Out the List
Earlier today I was thrashing myself for not getting enough done and stressing about Christmas being less than a week away. Instead of making stuff, I sat down and revised this blog post. In the process, I realized how busy I’ve been all along turning the garden produce into things I could later bottle up or put in a gift box. It’s a lot! Oh sure – I’m still going to be making breads, cookies, and pies, and hope to find time for some more dried herb blends and a wreath or two – but you know what? If I don’t get it done, no big deal.
Writing this post has helped me to recognize the power of the concept of “enough.”
Most people would look at this list and think I’m crazy. But maybe a few of the ideas will be useful or spark an idea of something you could make with whatever you have available.
The main thing is – don’t let the overwhelm get in the way. Ask yourself – what do we need to begin? (Once we begin, it’s often fun to keep going). We create overwhelm when we have “too much” – too much information, too many options, too many great ideas on the ever-lengthening to-do list. At what point do we figure we know “enough” to share that knowledge – not that we have to be an expert before doing so. At what point have we done enough – even though there might still be more time and more to do – but perhaps it would be more important to pause, set all this aside, and simply enjoy the day. If making and giving a homemade natural wholesome from-the-garden and from-my-house-to-yours gift becomes one more stressful item to get done, then maybe what is already done will have to do. It is “enough.”
We get so caught up in our projects (at least, I do). Let’s not forget to enjoy the season! Take time to sip that fragrant cup of chai or a eat a bowl of hearty stew; go for a walk to enjoy the muted colors and the bare architecture of winter; curl up on a couch and read. Spend time with family and friends; reach out to total strangers. The best last-minute gift, after all, is one that is spontaneous and given from the heart. Sometimes it’s just a smile or a bit of time.
The Christmas season tends to get so hectic. Let’s not lose sight of the reason for the season. Let’s focus on bringing the world together at a time when it seems to be splintering apart.
As I write this, the solstice is tomorrow. Perfect timing! We all could use a little more light in our lives. Make what you can; share what you are able; give from the heart; be that light.
In friendship, Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays to one and all.
~ * ~
“A Procrastinator’s Guide to to 20 Last-Minute Gifts from the Garden,” by yours truly. Is this a recurring problem with me or what? (Printed 10 years ago!) Hey! There are some good ideas here!
- De la Forêt, Rosalee. 2017. Alchemy of Herbs. Hay House, Inc. Carlsbad, CA
- McBride, Kami. 2019. The Herbal Kitchen. Conari Press, Newburyport, MA.
I have both of the above books and they are my favorite kitchen herb books. They make cooking with herbs so very accessible. Full of great ideas for improving your health through herbs and food.
Websites: (I know, I know – but these are helpful!)
- The Herbal Academy: Making Herbal Vinegars (some ideas for combinations)
- The Herbal Academy: How to Make DIY Herbal Culinary Salts (a comprehensive guide on kinds of salts and what to add to them).
** Please note: this blog post contains affiliate links that give me a little kickback if you purchase, but with no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!