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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Yummy gifts

When all else fails and we are completely stomped as to what to get someone for Christmas or birthday or house-warming, there is always one tried-and-true venue - food. Obviously, come consideration must be given even to such seemingly straightforward group of gifts. Giving peanut brittle to someone who is allergic to peanuts is probably not a good idea, nor is presenting a vegan with a gift certificate to Omaha Steaks. However, if you are well-informed about your recipient's culinary likes and dislike, the possibilities are fairly broad if not endless.

Old acquaintances

Most of us probably get at least two food catalogs every year around holiday time - Figi's and Swiss Colony. Both of them offer good and fairly inexpensive selection of everything including cheeses, sausages, healthy snacks (like dried fruit and nut samplers) and delicious desserts. The cheeses and sausages were just ok, in my opinion, - but then again, I am a little spoiled when it comes to meats and cheeses. If you don't mind things that are a bit on a salty side, you would enjoy them.

Another old friend is Republic of Tea. My main problem when shopping for gifts there is to keep from buying more for myself than I get for other people - there are so many interesting tea varieties and tea accessories, that I want to try one of each.

Old-fashionably delicious

Many of us frequently yearn for something tasty, comforting and home-made, but don't have time to cook it. If you have that problem or know someone who does, you may want to hit Vermont Country Store. Their clothes are dowdy and some of their old-fashioned beauty remedies are a bit on the infomercial side quality-wise, but the food is to die for! It's not just candy and desserts (do try the rum cakes and the chocolate liquor bottles), it's also the breads, the soups and the sauces. The lobster bisque is excellent and really hits the spot when it's cold, miserable and rainy outside.

The other two sources with the same yummy grandmother's kitchen flair are Bittersweet Herb Farm and Old World Specialties.

Bittersweet Herb Farm specializes in everything you might want to infuse new flavors into your meat, fish, salads and desserts: oils, balsamic vinegars, sauces, marmalades. I have tried a few of their products, such as the orange rosemary balsamic vinegar and raspberry marmalade, and was never disappointed. In addition to being delicious, all products are healthy and cooked with organic ingredients. For instance, refined white sugar is replaced by a much healthier alternative - evaporated cane juice. Everything comes in really pretty jars and bottles you can keep to make your own oil mixes later.

Old World Specialties offers three major groups of products: soup mixes, bread mixes and hot chocolate mixes. Corn chowder, tomato basil bread and raspberry hot chocolate are my favorites, but in truth, they are all great.

Haute treats

If you are looking for something with an air of sophistication, you may need to step outside of the suppliers specializing strictly in food. One such place is Old Durham Road. In addition to exquisite home decor pieces, clothes and accessories, the catalog offers delicious teas and all things that go with them: crackers, cookies, biscuits, etc.

Another seller offering everything to host a perfect tea or an old-fashioned dessert get-together is Victorian Trading. A word of warning - especially to the ladies - you may get distracted by all the other beautiful bright and shiny objects there. Victorian Trading has a lot of gorgeous stuff! But back to the food - do hit the tea and sweets sections. Rum balls anyone?

Cooking Enthusiast is a great source if you want to host a wine-cheese-appetizer party. Yes, their cooking gadgets are fantastic, but so are their foods, including mushroom bruschetta, sardines, marmalades and sauces. There are also some interesting ingredients to bring some variety into your own cooking. My husband, who is a fabulous cook, has had a lot of fun both with their whiskey salt and the exquisite Mexican vanilla.

For an all-out incredible (although not inexpensive) holiday meal, head straight for Scottish Gourmet. They have everything, including some things I have never heard about until I received their catalog. Truffles (not the chocolates - the actual ones!)? Check. Pheasant? Check. Langoustines? Check. If you are feeling really brave, you can even try the haggis. Somehow they found a way to legally ship it to America.

Sweet tooth

Hello, my name is Maria and I am a chocoholic... Which is why I made it my business to explore a variety of chocolate sources on and off line. There are the tried-and-true Lindt and Godiva. And then there are less-known sources, which is a good thing because the fewer people know about them, the more chocolate there is for me... I mean for my readers.

In addition to decadent hot chocolate mixes Mariebelle has completely adorable hand-painted chocolate samplers. They have a brand new Christmas-themed set of designs out - and they are as cute as they are delicious.

Another place worth exploring for out-of-this world sweets is Jean Philippe. The intro to the web site is a little long, but it's so beautiful it's worth watching. The chocolate waterfall actually does exist at the Jean Philippe store in Las Vegas (Willy Wonka, eat your heart out!). You might not be able to swing a custom-made cake, but a small box of edible chocolate jewels is definitely doable.

The last but not the least is one of our local North Carolina wonders - Asheville's Chocolate Fetish. Yes, their name sounds like that of a sex toy store, but believe me, once you've tried any of their astounding truffles, you will question whether something this enjoyable is supposed to be legal. I have tried both their America's Best and Ecstasy truffles, and I am still trying to decide which ones I am more in love with.

If all else fails...

... and you are just not sure what your recipient would like, but still want to go the food route, get him or her a gift certificate to Home Bistro. This is not your run-of-the mill TV dinner supplier - oh, no! That stuff is quick-frozen and is easy to warm up and put into a meal, but this is where the similarity ends. Everything is prepared by professional chefs, packaged just for you and shipped to you in a carefully insulated container. Once heated and served, it may as well have been delivered from a fine restaurant - for a fraction of the price.

Your discerning recipients are bound to find something they would enjoy, regardless of whether they are carnivores or herbivores, prefer to err on the side of less fat, less sodium or less sugar. And if they send you the dessert sampler to thank you - be sure to give me a call. ;-)

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