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Presents for Hungry Times : Putting Up for Your Friends : Holidays: Black Truffle Oil or Rosemary-Scented Nicoise Olives are inexpensive and surprisingly easy to make.

December 12, 1991|SALLY SCHNEIDER | Schneider is a contributing editor for Food & Wine magazine, where a version of this was originally published

The food I make to give to friends is the food I would like to be given. They are savory foods, at once luxurious, delicious, comforting and healthful. For those who receive them, they are also immensely versatile: They can be used to feed friends who drop over during the holidays and have the added distinction of being low in calories.

These are not the predictable Christmas cookies, meant to be handed out to all the neighbors; they are truly special offerings for your most appreciative friends. And while they are not inexpensive, they do represent a kind of economy since they are all easy to make, take little time or organization and require few ingredients.

The Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto is made from sun-dried tomatoes that are soaked and pureed to a fine paste with garlic, olive oil and basil. Use it like a traditional basil pesto, as a spread on crusty bread, or as a sauce for a quick pasta dinner.

Despite the number of olives available in supermarkets, I find it almost impossible to buy a flavorful home-cured olive to serve with cocktails. These Rosemary-Scented Nicoise Olives are marinated in oil flavored with lots of rosemary sprigs. This deceptively simple technique imparts a wonderful flavor to the olives. The leftover rosemary oil can be used for cooking or as a dressing for pasta, fresh ripe tomatoes or cooked vegetables.

Roasted Peppers and Onions in Ancho Chile Oil--onions and a variety of sweet and hot peppers in an oil infused with ancho chiles--makes a colorful gift.

Given the cost of fresh black truffles, Black Truffle Oil might seem like an extraordinary extravagance. However, it takes only one ounce of truffles and very little effort to flavor one quart of oil. A single cup of oil would make a very generous gift. In specialty food markets, two ounces of commercial truffle oil may sell for $15; a two-ounce bottle of this homemade oil costs about $5.

The packaging of these gifts is almost as important as the food itself. Because some of these foods are costly (the truffle oil) or concentrated (the tomato pesto), they are meant to be packaged in small containers.

You can get the containers from a variety of sources. You might simply remove the labels and reuse empty olive oil bottles or jelly jars. And you can now buy decorative jars and bottles in many housewares shops.

Flea markets and second-hand stores are also good places to look for inexpensive and unusual containers. You might find ribbed milk bottles, small crocks, decanters and old apothecary jars with ground-glass stoppers in beautiful shapes. Be sure to sterilize them in boiling water, then dry thoroughly before filling.

Ribbon is all that's needed to dress up the jars or bottles. Other embellishments--tiny Christmas balls and ornaments, fresh holly and pine--can be added along with the ribbon.

Handwritten tags make a nice addition to the gift. In addition to your name, you might include the name of the preparation, the ingredients, the date it was made and the best way to store it. You can cut simple tags from a heavy linen card with a hole punched for a ribbon, or buy more elaborate ones in a stationery store or museum gift shop.

The success of these preparations depends upon using the best possible ingredients, particularly extra-virgin olive oil. Many good olive oils are now available in half-gallon and gallon cans. Buy small quantities of several oils and taste them to find the one you like before purchasing the larger quantities. All of the recipes can be doubled or tripled.

This pesto is delicious spread on sandwiches with goat cheese or mozzarella and on pizzas or focaccia. For a quick pasta sauce, add two to three tablespoons of the cooking water and two tablespoons of the pesto to each cup of cooked pasta. Toss and season to taste with Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper. Since the pesto has a very intense flavor, a little goes a long way. One cup packed into a jelly or mustard jar makes an ample gift. It will keep for about two weeks under refrigeration.


12 ounces sun-dried tomato halves, not packed in oil

6 medium cloves garlic

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, about

2 packed cups fresh basil or Italian parsley leaves

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons honey

Bring 6 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Stir in sun-dried tomatoes. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until very tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. Rinse lightly with warm water and squeeze to remove as much water as possible.

Combine tomatoes and garlic in food processor and process, scraping bowl occasionally, until mixture is coarsely chopped, about 1 minute. With machine on, drizzle in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Process, scraping bowl when necessary, about 1 minute. Add basil leaves, pepper and honey. Process, scraping bowl when necessary, until thoroughly incorporated. Season to taste with little more balsamic vinegar. Makes about 5 cups, 17 calories per tablespoon.

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