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Aqua Libra, Relish, Biscotti , Truffle Paste

December 15, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aqua Libra, a sparkly drink from the Netherlands, is pale as Champagne and pleasantly fruity. It's also nonalcoholic, which makes it a smart thing to have on hand for holiday parties.

The flavor comes from an odd-sounding blend of fresh tarragon, ginseng, melon extract, passion fruit juice, apple juice and infusions of sunflower and sesame seeds. You don't taste all that, however; the effect is elusive and tangy.

Aqua Libra's sugar content is low; a 4.53-ounce glass (that's a little more than one-half cup) contains just 38 calories. What sugar there is comes from the fruit juice concentrates--no sugar is added. Unlike cloyingly sweet beverages, Aqua Libra goes well with food. It's also satisfying by itself.

Introduced to Los Angeles with little fanfare, this import has broad-based appeal. You'll find it in natural-foods shops, upscale department stores, markets and some wine shops. Outlets include Mrs. Gooch's and Erewhon, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, Pavilions, Irvine Ranch Farmers Market and Bristol Farms, Vendome Liquors and Wally's.

The price ranges from $3.50 to $4 for a 25.5 ounce bottle, and from $1.25 and $1.50 for a 6.8-ounce bottle.

A dinner party sometimes calls for a showy splurge. You've bought the Champagne and caviar, but that's not enough. What you need is a 1-ounce jar of Kalahari truffle paste, enough to flavor a creamy soup for six to eight guests, or to add expensive flavor to pasta, veal or chicken dishes.

The paste supplements the truffles with olive oil, vermouth extract and milk solids and imparts a golden color that wreaks of riches. At $12.50 it's not cheap, but a paste made with French or Italian truffles would cost much, much more. Kalahari truffles come from the Kalahari desert in southwestern Africa. Introduced in Germany and Singapore three years ago, they are just now arriving in Southern California.

The line includes a mill that grinds out flecks of dried truffle. Don't use it to season dishes at the table like salt and pepper. The dried truffle must be added to melted butter, milk or other liquid and rehydrated in order to gain full flavor. After the truffles are gone, the mill can be refilled with other spices.

The mills come in two sizes: a mini mill containing 1/8 ounce dried truffle is $9, and a deluxe, acrylic mill that holds 1/4 ounce truffle is $29. Both mills and the truffle paste are at Nordstrom stores in Santa Ana, South Coast Plaza, Riverside and Brea.

An heirloom recipe lost for many years has been rediscovered, to the joy of cranberry relish lovers. The recipe belonged to the grandmother of Claudia McQuillan, Bristol Farms' executive chef and cooking school director. Four years ago, it turned up in an old cookbook at a family home in Connecticut. McQuillan promptly started making the relish as a holiday special for Bristol Farms. Seasoned with cloves and cinnamon and crunchy with walnuts, it tastes as rich as mincemenat. McQuillan cooks the sugar and craberries together until the sugar almost caramelizes. This, together with the spices, deepens the color. There's orange juice in the mixture too. The relish will be available at the markets Monday through Jan. 1 for $4.99 a pound.

La Tempesta bakery of South San Francisco has decorated its holiday tin with a fanciful St. Nicholas about to chomp on a crisp biscotti. That tells you what's inside: three (8-ounce) packages of the bakery's best sellers. You get biscotti gianduia-- a hazelnut biscotti with a ribbon of hazelnut chocolate cream piped across one side; biscotti mezz amore, which combines two flavors of dough--chocolate almond and vanilla hazelnut--and is coated on one side with dark chocolate; and cioccolotti-- almond biscotti dipped in bittersweet chocolate. The price is $20. Take the sacks of cookies out, and you can fill the tin with popcorn, pretzels or other holiday treats. The Broadway and I. Magnin stores carry the tins.

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