How to Make DIY Food Gifts for the Holidays

From herb-flecked butter to versatile spice blends, you can whip up great presents in the kitchen.
Dukkah, anchovy paste, and Mexican pickled onions. (Photos: Getty Images)
Dec 14, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Next week is the winter solstice, and take heart: We are closer to spring than we were in September. That said, we all still have the holidays to think about—this year brings a lively mash-up of Christmas and Hanukkah—as well as everyday meals.

Although it’s great fun to write about seasonal treats such as holiday cookies, craft cocktails, potato latkes, or festive sides—it’s the latter challenge that interests me the most. Let’s face it: Trying to shop sustainably and then translating what you buy into nourishing meals on a regular basis isn’t the easiest job, especially now, when time and energy are in short supply. Last December, I wrote about a number of strategies and ideas that get me through the holidays and beyond, and this week, in what is my last column for TakePart (RIP), I feel compelled to circle back.

These are tough times, after all, for folks who love to eat and cook in a mindful way. Granted, it has never been simpler to find certified-organic produce or humanely raised meat, for example, or to feed vegetarians and vegans, Paleos, or raw foodists. But dealing with our present food system involves any number of difficult choices, leaving us stressed, depressed, hypervigilant, and just plain exhausted—and even more in need of the sustenance and connection that we find when we gather around a table together and eat something delicious.

Particularly in cold weather, when most of us don’t have access to a great range of local vegetables and fruits, I find myself relying on homemade condiments to provide interest and intrigue in all sorts of dishes. Not only do you have control over the ingredients used (no nasty preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup, for instance), but you can minimize packaging waste while maximizing freshness. And did I mention that they make great last-minute presents? Just saying.

With the New Year rapidly approaching, this is also an excellent time for a kitchen reset. Reorganizing or updating your pantry is a biggish project but one that will pay dividends throughout 2017. At the very least, having a stockpile of power condiments—the ultimate quick fixes—in your culinary repertoire allows you to add complexity and brightness to any number of weekday meals. You will find four of my favorites below, and I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was to choose.

Happy Hols! Happy New Year! Here’s hoping you’ve found Jane Says enlightening, entertaining, and yes, infuriating at times. Promise me you’ll never be afraid to step back from what you know—or think you know—about food. I sure as hell won’t. Now, let’s all go cook something sustainable and sustaining for the people we love.


The roasty-toasty Egyptian seed-and-spice mixture called dukkah (pronounced “dook-ah” and derived from the Arabic word meaning “to pound”) is typically eaten on bread dipped in olive oil and served at breakfast or as a starter—but why stop there? In My Paris Kitchen, David Lebovitz writes that dukkah is a great base for the world’s fastest-to-make dip, and it’s true. Mix it with good olive oil—I like to use a mild, fruity French one, such as Alziari—and serve with slices of seeded baguette, fresh pitas, or crudités. Dukkah is also delicious on roasted cauliflower à la Lebovitz or sprinkled on a fried egg sandwich or avocado toast. There are many different versions of dukkah, but my go-to recipe is from Lebovitz’s book. That’s not as much of a disconnect as it may seem; thanks to the Romans and Arabs, spices were used very early on in France.

Shopping and prep notes: Buy the hazelnuts, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds from a place with a high turnover and taste before using. If they’re rancid, take them back. Toast each spice separately so some don’t burn (they’ll be bitter), and let the mixture cool before grinding; otherwise, you may end up with a paste instead of a dry, loose, crumbly blend.

Compound Butters

A compound butter is simply butter creamed with a flavoring or two—minced shallot and thyme, say. A classic French accompaniment for topping everything from steak to steamed vegetables, it is basically an instant sauce—and an easy way to add finesse to the scratchiest of scratch suppers. What’s called maître d’hotel butter is reason alone for a (grass-fed) steak: With a fork, mash together a stick of softened unsalted butter with a quarter teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, a tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley, and half a teaspoon of coarse salt until combined well. Put the butter on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper and form into a log, then refrigerate for at least an hour to let the flavors develop. In an anchovy butter, a dollop of anchovy paste adds depth and that certain something called umami without tasting the least bit fishy; it’s delicious on a steak or burger, lamb, or chicken. A mustard-lemon butter is especially good on chicken and fish and makes “eating the rainbow” more delicious than ever.

Prep note: A compound butter keeps in the fridge for a couple days. Wrapped well in wax paper and foil, then frozen, it will keep at least a month; just lop off slices as needed, and voilà! Dinner is served.

Quick Mexican Pickled Onions

This quick pickle from Zanne Stewart, former head of the food department at Gourmet magazine, was a staff favorite, as it adds a piquant crunch to everything from a turkey sandwich to tacos, burritos, or veggie burgers. Rosy-pink in color, the onions are as pretty as they are versatile, and a jar of them is a near permanent fixture in my fridge. Here’s how you make them: Bring 2 cups water, 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon coarse salt to a boil in a 1-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in a medium red onion that’s been halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise. Simmer, uncovered, until the onions are crisp-tender, which takes all of about 3 minutes. Drain and cool to room temperature before refrigerating.


This blend of hot chiles, garlic, olive oil, and spices is a traditional condiment and flavor base in Tunisia and other parts of North Africa. Like dukkah (above), various versions abound. You can find commercial brands at specialty shops and online, but nothing beats the profound, elemental taste of homemade. My latest go-to rendition is from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, and its heat is deep, rich, and perfectly balanced. Use it every which way—alongside grilled meats or fish, slicked onto a roasted chicken or vegetables, or stirred into stews, soups, couscous. I could eat it on cornflakes.