Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to give and receive gifts

It's getting to be that festive time of year when people start thinking about holiday gifts, so it's time we had The Talk. Here it is:

Gifts are usually meant to be reciprocated. In simpler terms, if someone gives you a gift, you should get that person a gift too.

True, gift-giving is not supposed to be a strictly tit-for-tat experience -- but you also have to consider human nature. If you receive (and expect) presents from others for years, but you never offer others a thing in return, you are subtly telling people you don't really want to participate, or they may assume you are just a worthless ingrate; either way, they'll stop giving you presents. So: if you like getting gifts, consider giving them as well. It's a sign that you're thoughtful of others, a mark of adulthood.

But I always pick rotten gifts!

So you don't have a natural knack for gift-giving. Fortunately it's a skill that can be learned, and you will improve with time and practice. You're not going to get that practice in if you never try, right?

In the meantime, get a shopping buddy. Find a friend who gives great gifts, grovel shamelessly for help, and take him or her shopping with you. (Buy this person a hot chocolate or something afterward as a gesture of thanks.) Barring that, there are several online services designed to help bad gift-givers make good choices. Dive into one of these if you're completely stymied.

Some things to take into consideration when looking for a good gift:
  1. It should be something the recipient actually wants, but might not splurge on.
  2. It should be something you're not ashamed to give.
  3. It should reflect the recipient's tastes and interests.
  4. Unless the recipient specifies otherwise, it shouldn't be highly practical.
  5. It doesn't have to be expensive.
  6. If you're getting something for the person who has everything, offer an experience.
Still in doubt? You could always just ask. Your gift recipient may have some good suggestions or a public wish list somewhere. Even if you don't end up buying an item from the list, it should give you a good idea of the person's likes and interests.

If you can't think of a blessed thing, here are a few standby gifts: movie tickets, gift cards (to a place where the recipient actually shops), bouquets or live plants, homemade bread or cookies, a bottle of good wine or sparkling cider, good coffee or hot cocoa, homemade jam or preserves, a box of quality chocolate (the stuff they sell at the drugstore doesn't cut it), a bestselling book or a good-smelling scented candle. Take into account any allergies, sensitivities or dietary restrictions when making your decision (don't give wine to a teetotaler, for instance).

But I'm broke!

As I write this, the economy is sour and times are tight. Many people are out of work; if you're fortunate enough to have a job, you may be barely scraping by. How are you supposed to get presents for anybody when you have little or no money? There are several options.

First, offer experiences or services. When I didn't have much money and my nieces and nephews were young, I would present them with fancified written scrolls that entitled them to a full day of fun with their auntie at the venue of their choice. We'd agree on the date and the recipient would pick the place, and we'd go have some one-on-one time. This gift worked well for kids, but probably wouldn't cut it for adults. Another sibling used to create personal coupons good for various services: mowing the lawn, cleaning windows, foot rubs, etc. (NOTE: IF YOU OFFER THESE SERVICES, BE PREPARED TO MAKE GOOD ON THEM. Offering someone a coupon for a car wash and then refusing to wash the car is an empty gesture and, frankly, kinda stupid on your part; you might as well not bother. Offering an experience means you're spending time on a person, rather than money.)

Second, make something. Be careful about this route, because it can be potentially disastrous. Take the time to think before you start a major project, and consider the good gift rules again. Remember, it needs to be something you're proud to give as a gift, not some inexplicable whatsit cobbled together from pipe cleaners and duct tape. And it needs to be something the recipient wants as a gift. If you spend hours knitting a pair of mittens for someone who thinks hand-knitted items are cheap and tacky, both of you will end up angry and disappointed. Hint: if you're a good baker, homemade baked goods like cookies and quick breads are often very well received.

Third, shop secondhand stores. If you have a little money, a lot of time and a good eye (or just a great shopping buddy), you can find truly gift-worthy items in secondhand venues. Classic hardback books in great condition are especially likely secondhand gifts. The rules for gift-giving still apply here, with an additional caveat: the item you choose should not look (or smell) secondhand.

Fourth, trade. Barter some object or skill you have for something else you'd like to give as a gift. Give yourself plenty of time to do this; bartering isn't as fast as paying cash and it requires more patience and effort.

If all else fails, you can do what my sister did in grad school: declare temporary gift bankruptcy. Let people know ahead of time that you can't afford to buy gifts this year, and that you don't expect them to give you a gift either. It's honest, properly sets up their expectations and lets them know that you are thinking about them, even if you can't afford anything. Remember, though, gift bankruptcy is temporary; you can't go on doing it forever and expect people to be gracious about it.

But I don't wanna!

At its core, gift-giving is purely optional. That means it's also completely optional for the people who currently give you gifts. They're not required to keep at it if you don't show any interest in participating.

Personally, I think the custom of giving and receiving gifts is fun and helps strengthen relationships between people. It's a particularly thoughtful way of saying, "I like you and I'm thinking about you."

How to wrap a gift

Nearly everyone agrees that wrapping makes the gift. (An unwrapped gift is just an object that's been handed to you.) There are many ways to wrap a gift, from the simple to the complex. Wrapping is partially determined by the shape of the gift itself (although you can always make it simpler by putting an oddly-shaped gift into a rectangular box and then wrapping that).

Don't know how to wrap a present? YouTube to the rescue!

Here's the basic way to wrap a square or rectangular gift with wrapping paper and tape. (If you don't have any wrapping paper, get creative. Try using color comics, foreign-language newspapers, kraft paper, butcher paper and twine, wallpaper samples, old maps, even sheet music.)

If you have a large square of fabric or a decorative scarf, you can wrap a present furoshiki style. (You don't need to understand Japanese to be able to follow along; just watch what she does.) Furoshiki wrapping is especially useful for oddly-shaped gifts.

Of course, you can go completely nuts with gift wrapping, but it doesn't have to be complex unless you want it to be.

How to receive a gift graciously

Not everyone knows the proper way to receive a gift. I've flubbed it on more than one occasion. (Once I opened a gift from a family member and said the first thing that crossed my mind, which happened to be something rude. My family member felt justifiably hurt at my insensitive comment, and I felt like a complete jerk. Which I was. Yeah, don't be me if you can help it.)
  1. If the person who gave the gift is present, thank him or her immediately, before you even open the gift. Gift-giving is a thoughtful act in itself and deserves recognition.
  2. If there's a card with the gift, open it first and read it. If someone took the time to get a card, the least you can do is give it the once-over. And it helps cement in your mind who the gift-giver is. (It also makes sense to check and make sure the present is meant for you, especially at a mass gift-giving event such as Christmas.)
  3. Open the gift carefully. It could be fragile.
  4. Regardless of what the gift is or how well you like it, it's proper to thank the giver. If he or she isn't present, write a thank-you note expressing your gratitude. If, like me, you have a hard time remembering who gave you what, get a pencil and piece of paper and write it down as soon as possible so you can write appropriate thanks later.
And now you know. Armed with your new knowledge, go forth and seek out amazing gifties for all and sundry.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Basic cooking skills, part 1

Today I'm going to teach you how to cook EVERYTHING!

Actually, no I'm not. Mark Bittman has already written a whole series of books about that. But what I will do is get you started with a few basic kitchen skills everyone should know. How far you choose to branch out from there is up to you.

If I could give you one bit of advice regarding cooking, it would be this: if at all possible, learn how to cook by watching and participating with another cook in the kitchen. You'll pick up all sorts of little tips and tricks just by watching a good cook do her thing and by getting hands-on experience.

You will need:
  1. a source of clean potable water.
  2. a frying pan, preferably a good nonstick one.
  3. a medium-sized cookpot with a lid.
  4. a spatula.
  5. a sharp kitchen knife.
  6. a cutting board.
  7. a kitchen timer.
  8. a stove/oven combination.
  9. a colander or large sieve.
  10. a serving bowl.

Boiling water

Yep, I'm gonna teach you how to boil water. Someone has to, right?

Get out the cookpot and fill it with fresh cold water, no more than three-quarters full. Put it on the stove, turn on the burner under the cookpot (double-check that you've turned on the correct burner) and let the water heat up. You can put the lid on the cookpot if you want the water to boil a bit faster. (Don't walk away from the pot! You'll start doing other things, forget about it, and pretty soon... well, let's just say I've destroyed a few pots in my time.) When large bubbles are rising from the bottom and breaking at the top of the pot, the water is boiling.
NOTE: The temperature at which water boils is different in different areas. The higher the elevation, the lower the boiling point -- and the longer you'll need to cook certain boiled foods like pasta. Most recipes assume you are at or near sea level, so if you're at a higher elevation (about 4000+ feet) you will need to adjust your cooking time to compensate.

Chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing

These are all specific ways to describe cutting food into smaller chunks, an essential skill if you want to learn to cook. Slicing usually involves cutting food into thin slices. Chopping is cutting it into rough chunks, approximately the size of the end of your thumb. (But don't chop off the end of your thumb, please.) Dicing means cutting a food into small cubes, about 1/2 to 1/4 inch in size. Mincing means cutting a food even smaller than dicing, almost to the point where it becomes a paste. The easiest way to cut any food is to use the right tools: a sharp kitchen knife and a cutting board. If you've never cut food up before, take your time and try to get some one-on-one practice with an experienced cook. Barring that, look online for a good video on basic knife skills and practice your form.


Eggs are magic. Seriously, they are subtle and powerful agents of alchemy in the cooking world. They help hold together baked goods, emulsify homemade mayonnaise, and are used in everything from omelets to quiches. To start off, you should know three basic ways to cook an egg.

Fried: Grab your frying pan, put it on the stove and set the burner underneath it to medium-high heat. Get out an egg, and maybe a teaspoon or so of butter. Melt the butter in the pan until it foams. Turn the heat down to medium. Crack the egg on the side of the pan and gently separate the sides, opening it up close to the surface of the pan so the egg gently touches down without breaking the yolk. (If you're nervous about this, you can crack the egg into a cup instead, then pour the contents of the cup into the pan.) The white should start to set up and become opaque. Grind some pepper over the top of the egg, but otherwise leave it alone. When the white is firm and the edges start to curl up, it's ready.
This basic variation of egg-frying is called sunny-side-up, and it's perfect if you like a warm but runny yolk. If you like your yolk cooked a bit more, slide the spatula underneath the egg and gently turn it over in the pan, taking care not to break the yolk, and cook it about 30 seconds longer; this version is called over-easy. Of course, if you break the yolk and sorta scumble it around in the pan, you can also create the time-honored version known as the train wreck.
My hubby likes to make what he calls one-eyed sandwiches: you cut a round hole in the middle of a piece of bread, using a biscuit cutter or the edge of a drinking glass, then put it in the foamy butter and let it toast a bit. Break the egg right into the hole in the middle of the bread. When it starts to set up, flip it over and let the other side of the bread toast. Get yourself a glass of milk or juice and voila, instant breakfast.
Scrambled: Same frying pan, same foamy butter. But this time, break an egg into a small bowl and use a fork to whip it around until the white and yolk are thoroughly intermixed. Add a bit of pepper and a few drops of hot sauce if you like (I prefer Cholula), and pour it into the pan. Stir the eggs around with the spatula. They will slowly set up and begin to separate into curds. When you see no runny liquid left, the eggs are ready. (Don't cook them too long or they'll start to get rubbery.) Salt to your liking and eat, or add a little salsa, ketchup or brown sauce. Om nom nom.
Hard-boiled: Personally I can't stand the taste of hard-boiled eggs, but I know I'm a freak of nature, so here goes: It's best to make several hard-boiled eggs at once, to lessen the chances that one will break during the cooking process. Put the eggs into a medium-sized cookpot filled with cold water (covering the eggs by an inch or two). Bring the water to a boil on the stove. Once the water has reached a full rolling boil, remove the cookpot from the heat, put the lid on the pot and set your kitchen timer for 12 minutes. Leave the eggs alone until the timer goes off. Then pour off the hot water and submerge the eggs in very cold water to stop the cooking process. (Some people suggest putting the eggs under cold running tap water so the water stays consistently cold. Others suggest throwing in a few ice cubes.) Let them stay in the cold water until they're cool to the touch. Gently roll a boiled egg on the counter to crack the shell, then peel the shell off, preferably under cold running water. You can eat them as is with a little salt, or use them to make deviled eggs or egg salad or whatever takes your fancy. Just don't make me eat 'em.


Thanks to the wonders of jarred sauces, pasta is one of the simplest and most economical meals to make. And you look more competent making this stuff than you do with a packet of instant ramen.

The important thing in cooking pasta is making sure you have enough boiling water, so that the pasta can "swim" freely as it cooks. If you cram pasta into a small pot, it will take ages to cook, get gummy and cling to itself. Yech. So make sure it's got plenty of room. When in doubt, give it more water than you think it'll need; more is better than less.

Heat up the water first in the cookpot (if in doubt, read "How to boil water" above). Add about a teaspoon or so of salt to the water. Once it's at a nice rolling boil, add the pasta, a little at a time (about a palmful at a time for small shaped pasta), and let it do its thing in the water. Check the side of the container for cooking times. Fresh pasta (sold in the refrigerator case) takes almost no time at all, while dried pasta (sold in boxes on the shelf) can take up to 15 minutes to cook.

The easiest way to check for pasta's "doneness" is to fish a piece out and bite into it. If it's cooked all the way through to the center, it's perfect. Don't let it overcook and get mushy. Put the colander into the sink, carefully (!) carry your cookpot over to the sink and pour the contents into the colander. The water goes, the pasta stays.

Now you're going to want some sauce. Ideally you should start this a few minutes before you estimate the pasta will be done. Grab your frying pan, put it on another burner and add some of the jarred sauce of your choice. (Hint: most Americans use too much sauce on their pasta; you don't really need much, especially for fresh pasta.) Heat it over medium heat until it's hot. Once the pasta is well drained (shake the colander a bit to get any hidden water out of the pasta), put it into a bowl, add some of the hot sauce and toss to coat. It's ready to eat.

DON'T RINSE YOUR PASTA. The sauce will slide right off the pasta if it's been rinsed.

Once you've got the basics down, you can add various other goodies to fancify your pasta -- cook meat, fish, or vegetables with the sauce, grate a little hard cheese over the finished pasta, etc. You can also branch out into filled and baked pasta, like manicotti or lasagne. And I may teach you how to make a few homemade sauces as well. But for now, you've got a simple, cheap and tasty dinner.


Most salads don't count as "cooking" since they're uncooked, but you should know how to put several together anyway. They taste good and add all sorts of nifty vitamins to your meal.

A general rule about salad: if you're using lettuce or other fresh vegetables, try to make only as much salad as you'll eat in one sitting. A dressed salad, even if it's covered and put in the fridge, starts to wilt quickly.

Green salad: Get a head of lettuce (it can be iceberg, red leaf, green leaf, Romaine, butter, or anything else that looks tasty and is on sale this week) and wash it under cold running tap water. (Yes, I know you can buy bagged salad at the store, but whole lettuce is fresher and usually costs less, and you shouldn't be scared to handle food the way it comes out of the ground.) Shake as much water out as possible, then pull off a few leaves and dry them with a clean kitchen towel. Break the leaves into bite-sized pieces, putting them into a serving bowl. If the lettuce you've chosen has large white ribs through the middle of the leaves, such as Romaine, remove these ribs and discard them; they tend to be bitter. This plus a little dressing constitutes the most basic salad on the planet, but most people like to add in a little something else -- say, cherry or cut-up tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, thinly minced green onions or chives, and some croutons added at the last minute so they don't get soggy.
There are lots of variations on green salad. Try fiddling with this basic formula: lettuce + fresh fruit (or raw vegetable) + dried fruit + crunchy addition (nuts, croutons, bacon bits) + cheese + fresh herb (optional). We like pear salad: start with a bed of lettuce, then add a pear or Asian pear cut into small chunks, a handful of sweetened dried cranberries, some walnut or pecan pieces, and a little bit of cheese (chunks of feta, chèvre or gorgonzola) with a vinaigrette dressing. Nom. And any green salad can become a dinner salad if you add some protein (slices of cold cooked chicken, chopped ham, salami, etc.). Just don't add the dressing until you're ready to eat it.
Cucumber-tomato salad: If you have a big cucumber and a good fresh tomato, you have the fixings for a salad. Wash the cucumber. You can peel it or not, depending on how well you like cucumber skin. Slice crosswise into very thin slices. Now grab a nice ripe beefsteak tomato, wash it well, and cut it into similar slices. Arrange in a circle in a serving bowl, alternating a slice of cucumber and a slice of tomato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or Montreal steak seasoning), drizzle olive oil and a little vinegar over the top, and add a bit of feta cheese. Easy, delicious, and it keeps better than a green salad.
Pasta salad: Got some leftover pasta with no sauce on it? Good! Get out your serving bowl and fling in some pasta. Chop up a little protein (it's usually ham around here, but it can be any cold meat or even a meat substitute) and add it to the pasta. Wash a green onion, cut off the root end and slice it into very fine slices, then add it in. (If you don't have a green onion, you can dice up about a quarter of a regular onion, rinse it in a colander under cold running water, and add it to the salad instead.) If you like celery, wash a stalk and cut it into fine slices, then add it in. If you're like me and think celery is of the devil, get a green pepper, pull off the stalk, cut the pepper in half, remove all the seeds and rinse well under cold running water, then cut into small chunks and throw it in. You can also throw in a handful of washed cherry tomatoes or some drained canned olives if you like them. Then get a dollop of mayonnaise (no, not Miracle Whip; that stuff is the work of Satan) and add a bit of spicy brown mustard, mix it up and stir it into the salad until everything's thoroughly mixed. Unlike green salads, pasta salad should sit in the fridge a few hours to let all the flavors marry. Eat with gusto (and a fork).

(Want to be able to make some other basic recipes? This is the first of a series. Send in your requests and I'll cover them in later articles.  Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here.)