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Dress up a fresh summer salad with homemade Thyme Honey Mustard. Or if assembling a meal kit for a friend, include the homemade dressing, some strips of grilled chicken, hardboiled eggs, fresh greens and crisp bacon. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara J Stirs: Gifting homemade foods — including do-it-yourself meal kits — make great pandemic pick-me-ups

The practice of gifting food is a tradition far older than you or I.

It is a universal gesture used as a form of condolence, to celebrate a joyous event, as comfort in a time of need, a housewarming welcome – the scenarios are countless.

So, what makes these gifts so special?

I believe it is because a homemade gift displays evidence of true thought and compassion. It takes time and patience when preparing food for someone else: one must consider what will please the family, others’ dietary restrictions and other factors.

Knowing the answers to questions like these shows the recipient genuine thoughtfulness. Take the holidays for instance: I would say more homemade culinary treats are shared over these weeks than during any other time of the year. I know I have a few delights that I anxiously await from people close to me, and the time and love they put into baking is just as important as the treat itself.

All of this has me reflecting on sharing and connecting safely during a pandemic, a notion that was foreign just months ago. During quarantine, I have enjoyed gifting people with surprises on their doorsteps or delivering contactless dinners.

While nothing pleases me more than sharing the food I have cooked with others, there was something missing from these experiences. I soon realized it was the face-to-face contact – seeing the smile and joy on a person’s face is equally as gratifying as the action of gifting. It is the smiles that allow me to know I have succeeded in bringing a bright spot to someone’s day, which, in turn, has a similar positive effect on my soul.

Instead of the normal visit, most deliveries were followed shortly after by a phone call, and for now to stay safe, I will accept this as an alternative. Things are most certainly different now, but it is critical that we remember each other.

Food gifts do not have to be elaborate. If you are growing a garden, a simple gift of produce is most appreciated. I am known to give usable bouquets of herbs, both beautiful and functional. A homemade dressing or marinade in a pretty jar is as elegant as something from a fine cooking store.

Flavored salts are one of my favorite gifts to disperse.

Another idea I use often is something “deconstructed” for assembly when desired. For example, all the components of a salad: a few spreads with homemade bread or a “taco bar” delivery. Or, alternatively, some grilled chicken, Crudités, and crusty bread is always a crowd-pleaser.

I am including a few ideas that might help you with culinary gifting ideas. Check on your family, call your friends and fix food for people; it is positive actions like this that will help us all endure the pandemic safely.

Happy gardening and cooking. Peace.

Spicy Greek Cheese Spread / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Spicy Greek Cheese Spread

Ingredients (for one cup of spread):
4 ounces softened cream cheese
4 ounces feta cheese
2-3 hot wax peppers (either grilled, broiled, or roasted), peeled and seeded
3 tablespoons fresh oregano
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
Serve chilled; it will keep in the fridge one week.

Lemon Orzo / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Summer Bruschetta with Lemon Orzo

2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1 garlic clove grated
1/4 cup chopped basil
2 teaspoons flaky salt (you may need more)
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Directions: Salt tomatoes and the garlic in bowl; allow to sit for 5-10 minutes. Then add balsamic, and allow to sit another 5 minutes.
Now, taste to see if more salt or vinegar is needed. Adjust accordingly; stir in basil. Add fresh cracked pepper and grated Parmesan if desired.

For the lemon orzo: Heat 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, 2 tablespoons fresh oregano chopped, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper and salt in a skillet over medium low heat while the pasta water boils. Once the orzo is cooked and drained add it to the infused oil, toss 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and juice of 1 lemon. Season with flaky salt and fresh cracked pepper.

For the oregano breadcrumbs: In a skillet combine 1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs (or run stale crusty bread through a food processor for homemade), 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (or 2 teaspoons dried), red pepper and salt to taste. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of oil, toss and toast over medium low heat until golden.

Thyme Honey Mustard

1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
Cracked black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons fresh chopped thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

Directions: Combine all ingredients.

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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