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Special Section: Non-Chocolate Gift Food Recommendations

Sweet Spot


Special Section: Non-Chocolate Gift Food Recommendations

Everyone has someone special on their holiday list who's into good food but can't or won't eat chocolate. Here are some ideas for that choosy gourmet…

--The Vanilla Company (, 1-800-757-7511). I adore vanilla. It is unbeatable as a flavoring, especially combined with chocolate, and my idea of aromatherapy is opening a bottle of good vanilla extract and inhaling deeply. If you are similarly-minded, rejoice, for here is a small venture devoted to the joys of that blessed orchid. Different types of vanilla beans and extracts (wholesale and retail), vanilla soap and perfumes and bath salts, vanilla honey, even clary sage and vanilla massage oil; if it has vanilla in it, chances are that the "Queen of Vanilla", Patricia Rain, knows about it. The website is very new, so look for a continually-expanding roster of products. I like Ms. Rain's mission and vision for The Vanilla Company, and be sure to read her fascinating history. Vanilla-themed gift baskets should be online by now, too.

--Woodberry's Jam and Preserves (, 1-877-826-9246). Woodberry's, located near the famed fruit-growing Langekloof area of South Africa, is a small, family-owned and family-run company that makes regionally-traditional jams in small, open-pot batches. Choose from their Cape Gooseberry, Youngberry, seedless Hanepoot Grape, Cape Fig, or other jams (try finding those flavors in your local market!). All fruit is hand-picked, and there are no artificial preservatives or colors used. The elegant labels and jars will make a good first impression, too. Via the magic of our ever-smaller world, you need only go as far as the web or your telephone, as Dean & Deluca now carries Woodberry's products (make sure you try the delicious apricot). Many of these preserves can also be used in your cooking (try glazing a turkey with the nectarine jam blended with mixed poultry herbs), and most will be eye-openers for everyone who tastes them. Here's your opportunity to surprise anyone who thinks they've seen it all in the world of preserves…

--Honey in the Rough (, 1-800-84-MAPLE). This raw, unprocessed, opaque honey, containing pollen and propolis and capped with honeycomb, has a great, intense flavor and a spreadable, slightly rough texture--very distinct from the multitude of similar-tasting brands. This is a honey that can stand up to your favorite wholegrain or multigrain bread, but at the same time I think it'd be ideal in a cup of delicate tea. I've tried a number of creamed honies and raw honies lately, from various regions of the country, and this beats them all both for texture and flavor. If you know someone really into natural foods, this would be a very nice holiday gift. Important note: Honey of any kind should not be fed to infants under one year of age.

--Wild Fruitz (, 1-888-688-7632). Trev Warshauer is a man passionate about his mission. Upon realizing that the vast quantities of soda drunk by so many young people contained things that were contributing to health problems, such as diabetes, he set out to create an alternative to soda. He wanted something that was healthier and better-tasting and could be used as a culinary item. A tall order, certainly, but his Wild Fruitz Sparkling Juices fill the bill. They are remarkable for what they don't contain: no preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, or phosphoric acid. What these juices do have is at least 25% real fruit juice, all natural flavors, light carbonation, and a genuine thirst-quenching fruit flavor that isn't too sweet. I'm told that some chefs use these as marinades, and I'm betting the orange/mango would be great over poultry. Other flavors available include raspberry, lemonade, huckleberry/blueberry, and pomegranate/black currant. There's a minimum order of one case of 12 ounce bottles, but you can mix flavors within the case. If it seems odd to order a beverage this way, remember how many people don't give a second thought to ordering cases of wine...

--Leo's Own (, 1-888-LEOS-OWN). Whether you're entertaining a crowd or your own tastebuds, smoked salmon is always a popular choice. So what's so different about Leo's Own, you ask? First off, it's all wild Pacific salmon, so it really tastes like something (to me, most farm-raised fish lacks in flavor). The salmon is lightly smoked with a traditional low-salt recipe, then packed into glass jars, which makes it perfect for use in recipes (regular smoked salmon is a pain to slice and chop). Of course, if you're like me, you'll eat it straight from the jar; it's fully cooked, so this is no problem. Leo's Own (which really is headed by someone named Leo), is available in traditional flavor, as well as lemon pepper, garlic pepper, lemon dill, and savory sweet. This salmon is always moist and flavorful. Unbeatable as a midnight snack!

--Partners, A Tasteful Cracker (, 1-800-632-7477). If you had to name one snack food you'll almost certainly serve during the holidays, crackers would be a safe bet. But most supermarket crackers are too salty or too greasy for me, or they're loaded with artificial ingredients. Not these! Available in flavors such as Walla Walla sweet onion and toasted sesame, Partners are very thin, very crisp, and quite flavorful, and would be a perfect accompaniment to cheeses or dips--you can even enjoy them unadorned. If you're looking to reduce your fat intake, this company also makes a line of low fat Wisecrackers, and you can choose from roasted garlic & rosemary, spicy pepper melange, and more. Newer introductions for Partners are their minimally sweet cookies, called Sweet Crisps (though I haven't tried these, that toasted hazelnut variety has me intrigued) and several choices in Gourmet Granola, all sweetened only with honey and fruit. The website has a complete list of offerings. If you cannot find Partners products in your local upscale grocer or specialty store, you can order via the toll-free number above.

--Mighty Mo Munchies Soy Nuts (, 1-800-762-1384). Even if you scoff at all of the health claims touted by people into soy snacks, it cannot be denied that these soy nuts are high in isoflavones, non-genetically-modified, low in fat, and contain some serious fiber (in addition to vitamins and minerals). I started eating soy nuts because I know they have good nutritional value; I ended up eating these because they are the best-tasting soy nuts I've tried--and I've sampled a lot of the other brands on the market. This is a company with a great history (see their website); in addition, they are wonderfully nice people. They tell me that some organizations are putting these snacks into gift baskets these days instead of chips or sweet snacks--what a great idea! The soy nuts are available in original (salted), Cajun, ranch, or unsalted flavors, in either 8 ounce or new 1-1/2 ounce bags. I never thought I'd actually enjoy eating any soy product, but sometimes it's nice to be proven so wrong.

--Marin French Cheese Company (, (800) 292-6001 or (707) 762-6001). Cheeses handmade in the style of La Belle France are the specialty of this small company. Only milk from Jersey cows is used, and non-animal rennet is the order of the day. Offerings include a delicate breakfast cheese, Camembert, Brie (traditional or flavored), and Rouge et Noir (their brand name) shirts, baseball caps, wine glasses, etc. My respect for Marin's cheesemaking ability has known no bounds since I first tasted their Camembert last January; it was creamy and perfectly aged and beautifully well-balanced. These are cheeses made by people who respect this time-honored craft and for people who love cheese or desire to educate their palates. (, 1-866-394-7852). I have a confession to make. I'm not a coffee drinker. However, I know enough about coffee to understand that, as an agricultural product, it's always going to be better when it's fresh. That's the premise behind Your coffee is roasted only after you place your order, and it's shipped to you within 24 hours of roasting. Once you choose from a dizzying variety of coffees (including but not limited to samplers, Central American, Papua New Guinean, estate, flavored, African, decaffeinated, and espresso), you select from 5 grinds, ranging from whole bean to cone grind to French press. Shipping is free, and the company's special packaging protects against the damaging effects of oxygen. If you can't do without your minimum daily requirement of java, shouldn't you be drinking the freshest stuff you can find?

--Zeke's Gourmet Kippered Beefsteak (, 1-888-697-4767 or 908-537-7539). Sure, it looks rather like jerky, but any resemblance ends there. Good quality top round beef, savory spices, and premium wine or liqueur result in a much more tender and moist product than regular, stiff-as-a-board, dried-out jerky. The finished beef contains no alcohol, they say--just a bit of its flavor. There are no added nitrites or MSG, either. My preferences run to Zeke's Gold or Ol' Number 9, but there are varieties with more kick, too. Ideal for camping trips, of course, but also a great pick-me-up on a long plane flight or car ride.

--Heidi's Pancake Mix (, 1-877-295-3212). One of Heidi Acuff's promotional posters shows her with a stack of her pancakes--on her head. While I'm all for innovative headgear, I think that eating the pancakes made from these mixes would be a much better way to go. Her cottage cheese pancakes taste a lot like the ones my mom used to make for me; she also has a sourdough mix, an oats'n apple mix with real apple pieces and whole rolled oats, and a blue moon! mix with blue corn, flax seeds, wheat and oat bran, and brown sugar. These pancakes are no trouble to make, and wouldn't they be a nice change of pace from cereal or a granola bar on a cold morning? Good for a gift basket, too.

--Whole in the Wall Pesto (, 1-607-722-0006). If you don't know about pesto, you're really missing out on something; well-made pesto is a joy. Originally, it was a combination of olive oil, garlic, pine nuts (pignolas), fresh basil, and Parmesan cheese, ground together and served over pasta. Whole in the Wall is a restaurant (43 South Washington St. in Binghamton, NY) with all-natural dishes, many vegetarian, and they have developed six varieties of this pasta "sauce": original basil, sun-dried tomato, Cajun, dairy free, spinach Parmesan, and sweet red pepper. I tasted the spinach Parmesan at a trade show recently, and was most impressed. It wasn't too oily or too salty (both are common flaws), just vibrantly flavored and fresh-tasting. Since pesto is rather a pain to make, I was delighted to find out that Whole in the Wall will now ship packs of 4 or 12 cartons (6.5 ounces each) to retail customers; just call them to order. They'll include a recipe pamphlet with other suggestions for their pesto, including using it as a baked potato topper. Pesto can bring a little instant summertime into anyone's cold winter day.

--Heaven and Earth ( or, 1-866-972-6879). Hawa'iian-born chef Glenn Chu has taken what he calls "Island Asian" sauces from his repertoire at Indigo restaurant and made them available as condiments, marinades, etc. I tried his raspberry hoisin sauce at a food show earlier this year, and it's a knockout! I'd never have thought to combine those two flavors, but this sauce would be perfect on chicken or duck. Other types available include four fruit, peanut, ginger mint, and dragon fire chili. Great for cooks or those who like entertaining at home and want to try something new. Available for e-shoppers on the World Pantry website (also an interesting place).

Do you havea comment, question, or suggestion? I'd like your input into this column. You can reach me at: Thank you!