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Gifts for or from a cook.

Is there a food lover on your holiday gift list? Consider offering a food discovery package. The ones shown here require only brief assembly. Once prepared, they'll keep from several months to a year.

Gourmet stores sell most ingredients--vanilla beans ($1.50 to $3 per bean), truffle oil ($15 to $20 for a 2- to 3-oz. bottle), cob popcorn (30 cents to $1 apiece), and dried mushrooms ($3 to $13 per oz.). These items are also available by mail order.

Vanilla beans

Use the strongly aromatic beans whole, or split them to get more flavor from the thousands of tiny seeds inside. After using whole or split beans, rinse, pat dry, and store in a cool, dark place to reuse. Fresh and reused beans will keep indefinitely immersed in alcohol or stored airtight.

Vanilla sugar. Put 1 or 2 vanilla beans into a jar; fill with sugar to cover. Seal tightly; shake jar every few days for about l month. (To speed up the process, whirl chopped vanilla beans and sugar in a blender; store for at least 1 week, then sieve sugar.) Use sugar over fruit and in desserts. Replace sugar as used.

Vanilla extract. Place 1 vanilla bean (split, if desired) into a narrow bottle. Fill bottle with brandy, vodka, or rum to completely cover bean. Seal airtight; let stand about 1 month in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally. Use to flavor desserts, or as called for in recipes.

Truffle oil on popcorn or pasta

Olive oil infused with the essence of crushed white truffles takes on the distinctive musky smell and flavor of the highly valued fungus. Use sparingly as a seasoning oil; long cooking dissipates flavor. Imported oils, especially those from Italy, seem to have the strongest scent. Store in a cool, dark place up to a few months.

Truffled popcorn. Mix 1 to 2 teaspoons truffle oil with 1 quart popped corn. Add salt to taste.

To pop cob popcorn, place 1 cob popcorn (6 to 8 in.) in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold top over several times and set bag in the middle of a micro-wave oven. Set time for 4 minutes at full power (100 percent). Cook until popping slows to 2 to 3 seconds between pops, 2 to 4 minutes. Listen closely; do not overcook. Makes about 1 quart.

Truffled pasta. Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons truffle oil with 4 cups hot cooked pasta. Add freshly grated parmesan cheese and pepper to taste.

Mushrooms in a basket

Make up a woodland basket with a choice of dried mushrooms: Morels are deeply cratered and have elongated dark brown caps and earthy flavor. Chanterelles are golden brown with pronounced gills; flavor is mild and nutty. Porcini (cepes), in dark brown slices, have intense, pungent aroma and flavor. Shiitakes have wrinkled dark brown caps and intense, rich flavor.

To use mushrooms. Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Rub with fingers in liquid to remove grit; lift from liquid. Discard stems, if tough. You can also use the flavorful soaking liquid; carefully pour off water, discarding the gritty sediment that's left behind.

Use mushrooms (whole, sliced, or chopped) and liquid in pasta sauces and rice dishes, and with poultry and meats. One ounce dried mushrooms is enough to season 6 servings. Store airtight in a dark place at room temperature for up to 1 year.

Fruit-flavored vinegars

For easy-to-make flavored vinegars, you start with purchased white wine vinegar and heat it with berries, citrus peel, or exotic passion fruit or tamarind. As the mixture cools, the vinegar absorbs flavor and color from the added ingredient. Use a clear bottle to show off the vinegar's color.

Try any of the following vinegars over crisp greens or with vegetables, raw or cooked. Or use them to enhance fruits for salads or dessert.

With meats, poultry, or fish, splash onto cooked foods or use as a marinade. Some striking combinations: tamarind or passion fruit vinegar with pork, lamb, or chicken; citrus vinegars with fish; berry vinegars with poultry or lamb; citrus or tamarind vinegars with beef or venison. To marinate, put meat in a plastic bag and add enough vinegar to moisten; seal and chill 1 to 4 hours, turning occasionally. Then broil, barbecue, saute, or roast.

These vinegars keep at room temperature up to 4 months. Fruit slowly falls apart but is not harmful. Simply pour through a strainer and discard fruit.

Flavored vinegar. Combine 3 cups white wine vinegar, fruit flavor (choices follow), and 2 tablespoons honey in a 2-to 3-quart pan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, until cool. If specified with fruit choice, pour liquid through fine strainer into a bowl; discard residue.

Pour vinegar through a funnel into a 1-quart bottle, plain or decorative. Close tight; let stand at least 1 day. Use, or keep at room temperature up to 4 months. If an opaque film develops on surface, you can either spoon it off or, to preserve clarity of vinegar, pour through a fine strainer into a 2- to 3-quart pan and bring to boiling. Wash bottle, then refill with vinegar. Store as before. Makes about 1 quart.

Berry flavor. Rinse and drain 4 cups fresh raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries (hull and slice); or use 1 package (12 or 16 oz.) frozen, unsweetened berries (any of the above). If desired, set aside 1/4 cup berries. Add remaining fruit to vinegar and heat as directed, preceding. Pour through strainer. Add reserved fruit to filled bottle.

Citrus flavor. Use 1/4 cup finely shredded lemon, orange, or lime peel. Heat as directed, preceding. Bottle with the peel.

Passion fruit flavor. Scrape pulp from 6 ripe (shells are crinkled) passion fruit, each about 2 inches in diameter. Add pulp to vinegar. Heat as directed, preceding. Bottle with fruit.

Tamarind flavor. Pull brittle shells and strings from 1 pound tamarind pods (sold in Mexican and Southeast Asian markets). Add pulp and seeds to vinegar; warm the mixture slightly. With your hand, rub pulp from seeds. Heat as directed, preceding. Pour through strainer; press pulp with a spoon to extract all liquid.

Mail-order sources

Corti Bros. Market, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif. 95819; (916) 736-3800. Vanilla beans, truffle oil, mushrooms.

De Laurenti Specialty Food Markets, 1435 First Ave., Seattle 98101; (206) 622-0141. Vanilla beans, truffle oil, mushrooms.

G. B. Ratto, 821 Washington St., Oakland, Calif. 94607; (800) 325-3483. Vanilla beans, truffle oil, mushrooms.

Irvine Ranch Market at the Beverly Center, 142 S. San Vincente Blvd., Los Angeles 90048; (310) 657-1931. Vanilla beans, truffle oil, cob popcorn, mushrooms.

Patricia Rain, 335 Loyola Dr., Aptos, Calif. 95003; (408) 685-0353. Vanilla beans.

Strohecker's, Inc., 2855 S.W. Patton Rd., Portland 97201; (503) 223-7391. Vanilla beans, cob popcorn, and mushrooms.

Wally's, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles 90025; (310) 475-0606. Vanilla beans, truffle oil, cob popcorn, mushrooms.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Best of the Holidays
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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