My nephew is perplexed. An orange is stuffed in the toe of his Christmas stocking, and he has no idea why. He shakes his head and looks at his Papa (my dad).
My brother and I laugh. It’s a longstanding family tradition, this stocking-toe orange — begun when my father was a boy and cash was scarce. Back then, an orange at Christmas was luxury, indeed. My dad stuffed an orange in the toes of his children’s holiday stockings; his children (my brother and I) now do the same.
In fact, oranges and apples and Christmas treats are all I put into my boys’ stockings these days. The Silly Putty and brainteasers and Matchbox cars of yesteryear would just gather dust on their window sills. But food? That’s what they want to find on Christmas morning!
I agree. Perfume is fine, and knick-knacks are lovely, but what I really want in a Christmas stocking are the spices, condiments and pantry staples I can’t keep on my shelves. Here are my top 10 stocking stuffers.
(Put them on top of that orange in the toe!)
1. Quick Cook Steel Cut Oats: Nuttier and chewier than their rolled-oats counterparts, this oatmeal from Trader Joe’s will sustain you through winter mornings in style. At 150 calories per serving, you can add sliced strawberries, a teaspoon of brown sugar and a bit of milk or cream without blowing your healthy-eating resolutions.
2. Sherry Vinegar: Buy the best quality bottle of this you can find (I like Zoe Diva Select). Mix it with grainy mustard and walnut oil for a sophisticated vinaigrette, or drizzle it into creamy soups or lentils for acidity and brightness.
3. Jarred Lemongrass: I love this staple of Thai cooking but find it a bit unwieldy to work with in its natural state. Thai Taste’s jarred lemongrass is the solution. Pre-cut into thin slivers and preserved in water and citric acid, it adds a tart, tangy note to soups and sauces. I like to chop it up and add it to turkey or lamb meatballs for a fresh citrus hit.
4. Star Anise: I’m a huge fan of the uncluttered spice drawer, but this one is worth its real estate. Star anise gives a slightly spicy, slightly floral, slightly fennel-like kick to dishes. I like to stick one of these Asian pods in broths for soups and stews; I often steep one or two in milk for puddings and custards.
5. Hungarian Paprika: Another spice worth the space it takes up — but only if you buy the real deal. Csemege Fuszerpaprika Orlemeny is straight from Hungary and makes the best chicken paprikas I’ve ever tasted.
6. Black Truffle Cream: This condiment’s high-octane flavor means I can use the 2.5-ounce jar I snapped up from Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia sparingly. The black truffle/olive oil combo is perfect stirred into vegetarian soups that need a hit of umami, and it elevates plain mashed potatoes to a gourmet meal. Stir a teaspoon into scrambled eggs, and you’ll have a dish fit for much more than breakfast.
7. Dry Vermouth: Keep a bottle of this stashed in your pantry and pull it out anytime a recipe calls for white wine. It’s cheaper than opening an entire bottle of Chardonnay, and the vermouth’s bracing acidity and sharp taste are perfect for risottos, soups and sauces. (Plus, it makes a mean martini…)
8. Red Hawaiian Sea Salt: This silky salt from India Tree is a perfect finish for roasted salmon or sauteed vegetables. The slightly briny tang stands up to butter-based sauces and cuts through assertive fish like salmon, swordfish and wahoo.
9. Sweet & Spicy Pecans: I used to make my own candied nuts, but no more! Trader Joe’s Sweet & Spicy Pecans are lovely sprinkled into salads, scattered atop cakes or served in bowls for snacking. Besides, opening a package is oh-so-much faster than spicing, sugaring and baking nuts of my own.
10. Canned Pumpkin: I’ve roasted many pumpkins in my cooking career, and none lives up to Libby’s in terms of texture or taste. Stir a dollop into pancakes or simmer a can with onions, carrots, celery, broth and spices for a dynamite — and holiday-perfect! — soup.