Start make-your-own flavored vinegars and spirits now so they will be ready for the holidays.
My grandmother was a master preserver; I clearly remember licking the spoon after she tested grape jelly and helping her tie ribbons on jars of her rosy mulled pears. Among those to whom she presented gifts each holiday season were the postman, bank clerk and her sewing circle. Handing over the wine-soaked pears, she'd say, "It's better than fruitcake," with a wink.
Each year, in her honor, I make a humble attempt at putting up small batches of fruit vinegars and spirits. Simple and easy, they need no special equipment, no water bath processing.
But they do take several weeks for the flavors to marry, so if you want to try them, start now.
And put up a few extra to "gift" yourself. When you spoon spirited apricots over ice cream, or shake cranberry vinegar into bright vinaigrette, you'll be surprised by the pretty, tasty rewards.
These recipes are for small batches and can be easily doubled or tripled. Tailor the quantities to suit your needs. Here's a quick guide:
Flavored vinegars: The technique steeps fresh or dried fruit, herbs and spices in vinegar. Then the vinegar is strained, the flavor agents discarded and the vinegar is transferred to clean bottles. Adding fresh herbs or fruit to the finished bottle is a pretty touch.
Drizzle them over grilled meat, roasted vegetables and fruit salads or shake them into vinaigrette. Try adding a shot to charged water for a refreshing drink.
Use the recipes that follow here, but don't hesitate to create your own variations, mixing and matching the ingredients to get the flavors you like.
The key is to use good-quality vinegar with at least 5 percent acid. White, champagne and cider vinegars are best because darker-colored vinegars (red wine, balsamic and sherry) mask the color of the herbs or fruit being immersed.
Liqueur and mulled wine: Immerse fresh or dried fruit in hard spirits or wine for a few weeks and you get a two-for-one: Sip the spirits and enjoy the fruit. Dried fruit plumps as it absorbs the spirit; fresh fruit becomes tender and sweet.
The key is to use spirits with at least 40 percent alcohol (80 proof) whose flavor matches the ingredient. Vodka is the most neutral flavor, although brandy's flavor will also shine.
The aromatics in gin, especially juniper, make it a poor match to cranberries, but it does work well with citrus. For the mulled fruit, use a red wine to add color to the fruit; white wine will turn a light hue, the color of the fruit.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."