Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mixed Plate: My Own List of Favorite Things (Take THAT, Oprah!)

We're in the terrifying thrall of X-Days Till Christmas and it's barely the second week of December. I felt my chest start to tighten the moment I had to change the calendar over once November croaked out its day. Despite the fact that Santa's laws-of-physics-breaking visit is at the end of the month, the hard truth is, the gift-gathering should be mostly done because you know it's going to take the whole month to track people down for a holiday meetup to actually give them that glorious Chia Pet you so lovingly selected last minute from the drug store bargain aisle. Gift giving has become less of a thoughtful art, and more of a mad dash to some imaginary finish line with gift-wrapped Snuggies in our clutches. Just Say No to a Pajama Jean Holiday. Instead, how about thinking outside the box, making gifts more about use and less about clutter, and most importantly: Shopping Local.

Unique cutting boards made with salvaged Big Leaf Maple wood - pretty AND useful! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
This post was inspired by Oprah, or rather, to counteract her demigod-like status. I remember when she first started doing her Favorite Things list around the holidays, showcasing hidden gems and artisan products that she would package up in a well-produced yearly episode. She's given a lot of great press to small companies and changed a lot of lives, and for that I appreciated her efforts to give people an alternative to Big Box Store gift buying. Then, after a while, the Favorite Things turned into too many high-end, designer items, and then there was the car thing where everyone in the audience literally got a car, my eyes rolled into the back of my head and I turned the television off. But I still appreciated the heart of what Almighty Oprah was trying to do and I wanted to come up with a few of my own Favorite Things that I've discovered this year.

My Favorite Things are just a handful of items; they're just a few items I thought were showcase-worthy because at the heart of all great gifts is a story, whether it's in the product itself or the way you as the gift-giver came to discover it. And yes, they're all food-related, which makes sense for a food blog, but makes better sense for a recipient because heaven knows we all don't need more decorative dust-collectors. It's nice to get something we can consume and enjoy the experience without wondering where to put the thing, or if it's an object, it should be something you can use regularly, and kitchen-related items can be both artful and useful. 

Which leads me to one particular item that I think brings a little beauty into your everyday life -- handmade cutting boards made from a local Northwest native species of tree called Big Leaf Maple. These are really special items because the particular tree that was used to harvest from was a massive 60 year old Big Leaf Maple tree in Olympia which fell in that huge winter windstorm back in 2009 -- if you lived in the area at the time, you probably recall that insane storm. We were without power for a week, so I sure as heck remember. But from the wreckage comes beauty, as the salvaged wood was made into cutting boards all shapes and sizes, with no board being exactly alike, given the nature of the reclaimed wood. The boards are cut down and left to dry age in a method called spalting, which enhances the wood's grain and develops unusual coloring patterns. They're sanded and treated with food grade mineral oil and are safe to serve items like cheese, crackers and prepared meats. It's not recommended to cut raw meat or chicken on, but that's fine because I would consider these boards more presentation serving ware than something you'd hack up a side of beef on. They're finished with a custom brand in the corner, the initials ML, which stands for the mother who owns the property, and the son who crafts each board. 

Display your favorite winter fruits on a schmancy Pacific Northwest cutting board! - Photos by Wasabi prime
I was introduced to these boards by my friend Jameson Fink, who you probably know as the man, the myth the legend behind Wine Without Worry, wine writer for magazines, as well as the author of Beginners Guide to Wine. And also just a very cool dude. Jameson's a friend of the family in Cooper Point who makes these beautiful cutting boards and along with good taste in wine, he has great taste in gift ideas. These are handcrafted boards from a single tree, and given the artisan nature of the items, it's a limited supply, so get 'em while they're hot. Think of it as art you can use because they're lovely conversation pieces and a great gift for someone who likes to entertain. Believe me, you can never have too many serving platters, boards, etc. If you want to know more information about the boards and where you can get one of the Preciousses, contact Jameson directly. He's volunteered to be the point person for this very boutique family operation, so send Jameson a ping through the various networks of interwebs he has on his contact page.

The boards would make a perfect Big Gift for someone special. What about stocking stuffers or little goodies to add to gift bags? Instead of one big centerpiece gift, I usually opt for a mishmash-melange of little finds that I've collected throughout the year like handmade soaps and lotions, flavored salts and sugars, cute mittens -- all wonderful finds that you can typically find at farmers markets. But, OH SNAP -- most farmers markets have closed up shop since it's off season. Luckily there are small craft shows that open for the holiday season -- find one and go to it, you will find all the little affordable gifts and stocking stuffers to your heart's content, and you'll be buying items from the person who made it, so they can tell you all about each piece. My favorite place to see what's going on locally is the bulletin boards in coffee shops -- the Starbucks has become the Town Hall for the 21st century. While you're waiting for that peppermint mocha with whipped cream and sprinkles, take a gander at the bulletin board for upcoming craft fairs in your neighborhood. 

A funny thing happened on the way out of the hardware store... - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Shop creatively and in unexpected places. Be open to discovery. Skip the Ninth Circle of Hell that is the shopping mall during the holiday season, because it's just full of people with the glazed-over look of Black Friday regret, junkies looking for that next bargain/red tag discount hit. My biggest discovery this year was, of all places, at the local True Value hardware store right in Duvall. I needed something random like wreath hangers and as I was leaving the store, my eye caught on a small display full of locally harvested raw honey. Jackpot. I actually left the store, thinking of the honey, then ran back to buy a few bottles. It was Kismet, swarmed by bees. The honey was bottled by a local beekeeper who knows the owner of the hardware store; he up hives all over the Cherry Valley, and then collects the honey to sell at a very affordable price. I picked up a couple of bottles of blackberry honey and one called knotweed, which sounds less than sexy, but the honey was a gorgeous caramel color, darker than the golden blackberry variety. It's pretty sweet stuff, ideal for tea drinkers or anyone who wants something sweet on their morning toast. Once I packaged the bottles up in a more festive way, they went into gift bags and boxes knowing the recipients would literally have a taste of the Cherry Valley, and the place I call home. It's not just honey in a jar, it's personal, a treasure discovered, and something I know the recipient will use and enjoy.

Granted, not everyone lives near Duvall, much less in Washington. Maybe raw honey isn't your thing, but the point is to always keep your eye open for discoveries. And small towns are perfect for these unexpected treasures, since shops are willing to sell unusual items like handcrafted jewelry and yes, food items. I guarantee you'll find more amazing treasures and trinkets shopping five small shops along the Main Street of a little town than you will browsing the mega aisles in a single Big Box Store. Think on a bigger level -- just by diverting a few of your holiday gift budget towards small, local businesses, you're a part of a growing collective that supports creating more jobs. It's holiday cheer that is priceless. 

That's one big, hot... rooster - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But of course, it's the holidays, which means -- who the hell has the time to be out driving around, making precious discoveries in quaint Small Town America? We all have busy schedules and for as much as we pine for a leisurely holiday season, everything turns into Murderball in December, and I still shop online like a madwoman. As tempting as it is to use the hell out of that Amazon Prime membership this holiday season, take a second to see what else is out there in Retail Interwebs-landia. One of my tastiest finds this year was during breakfast at our neighborhood spot, the Duvall Grill. You get your delicious plate o' food, and they bring out the typical array of condiments: ketchup, Tabasco (red and green), Cholula and/or Tapatio, aka, Spooky Blue-Eyed Creepy Uncle sauce. This time, it was a funky bottle of hot sauce with a dapper, suit-wearing rooster on the front. A clever ode to our Other Favorite Rooster Sauce, which I would argue is the Unofficial State Condiment of Washington, this new spicy little devil was simply called DeMars's Rooster Sauce. It wasn't dying-of-spice hot, just a really satisfying touch of heat, but with vibrant sweet pepper flavor and vinegar-forward -- a bonus to Tabasco fans. It's all natural, vegan, gluten free, so no junk, and by god, it's flavorful. It made an already good breakfast wicked-awesome mo' bettah, and I was hooked. I looked up the company and DeMars is based out of Olympia and sold in a few stores, so keep an eye out for them on the shelves of small grocers, or if you're impatient like me, go to their website

Hot sauces are perfect gifts for people who love their food to bite back, and we have a lot of family and friends who I knew would dig this rooster the most. I went ahead and bought a case of the smaller bottles from their site -- 12 bottles = 12 mini gifts. Bazam. And how cluckin' awesome is that, when they included a nice little handwritten thank you note from "The Rooster Crew." Love it. And given its in-state proximity, I received my order within two days, no express shipping needed. I was able to dress up each bottle with a little gift tag, noting their delicious local-ness, and add them to gift bags and boxes full of homemade cookies or other goodies like local chocolates.

You don't have to run out and buy each item like on Oprah's Favorite Things. In fact, I hope you find your own Favorite Things this year. I wanted to highlight some discoveries I'm quite proud to show off, because they're a piece of home, they all come with a story, and no matter where you live, I know there are treasures waiting for you to discover and share with loved ones this holiday season. So keep a watchful eye out, whether you're in a hardware store or just having breakfast at your favorite neighborhood diner -- you can avoid the typical shopping snarls this year and never have to buy another Chia Pet again!

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