A Holiday Gift Guide for Giving Better Stuff

I heard someone joke about going to the local thrift store the day after Christmas to donate the just-unwrapped and unwanted bounty of gifts. Yes, we definitely have a collective problem with too much stuff (and too much waste), which is why it’s great to give experience gifts or contributions to good causes in the recipient’s name. But sometimes the best gift really does come in a package you can hand to your loved one for opening. For gift-giving that’s more meaningful, ’tis the season to:

Give twice.

When you buy items from thrift stores or auction sites that benefit nonprofits, your dollars support their work. A few favorites even have online shops, including Housing Works. When you shop online while logged in to Amazon Smile, you can choose a nonprofit to receive a small portion of sales. Also, sites like Bidding for Good offer products and experiences that benefit a variety of organizations.  

Another way to give back is by buying from gift shops for museums and parks, in person or online. (A few favorite museum shops: MoMAThe Metropolitan Museum of ArtLACMAThe Getty.)

Stay local.

Support the independent businesses in your neighborhood by shopping local—especially at book stores and sources that sell the works of local artisans. Even better if you can shop on foot or bike, leaving the car behind.

Be a maker.

Homemade gifts, including food and personal care items, are twice as nice. Extra touches: attach a recipe for the recipient and consider a vintage glass jar, container, or tin that can be reused.

Celebrate good taste.

Put another way: give tasty edibles. Choose locally grown produce, sweet treats, and other items for out-of-the-ordinary dining experiences at home. First stop: food vendors at your local farmers’ market. A farmers’ market basket or bag with fresh and local produce and a cookbook is a perfect gift. My grandmother always said, “Food is love.”

Make it an experience gift.

Give movie, concert or theater tickets, restaurant gift certificates, or museum memberships and you’re giving the recipient an experience to enjoy. The same goes for magazine subscriptions, books, music CDs, and DVDs of movies or TV shows. Also consider giving games or a puzzle from a photo-printing service that allows you to create one with personal photos.

Go green.

One size fits all: House plants, herb gardens, and seeds or outdoor plants for loved ones with yards.

Buy better products.

It’s true about one person’s trash being another’s treasure—and when you buy from antique markets, consignment and thrift shops, eBay, Etsy, Craigslist, and other sources of second-hand items, you do your part to reduce waste to landfills. Think of it like the island of misfit toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—there are worthy, good-as-new items out there looking for a home.

Another factor to consider: the maker of the products. Give from companies with responsible business practices—organic, Fair Trade, sweatshop-free, environmentally-friendly, sustainable, etc. (Look up B Corps for more.)

Recipe: Chicken Soup with Rice

Maurice Sendak gave me joy when I was a child. I loved the adventures on the pages of those magical books. I’m not alone in wanting to escape with Max in “Where the Wild Things Are” and make some noise with those bakers from “In The Night Kitchen.” Just last month, I attended a baby shower for which guests were asked to bring a beloved children’s book for the baby-to-be and I gave “In The Night Kitchen.” What tremendous gifts Sendak gave us with his books.

After I heard of his passing this morning, I knew we had to make chicken soup with rice for dinner —  a nod to his delightful “Chicken Soup With Rice.” When it came to making the soup, I knew it had to be made with wild rice. (Let the wild rumpus begin!) While we chopped veggies, I played the Carole King song version of the story.

Chicken Soup with Wild Rice

4 cups chicken stock

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock

4 carrots

1 fennel bulb

1 onion

4 heads of bok choy

1 tsp. Herbs de Provence




Roughly chop the carrots, fennel, and onion and set aside. (This recipe replaces the traditional celery in the mirepoix with fennel, simply because we didn’t have any celery on hand… and we love fennel.)

Chop bok choy, keeping it separate from the mirepoix.

Prepare wild rice with vegetable stock in a large pot. When rice is a few minutes from being done, add 1 quart of chicken stock and bring to a rolling boil.

Add the mirepoix and simmer until vegetables are tender but firm.

Season with Herbs de Provence and salt and pepper (we used black salt and white pepper — wild!).

Add pulled pieces of meat from a roasted chicken (except for the pieces you eat while preparing the soup…) and reduce heat to low.

Stir in the bok choy a few minutes before serving.

Top each bowl of soup with a squirt or two of fresh squeezed lemon juice.


Crafty: Book and T-Shirt Holiday Wreath

After crafting a recycled Christmas tree using pages from “Vogue” magazine, I decided to make a paper wreath for the front door. I used pages from an old paperback that was falling apart (“Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh), and simply taped the cut leaves to a cardboard base. The idea for this was borrowed (and I cannot locate the blog I landed on that showed a wreath like this); my own personal detail was to add a bow made from an old T-shirt. Voila.

Yard Sale Gem: American Woman’s Cookbook

Dad picked this up at a yard sale for me: “The American Woman’s Cookbook” by Ruth Berolzheimer (1941). The cover is held on by tape, but it’s in otherwise great condition. Not surprisingly, I have been entertained by the dated material (certainly the section on “Entertaining Without a Maid” was good for a chuckle) and also a bit surprised by some of the recipes (see “Opposum Roast”). I plan to skip the recipe for braised calf’s brains with oysters and all the others for opposum, squirrel, reindeer, and pigeon (potted pigeon, pigeon pie, AND pigeon and mushroom stew). But the classic buttermilk waffles, chocolate cream pie, and pan broiled steak look mighty fine and there are some useful charts (like the one pictured on cuts of beef) and how-to instructions on basic cooking techniques that stand the test of time.

Song in my head since getting the book: “American Woman” by the Guess Who (obviously); I like the Jimi Hendrix version but I could not find any good YouTube videos for that.

Still Love It: To Kill a Mockingbird

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, was taught in my high school, but my father recommended I read it prior to that; after I read through all the popular kid book series, my parents started me on classics. I resisted “To Kill a Mockingbird” because of the title. Why would I want to read a book about killing birds? (Another book I initially ignored for its title: “The Catcher in the Rye.” The only catchers I knew were on a baseball field of grass, not rye. I have since learned to never judge a book by its cover–or title.) I was a little older than the character of Scout when I took the copy I’d been given of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” off the bookshelf in my bedroom and decided to give it a shot, despite its unappealing title–and I loved it. Atticus Finch’s defense of Boo Radley–and the innocent mockingbird–still moves me. Here’s the movie scene (thanks, Dad) in which Finch explains the title.

Mary’s Cookbook: Cheerio Treats

During a recent family visit, my goddaughter Mary revealed to me that she was working on a cookbook and asked if I wanted to help her. Actually, she told me she would let me help her, you know, if I wanted to. She’s seven and told me that she already had lots of recipes (so it was really my privilege to be able to help). After a meeting on the matter, I was in–and “Mary’s Cookbook” became “Aunt Stef and Mary’s Cookbook.” We wanted to get right to work and started with ingredients in the house. Our first test recipe was for Cheerio Treats. A long time ago, I told Mary, I remember seeing a recipe on the side of a box of Cheerios, which was like Rice Krispie Treats but with Cheerios–and peanut butter melted in with the marshmallows. “That sounds awesome,” she said.

Cheerio Treats

2 tbsp. butter
1 box of Cheerios
1 bag of marshmallows
1/2 cup of peanut butter

Melt butter in large pot, coating bottom and inside.

Add marshmallows and stir until melted.

Fold in peanut butter and blend with spoon.

Fold in Cheerios and gentle combine.

Spoon into baking dish.

Cool and serve.

The Great Outdoors: Books

I’m still new enough to California to try to wax poetic about the weather. I will say this: it’s heavenly. And this: It’s sunny and warm enough year-round that the climate can support an outdoor bookstore. An outdoor bookstore! Bart’s Books in Ojai is an independently owned shop open since the ’60s that has charm in spades, with open-air bookshelves and an honor system to pay for those bargain books stacked on the outer wall shelves during off-hours. (There is an inside as well, where you’ll find a protected section for first-editions and other collectible tomes, plus cookbooks in a room that was once a kitchen.) Sunshine overhead, a citrus tree dangling fruit above the shelves, and books galore (worth adding: this visit was in January).

Blume for Banned Books Week

It’s Banned Books Week! Makes me want to go back to high school and sneak one into physics class to read (Mr. Masters would occasionally bust me for reading poetry during physics—yep, I was a real badass). Or maybe I should go to graduate school to become a librarian so I would be able to create a display to promote the books. Be a rebel: Read these!

The American Library Association has links to lists of the most challenged and banned books. There are some literary heavyweights that have been banned, but I will admit to being most happy to see Forever by Judy Blume on a list. Here’s my copy, along with my Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I wish I could say the Forever copy was one I had when I was a kid, but I had only the PG-rated Blumes in my childhood library and had to grab glimpses of the “dirty,” dog-eared pages of Forever in the school cafeteria, holding the tattered paperback under the table so no adults would see. I picked up this copy at a yard sale a few years ago and gleefully read it cover to cover in one sitting.