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[whitespace] Holiday Postcard Playing Tag: Vintage holiday postcards, like this one from Mr. Goodies in downtown Santa Cruz, make perfect gift tags.

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Shop till you drop never had such a patriotic ring as it does this holiday season

By Christina Waters

JUST BACK FROM Thanksgiving on the East Coast, I was spiraling listlessly in editorial doldrums. No ideas were jumping out at me, no brilliant bit of advice or kvetch had entered my neural nets, and I was beginning to reach out for a few well-worn clichés as far as gift-giving suggestions.

Then all at once, in a sudden burst of electronic karma, there it was: an email from a fellow food fanatic, Malika Henderson. Malika turned out to be Santa Claus, disguised as a publishing entrepreneur. What she was emailing me about was her newsletter, created from her computer in Santa Cruz and charmingly titled Nobody's Fool: Food Notes and Stories.

Directing me to a website where I was invited to download the first issue for free, the unexpected email turned out not only to brighten my entire day but also to provide the answer to my need for editorial content.

Scanning the site, I found myself sucked into a delicious armchair food journey. At one point, the author recalls a rainy winter in Prague when the discovery of spicy Vietnamese chicken soup cured her miserable cold. Another anecdote tells of making turkey broth from scratch and being so taken with the result that she promptly consumed it all for breakfast.

Henderson spent five years as sous-chef for Aptos' highly regarded Carried Away catering group and is a woman passionate about the quest for food. Delighted by cooking and creative tinkering in the kitchen in general, she has created a warm and smart quarterly--beautifully illustrated with photographs by Catherine Aurelio--filled with easy-reading insights about farmers, cooks and recipes.

These are a gifted observer's remarks, culinary inspiration actually, for the unpretentious. That's what struck me most about Henderson's homey intelligence--she offers a snob-free voyage of discovery.

Uncluttered by advertising, the beautifully produced newsletter is yours four times a year for a subscription price of $30, and Nobody's Fool is loaded with sensitive writing and real recipes that non-Martha Stewarts (like me) can actually work with. After you take a peek at a sample issue on-line www.notesandstories.com/sample.html, send your $30 check along with your mailing address to: Nobody's Fool, P.O. Box 2810, Santa Cruz CA 95063-2810. This will make a distinctive gift for anyone on your list who loves real food and honest, accessible food lore.

Fine Flavors

Now that I'm warmed up, let's roll. Nobody doesn't enjoy the gift of fine flavors, whether they're spicy fennel-laced Pfeffernuss cookies from Kelly's tied with a gold ribbon ($2.40/bag), or a sampler of huge and creamy vegan chocolate truffles ($1.45/each) from Staff of Life.

We're mad for the homemade relishes, jams and condiments created waaaay ahead of time by crafty cuisinartist Tom Vinolus of Bittersweet Bistro, and ready for holiday gift giving in the form of an extravagant gift basket.

Here's the deal: Vinolus has put together a bounty of summer and homegrown goodness, packed into a large wicker basket with festive bow. You, or someone you love, will enjoy grazing through the complex flavors of homemade jams--wild blackberry, apricot, raspberry--and palate-sparklers like dilly beans, marinara sauce, dry pasta, 10-year-old balsamic, extra-virgin olive oil, fat garlic crock pickles, butter chips and an outstanding relish made of tomatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers, vinegar and spices.

Everything is made with the chef's expert touch, of all natural ingredients. The holiday gift basket from Bittersweet (662.9799) costs $150--call or stop by to pick some up.

For the ultrafinicky purist on your holiday list, now there's coffee-bean roasting in the privacy of your own home. Light years beyond simply buying preroasted beans and grinding them into caffeinated dust with your trusty Braun, the entrepreneurs of Seven Bridges Cooperative are marketing user-friendly home coffee roasting equipment that allows you to roast your own.

Imagine being able to micromanage the degree of roastiness, going beyond even the dark French roast. According to the Seven Bridges folks, it's as simple as filling the roasting jar with green coffee beans--they also sell some exotic varieties to get you started--dialing the setting desired and pressing the roast button. Sounds like just the ticket for organically minded control freaks.

You can find out more at www.breworganic.com/santacruz or stop by the free coffee-roasting demo and organic coffee tasting Saturday (Dec. 8), 11am-1pm, at the Seven Bridges shop, 419 May Ave., Santa Cruz (call 454.9665 for directions and more details about the ease and cost savings of roasting your own).

It's Alive!

Surely one of the most original and satisfying gift ideas of the year comes from Heifer International. In this catalog, you won't find designer jewelry or a leather carrying case for your Nokia. This company lets you help "purchase" the gift of livestock to help deserving families around the world improve the quality of their daily lives.

A heifer ($500) will provide a family with milk for themselves and the means to start a livestock herd. A goat or a sheep ($120) can provide income from milk, cheese and wool. A trio of rabbits--and we know how quickly they multiply and create more rabbits--can be given in your name for $60. Ducks, geese, bees, llamas, even trees--just like Noah's Ark.

Share your own generosity with families in another part of the world by helping them secure food and dependable income. It's the best gift idea on the planet. For info, check www.heifer.org or call 800.422.0755. This gift will give you as much as it gives to those you help. Give a living creature in honor of someone on your list.

Our local gastronomers deserve support all year round, but never more than during the holidays. This year, Rebecca's Mighty Muffins has gone online: www.rebeccasmuffins.com. Check out the seasonal gift packs and order those fresh baked goodies sent to your office, family and special sweethearts.

Actually, muffin gift packs would be great presents for those people you rely on all year to keep your body and soul together: your hair stylist, dentist, rabbi, psychic, recycling people, paper deliverer. ... If you like the gift-basket concept, you will want to check out the lovely ready-to-go creations available at Breadstix in Aptos (the complex with Kelly's, Carried Away and Aptos Natural Foods--the 7500 block of Soquel Drive). These gift packs, $40-$100, are filled with Bargetto wines, plus hams, crackers, cheeses, salames, salsa--all that good stuff.

And while you're there, do not fail to pick up a bottle of Soquel Vineyards' new Trinity 2000, a sensational red meritage that drinks like twice its price of $10.95 ($2 less than at the winery itself!). The wine is a three-way miracle of cabernet, zinfandel and old vine carignan grapes crafted by Paul Bargetto and Jon Morgan, who have done themselves proud with this beauty. A brightly rounded blend, it cries out for decent cheese and a roaring fire.

On the other hand, you could get creative, like Malika Henderson did, and do it yourself. Head for Zoccoli's, or New Leaf, or Jones & Bones and combine your personal favorite condiments--who among us does not adore fine olive oil and exotic vinegars? Use your imagination--Santa does.

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From the December 5-12, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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