Eats: Make it personal this Christmas

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Easy-to-make carrot ginger soup and bacon onion jam right from your kitchen are perfect personal gifts for the holidays.

One of my greatest pleasures is making gifts for my loved ones at Christmastime. I peruse my recipe file well in advance, make my decisions and create my shopping list, checking it twice.

I confess that for Christmases past, I was the Crazy Cookie Lady. Everyone I knew had an array of cookies and candy foisted upon them — whether they wanted them or not. It took a couple decades to realize that no, my friends and family weren’t really all that excited about yet another tray of sweets.

So over the past few years I’ve re-vamped my holiday gift giving, tweaking and individualizing until I get it just right. When I have my cooking mojo going, complete with my favorite music in the background, I really focus on who’s going to receive what gifts from my kitchen, and am totally in my happy place.

This year, the countertop in my pantry holds fancy bottles of homemade liqueur, festive containers of spicy mixed nuts and, for those I love very much, jars of carrot ginger soup and bacon onion jam.

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I’ve made the decadent, creamy soup at least a hundred times. Its gingery lilt makes it sufficiently warming after a snowy outing. It’s a substantial, nourishing anecdote to the plethora of Christmas sweets and carbs displayed on pretty platters at every turn. This economical, quick and easy soup is perfect for a toddler, an elder or anyone in between, whether you put the soup together with homemade chicken stock or a box of vegetarian broth. Depending on who will be enjoying it, spice it up with garam masala, cinnamon, curry or dill.

If you’re really in a hurry, using a bag of frozen carrots is totally acceptable, as is using Spice World’s “Squeeze Ginger” that comes in a tube and can be found in the produce section alongside the jars of minced garlic, which also comes in handy. Make life as easy as possible for yourself. You don’t have to tell a soul you took a few shortcuts.

Just be sure to make extra for yourself because this will more than likely become a mainstay of your go-to meals. You’ll be gulping down a mug of this nutritious soup on those busy evenings between basketball practice and the kids’ holiday concert and then pouring the leftovers into your thermos for the next day’s lunch to fortify yourself for another day on the run.

Carrot ginger soup is the perfect complement to the “Elegant Grilled Cheese Sandwich” built with sharp cheddar, sliced apple and that bacon onion jam. This is a soup-and-sandwich combo fit to serve your most special company. My brother-in-law prefers a thick slice of tomato instead of apple, while my son likes to up the game by adding thinly sliced roast beef. And yes, if you want to slide some slivers of leftover holiday turkey in there, that’s pretty darn good, too.

To make the jam, purchase some thick bacon and cut it up in little pieces with your kitchen shears into a heavy skillet. (You’ll want to throw extra into the pan because, well, it is bacon and you won’t be able to leave it alone.) Leeks can be substituted for the onions or you can use some of each. The jam is delicious either way.

Any good balsamic vinegar works, but I’m especially partial to Fiore’s fig or pomegranate balsamics, which can be found at The Vault on Lisbon Street in Lewiston as well as at any Fiore shop. (Others include shops in Freeport and Brunswick. The vinegars and olive oils are great for gift giving, too.)

After this mixture has cooked down to its gooey jamminess, I give it a quick go-round in the food processor, but you don’t have to if you don’t own one or you just can’t stand the idea of getting it out of the cupboard and washing the thing afterwards.

Just know that once you taste this jam, you’re going to love me forever for sharing this recipe. Besides slathering it on a grilled cheese sandwich, you can spread the jam on a toasted English muffin and then perch a poached egg on each half. It also makes a yummy bruschetta, can be baked into a focaccia or served with goat cheese and a flirty twirl of dried apricot on a cracker. I could go on. It’s spreadable bacon, after all . . .

So roll up your sleeves, tie on your apron and turn up the volume on that favorite playlist while you think of the favorites on your gift list. Once you’ve concocted your batch of soup and jam, and ensconced all of it into jars, pack them up in a basket along with a copy of the recipes, fresh evergreens from the backyard, a festive napkin, a block of cheddar, an apple or two, artisan bread and a bottle of wine. Throw on your red-hooded cape or your favorite Christmas sweater and trot off to deliver your basket of goodies.

Just imagine the smile on the recipient’s face and the big hug you’re going to get when they open the door and see you standing there.

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor, and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for twenty years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

You haven’t lived until you’ve sampled this grilled cheese sandwich embellished with spreadable bacon. (Karen Schneider photo)

Just know that once you taste this jam, you’re going to love me forever for sharing this recipe. Besides slathering it on a grilled cheese sandwich, you can spread the jam on a toasted English muffin and then perch a poached egg on each half. It also makes a yummy bruschetta, can be baked into a focaccia or served with goat cheese and a flirty twirl of dried apricot on a cracker. I could go on. It’s spreadable bacon, after all . . .

Carrot ginger soup

Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups sliced onions

1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger root

4 cups chopped carrots (5-6 large)

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (1 32-ounce box)

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 to 1 teaspoon garam masala, cinnamon, curry or dill

Sour cream or plain yogurt, optional

In a large pot, heat oil. Saute onions for 5 minutes, until just very slightly browned. Add ginger and saute for 1 minute. Stir in carrots and stock and bring to a boil. Add salt. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes, until carrots are tender. Cool and pour in blender to puree. Reheat to serve. Garnish each bowlful with a spoonful of sour cream or yogurt if desired.

Can be frozen, or refrigerated up to 4 days.

Bacon onion jam

Makes 3 cups

1 1/2 pounds bacon, finely chopped

4 large onions, peeled and finely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Cook bacon in large skillet, stirring occasionally. When slightly crisp, use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a plate covered with paper towels to drain. Reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in skillet.

Add onions, garlic and salt to skillet and cover. Cook over medium heat for 30-50 minutes, until onions are soft and deep golden brown. Add balsamic vinegar, sugar, spices and bacon. Cook on low heat for 10 minutes.

Transfer mixture to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Store in glass jars. Can be refrigerated up to two weeks.

Elegant Grilled Cheese Sandwich for Grown-ups

2 slices sourdough bread

2-3 tablespoons bacon onion jam

2-3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, thinly sliced

4 thin slices Granny Smith apple or pear, or thick tomato slices

Butter for grilling

Assemble sandwich and spread butter on both sides. Grill in a panini maker or in a cast iron skillet until bread is golden and cheese is melted.

Forget about the Christmas cookies, and dare to be different. Assemble a gift basket that includes carrot ginger soup, bacon onion jam and the fixings for “Elegant Grilled Cheese Sandwiches for Grown-ups.” (Karen Schneider photo)

Assembling one of the best sandwiches you’re ever going to eat is easy. Pear can be substituted for the apple. Sliced tomatoes are also good if you’re not into fruit on your sandwich. The addition of roast beef or turkey for all you carnivores is delicious too! (Karen Schneider photo)

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