When you give food like jam or olives that are process intensive, you are giving a unique gift that shows the recipient you are worthy of their time. If you give a friend in need some fresh produce, you say, "I was thinking about you, but don't worry, it was no trouble." There is a food for every occasion!
When my friend, Tammy, had a baby, I sent her some fish. I want to tell you how I prepared it and why I did it. At the time, Tammy and I had been e-mailing, but hadn't found time to actually meet. She had recently had a baby, but I didn't know enough about her to know what she might need; however, she told me she didn't need clothes. I didn't want to purchase a gift that would put pressure on our relationship. What if we finally met and didn't hit it off? She might feel weird having a big toy or baby bath from me. Plus, we're a one income household (unless you want to sponsor my blog). She had read my blog and mentioned she liked Amnon, a fish I had cooked similar to tilapia, but never got out to the market. And that, in my opinion, is the perfect gift! You give something the person will enjoy, but doesn't have the time to get or make herself. (If you are invited to a baby shower, bring a real gift or money. That's the point.)
Step 1: Before I went to the market, I froze water in a large plastic container. This would double as a disposable ice pack and gift box.
Step 2: I chose a large amnon fish at my favorite fish vendor and had him fillet it. I also purchased fish for our family.
Step 3: I prepared all the fish according to the recipe in Homemade "Mayonnaise" with Dill and Onion on Whole Fish. You can see video of my fish prep and the way I cut the lemon in Fish Video: Dress, Bake, Eat.
Step 4: I wrapped the amnon fillets in a foil packet, tightly crimping the edges. Then I put it on top of the ice I prepared earlier. I finished the gift with a bag with lemon (as seen in the video), a bag with fresh pomegranate arils, and anther bag with some amazing dates I picked up at the market, and a few other pieces of good dried fruit.
Step 5: A pretty bow, and a card including cooking instructions complete the package.
Things to think about when sending food:
- Will the recipient be comfortable cooking or warming the food? Do they have the equipment to warm the dish?
- Unless the container is part of the gift, give disposable. I know what I said about disposable wear in Birthday of the Trees, but now is the time to use it. I even like to give enough plates, forks, napkins, etc, so the recipient won't have to do any dishes. It's an all inclusive package.
- Give a balanced meal. In the case above, the fish was the gift, but when I'm asked to make a "meal" for a family, I usually include a large salad with lots of fun stuff. Vegetables, orange segments, olives, eggs, hearts of palm... Baby food jars a great for one serving of dressing. And I often put croûtons in a snack bag so they don't get soggy.
- If your package includes lots of little things, like croûtons, dressing, or lemons for fish, it may be helpful to make a menu listing everything included for each course. That way if you include strawberries, the recipient knows whether they are for the salad or for dessert.
- With a little thought and preparation, you can even send soup or ice cream. For things meant to stay cold, prepare a container with ice ahead of time.
- For soup, use a large container that is not full, or consider freezing the soup into a solid block. Then you can even send it in a plastic bag and not give a container. You need to consider if the recipient will mind transferring the frozen block to a pot.
- Soup is great because it is comforting, not everyone wants to take the time to make it, and making an extra 5 servings might not be much more work than making enough for your own family. I recommend Hearty Lentil Soup or Roasted Butternut Squash Soup.
- If you are cooking for families with children, include at least one course that they are likely to enjoy. Cut up fruit and vegetables, a pasta dish, or meatballs are common favorites. I don't believe in cooking separate food for kids, but if you're trying to help out parents, they shouldn't have to work to get their kids to eat your meal.
- A kid friendly food like Baked Chicken Fingers, paired with a sophisticated salad or rice dish will satisfy young and old.
- I like when all the warm dishes can fit in one pan like this delicious rice and chicken dish. I've even made dividers out of foil. Tightly fold the foil over one side of the pan and lay it across half the pan. Place on top one of the dishes, like rice of salmon fillet, then fold the foil back over the dish about an inch or two. Hold the foil up while you add the other dish next to it.
- Unless you know the parents are liberal about junk food, don't send candy like lollipops. It is unlikely to curry favor with the kids or the parents.
- On the other hand, home bakes goodies show you care. If you don't bake, but are often asked to make "chesed meals" you may want to keep some things in your freezer like Pillsbury apple pastries or frozen baguettes. In a future post I will show you how to prepare pastries and garlic bread at home to keep in your freezer for surprise guests or meal requests.
- My personal pet peeve: With so much easily available take-out food, your meal should offer something superior. Better taste, healthier, more balanced, etc.
- Take-out is not against the rules. If you have money, but no time, give a family a good take-out meal! When my baby was born I got a call from the owner/chef of Stefano's, a local catering establishment, informing me that a certain family was ordering a meal for me, and asking = specifics about what we would like and when we would like it.
- Possibly the most important, be on time! If the dish will be rewarmed, bring it at a convenient time for the family so they will have time to warm it even if they eat early. If you are bringing hot food, ASK what time they would like. When my oldest daughter was born, we were often left wondering if the people bringing us meals had forgotten. Once night they had, and the following night we gave up and were just finishing leftovers when the meal arrived.
Food make a great gift for many different occasions. There is no better argument for giving food then the research by Joel Waldfogel in his book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. He posits that 13% of a gift's value is lost because the receiver didn't pick it out him/herself. The only way to raise the value is if the receiver attaches sentimental value to the gift. I love getting cash and gift cards from relatives who usually spend money on me. But how about gifts among friends without established traditions of gift giving? Gift giving can get way out of hand, increasing in value each year and eating time and money. Gift cards come with an exact monetary value. They are an index of (the value of your friendship + the honor of the occasion) / how much the giver can afford. They can make the receiver feel bad if they think you spent to much on them and they can't reciprocate, and less often, they can insult if you spent too little.
I suggest food as the solution. It shows you care through your time and thought. If you are giving food to someone with whom you are not close, then they aren't left with an object to be sentimental about long after your relationship fades. And food is helpful! It can help a busy parent have more time with her kids. It can help a sick or exhausted friend eat a hearty meal that is healthier than hospital food.
I can't post this without giving a shout-out to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. The meals they sent when my first daughter was born were beyond my wildest expectations. We were able to freeze portions and avoid cooking the following week. One particularly memorable meal was a Shabbat meal including (among MANY other things) a huge salmon fillet encrusted with walnuts. I also recall a delicious cream of broccoli soup and a loaf of sweet onion bread.
What meals have you received that exceeded or missed your expectations?