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Give some homemade holiday cheer.

When it comes to giving gifts, it should come as no surprise that I tend to lean toward food.

The holidays are one of the busiest times of the year, and although it can be tempting to just cop out and grab a box of chocolates or a bottle of vino, I try to put together a gift that’s a tad more creative and speaks to the receiver’s tastes.

Gift baskets of gourmet and locally sourced foods are my go-tos, especially as hostess gifts for holiday parties. The items take very little time to accumulate — I gather them while I’m doing my own marketing — and I adore sharing the luxury food items my friends and family wouldn’t necessarily purchase for themselves.

The first thing I do when putting together a gift basket is come up with a theme. Since I’m a visual learner, I find that if I start off with an idea for what I’d like the general motif to be, I can picture the finished gift basket in my head. Then I start building from there.

A lot of the creativity and personalization in a “basket” gift comes from the actual container itself. Instead of heading to one of those chain craft stores, scour flea markets and antique stores. Old wooden boxes and wire baskets have far more character than those cheap, rattan imports do, and they show that you’ve put a lot of thought into your gift. Besides, once the contents of the gift have been consumed, the recipient has a constant reminder of your thoughtfulness. Keep your eyes open throughout the year for such gifting vehicles.

As a chef/cooking teacher, I also love to share the gift of knowledge. This Italian basket of delights with homemade pasta sauce is one of my favorites — I always tuck in a recipe or two with the food items and tools.

So, from the bottom up, let’s build a gift sure to emit a, “Mama mia!” from the fortunate beneficiary.

For this basket, a colander makes the ideal base; it’s inexpensive, practical and if you’re lucky enough to have scored one at a vintage store, visually appealing as well. Line the colander with a brightly colored new or vintage cloth napkin.

Dried pasta in various shapes makes for a fun filler. This isn’t the time to cheap out and hit the grocery store for inexpensive house brands — look for fancy shapes that are Italian and, if possible, die cut. Better yet, head down to Findlay Market for some fresh pasta from Bouchard’s. Just remember, fresh pasta needs to be refrigerated, so you’ll have to assemble your gift basket right before you head out the door.

While at Findlay, give Linda VanSpronsen at Claddagh Farms a visit for her homemade, jarred tomatoes. They’re exactly the thing you’ll need to create the delicious tomato sauce below. The only ingredients VanSpronsen uses are her homegrown tomatoes, basil and salt. If VanSpronsen is sold out, pick up canned San Marzano Italian tomatoes at Madison’s along with an onion, a couple of heads of garlic and some fresh basil.

Finally, grab a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese at Silverglade’s or Krause’s. Then head over to Market Wines to find the perfect bottle of Italian red to slip into the lucky recipient’s basket and enjoy a wine tasting for yourself (on the weekends, Market Wines offers four tastes for $5).

Classic Tomato Sauce


  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano or ½ tsp. dried
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp. salt or to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 28 oz. cans chopped San Marzano tomatoes, with their liquid
  • 1 handful of fresh basil


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. 
  2. Add the onions, oregano, garlic, and salt and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and translucent — about 10 minutes. 
  3. Add the tomato paste and continue cooking for 5 minutes. 
  4. Add the tomatoes and basil, and stir constantly until the sauce begins to boil. 
  5. Lower the heat and simmer for 1 hour, stirring every 5 minutes or so to prevent the sauce on the bottom of the pot from burning.
  6. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

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