What to put in a holiday hamper for my vegetarian home cook friend?
November 13, 2011 6:13 AM   Subscribe

I want to ship a holiday food package to my broke, vegetarian, home-cook friend. I need specific recommendations from cooking vegetarians and people on extreme budgets as to what items would be most appreciated.

I am neither a vegetarian nor a cook, so I'm looking for specific recommendations. This kind of pepper, that kind of mushroom, etc.

1. Package is being shipped from NY to MA, so the items need to survive that and long enough beyond to be a nice treat. What fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs would be good to include?

2. Spices? Rices? Oils? Here's where the tight budget comes in. Truffles or similar luxury items would be too much and he'd see it as wasteful. But I'd like to think of things that he's not buying because money is too tight that would be nice to receive at holiday time.

2.a. Some ideas I had were pickled ginger, sesame seeds, rice wine...

3. Cheese? Can this be shipped without refrigeration?

4. His preferences tilt towards soups and salads and French and Japanese cuisine. He's not big on "carbs" like baked goods, oatmeal, grains. Dairy and soy and nuts are ok.

5. I am in NYC so I have access to specialty markets, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
posted by xo to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Spices are great. I love pine nuts (pignolis) and they're expensive but easily shippable. (great in salads and with spinach, but totally something I would cut if money was tight.
posted by mercredi at 6:22 AM on November 13, 2011

3. Cheese? Can this be shipped without refrigeration?
I think there's some types (harder cheeses) that might be okay, but I wouldn't risk it.

4. His preferences tilt towards soups and salads and French and Japanese cuisine. He's not big on "carbs" like baked goods, oatmeal, grains. Dairy and soy and nuts are ok.
If he makes his own soup, is it 100% from scratch, or does he use vegetable stock? Also soy or almond milk? They sell both of these in non-refrigerated boxes that would easily make the trip and last until he is ready to use them.

If he makes hummus, a jar of tahini would be good. Generally I'd tend towards sending things that won't spoil, like jarred ingredients, rice, spices, etc. Do you know any specific meals he makes? If you do, I'd try to figure out what ingredients would best survive the trip.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:30 AM on November 13, 2011

Oh, also vegetable oil. Either a nice olice oil, or coconut butter. I prefer coconut butter to cook with.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:33 AM on November 13, 2011

I think that high-quality spices would be a great addition - very light and easy to ship, and something that would be cut on a tight budget. It looks like the NYC Penzey's just closed, but maybe someone has another suggestion. Whole Foods will also have decent spices, though not as good as Penzey's.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:38 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Olive oil, healthy and yum! Parmesan cheese, great for cooking and doesn't need refrigeration. Nuts of all kinds! The largest hunk of chocolate you can find, maybe not for cooking but great comfort food for a broke xmas!
posted by Tom-B at 6:43 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Good French stuff: good dried herbs such as thyme and bay leaf, perhaps some herb seeds for next spring, good olive oil, dried wild mushrooms like morels, a pot of good Dijon mustard, a good vinegar, good sea salt

Good Japanese stuff: toasted sesame oil, good soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms (very useful), whole sesame seeds, some vegetarian dashi stock powder, spices such as shichimi togarashi, mirin, sake, rice vinegar, sheets of nori seaweed, miso. And good Japanese rice, even if he is not into the 'carbs'.

Generally useful: almonds and other nuts, dried chili peppers (adds festive color too), dried fruit.
posted by derMax at 6:48 AM on November 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Penzeys spices are fantastic. The gift boxes can get a little pricey, but you could buy a selection of individual spices or spice mixes for a lot less. Yum!
posted by teragram at 6:50 AM on November 13, 2011

I would include a jar or two of 'Better Than Bouillon' brand bases. The vegetarian ones are fantastic, and they're available at WF and Fairway. I adore them.
posted by mintcake! at 6:50 AM on November 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

From Wholefoods, my choices would be organic almonds, regular cashews, pine nuts, arnaud olives (in a jar), honey crisp, fuji or cortlandt (?) organic apples, maybe one organic orange, hunza goji trail mix, dried malatya apricots, dried papaya, lemon zest madeilines, dagoba lavender chocolate bar, organic carrots.

Spices I would mail order from penzeys: vietnamese cinnamon, green cardamom pods, garam masala mix.

A good olive oil like Frantoia is great for salads, but it's a bit expensive, and I don't know if WF have it or if they have a good price for it.
posted by rainy at 6:52 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go with things that he would like to have, but may not spend money on for himself. A good quality olive oil (whole foods can help you there). Maybe some almond or avocado oil. A couple of good vinegars (balsamic, red wine, sherry, champagne). Maybe one of those window ledge herb garden kits, so that he'll always have fresh herbs on hand. Perhaps a microplane? Those things are amazingly useful, and I don't know how I got by without it. Same goes for my cheap-ass Benriner slicer.
posted by Gilbert at 6:52 AM on November 13, 2011

Dried wild mushrooms. He can soak them in hot water for a few minutes to reconstitute them. Bonus: add that water to the dish to moisten it.

Extra virgin olive oil (indispensable), sesame oil (for Asian dishes), canola oil (for recipes that call for a "neutral" oil, without the olive oil flavor).

Vinegar: balsamic is the best, but also sherry, white wine, etc.

Bags of walnuts or almonds ("slivered" almonds, not whole). A quick way to add protein and texture to any salad. Walnuts are an especially good idea because they're super-nutritious, they go with almost anything, and they're overpriced so they might be one of the most painful sacrifices for a broke vegetarian.

A shaker of nutritional yeast (you can get this at the Whole Foods or Trader Joe's in NYC). Vegetarians like it because it adds a yummy parmesan-cheese-like flavor while adding B vitamins (including B12) and protein.

Ground flax seed. This way he doesn't need to worry about getting high-quality multigrain bread; just sprinkle flax seed on any bread to make it healthier.

Pesto. Jars of sun-dried tomatoes. Tomato paste in tubes. Vegetable stock (not as good as homemade stock, but it'd save him time and money).

The Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in NYC have some good tapenades in jars (look in the Italian section, near the pesto). For instance, Trader Joe's has something called "Caponata" — eggplant, tomatoes, and olives in oil. Put this on toast for an instant meal. Whole Foods has something similar.

You can't go wrong with dried spices and herbs. Even if he already has some, it's ideal to refresh all your dried spices after a year or so. Avoid dried parsley or cilantro, which are only good fresh. Useful spices/herbs that would be good in their mail-able form include salt, pepper, oregano, tarragon, thyme, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic salt, curry powder, turmeric (rarely used by many Americans but often used with tofu and Indian cooking), bay leaves, smoked paprika, Spike Brand Gourmet Natural Seasoning (a great all-purpose blend, available at Whole Foods in NYC).

Find out if there's any cooking equipment he's missing.
posted by John Cohen at 7:06 AM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Native Seeds has very interesting grains, baking mixes, soup mixes. All indigenous southwest products.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:14 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

If he lives somewhere without a cheese shop, he may well appreciate cheese. You'd need to go to a good cheese shop and talk to them about shipping possibilities. (I know cheese shops in France often have stuff to vacuum seal cheese so it can be transported without refrigeration.) However, not everyone considers all cheese vegetarian, as it's often made from rennet coming from the lining of (I think) calves' stomachs. Again, a good cheese shop should be able to tell you what sort of rennet was used. (As a general rule, British cheese is vegetarian and French cheese isn't. American cheeses usually aren't, but sometimes are.)
posted by hoyland at 7:16 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

buckwheat soba noodles.
fancy stone ground mustard (for sauces).
tomato paste (the one that comes in a toothpaste-like tube).
a good, natural honey.
pepper grinder loaded with peppercorns ($3 at trader joes).
good coffee.
if you buy nuts I recommend getting raw (not roasted and unsalted, your friend can toast them and salt them as he wishes).
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 7:21 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

vacuum sealed parmesan reggiano
dry porcini mushrooms
high quality baking chocolate
arborio rice
fancy olive oil or walnut oil
dried cherries
posted by juliapangolin at 7:22 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have anything to add, but will say, good quality British cheese is rarely vegetarian - I don't know about the stuff that makes it to the US. If he's fussed about rennet, check first.
posted by tavegyl at 7:26 AM on November 13, 2011

I would get nuts--but not from the grocery store. Nuts by mail order is a sort of traditional holiday gift (maybe it's just me?) and the ones that come in a big five pound bag really bear no resemblance to the sad nuts you find in a store. Plus, they'll ship directly to your friend. Fruit by mail order is also good, but a single person might have a hard time eating a whole crate of oranges.
posted by anaelith at 7:30 AM on November 13, 2011

A jar of good miso would be really great to include, because just a teaspoonful of miso makes a healthy soup with lots of protein and nutrients. Fresh vegetables and eggs can be added to this for variety. You'd be giving your friend a lot of good meals.
posted by Acheman at 7:31 AM on November 13, 2011

N-thing the dried wild mushrooms. And maybe a good cookbook? If money is really tight he might like something like Vegan on the Cheap.
posted by davar at 7:31 AM on November 13, 2011

I forgot to add two items: pesto (365 brand) at WF is really good, and sun dried tomatoes in plastic tubs or plastic bags are good to add to sauteed vegetables, and a little bit of them lasts awhile; sundried tomatoes in olive oil in jars are really good on sandwiches.
posted by rainy at 7:35 AM on November 13, 2011

Yeah, double check his brand of vegetarianism before sending cheese or pesto, proper parmesan isn't vegetarian (at least it isn't in the UK). Also check for gelatine in any candies you send. Rennet, gelatine, lard, suet and Worcester sauce are probably my top 5 surprise! dead animal ingredients, when I'm feeling particularly strict.
posted by Helga-woo at 7:42 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Fancy mustard

If you could throw a couple of ice packs in there, a frozen Field Roast or 7 would be awesome from this vegetaran's perspective.

If you don't want to deal with packing/shipping, how about a CSA subscription for a couple months? (I live in AZ where we have access to this year round, so YMMV on the East Coast)
posted by LyndsayMW at 7:50 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unless your friend also does a fair bit of Indian cooking, I wouldn't send them spices oriented towards that cuisine.

I do a fair bit of Japanese cooking at home (although not vegetarian) and I hardly use any spices except maybe the occasional sprinkle of shichimi togarashi. What I keep in my cupboard: rice vinegar, mirin (sweetened rice wine used for cooking, and I'll substitute with sake if I don't have mirin handy), toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, several different varieties of dried seaweed (nori for making rolls, wakame for use in soups, kombu for making stock), dried shiitake mushrooms. I keep white sesame seeds in the freezer and toast as needed, and some miso (usually shiromiso) in the fridge. I also keep katsuobushi around for making dashi stock, but this is a non-vegetarian item. These are all things that could easily be mailed in sealed packages.

This list of Japanese pantry staples should also give you some guidance on what to send your friend.
posted by needled at 7:56 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a vegetarian and May Wah is a place that ships for you. They are also a wholesale place so they do it often and know how to package the items for shipping.

One thing I eat a lot of is rice, it's cheap and goes a long way. I think May Wah can ship a 25lb bag for you. Your friend would be set for about a year!
posted by Yellow at 8:15 AM on November 13, 2011

Oh! I sent before I mentioned May Wah is in Chinatown in NY so you can look at the stuff before buying if you prefer. A 25lb bag of rice should be less than $20 so I think your friend will not be upset with that.
posted by Yellow at 8:17 AM on November 13, 2011

Yellow's May Wah link reminded me of these. They're dried so they last forever but are a quick way to add something extra to stir-fries or noodle dishes.

A good mirin would also be nice to include, especially if he doesn't have access to an Asian grocery store.

I love furikake but you'll need to read the ingredients, since many (if not most) varieties do have fish ingredients (or you could buy him the ingredients to make his own).
posted by darksong at 8:41 AM on November 13, 2011

Since he's vegetarian, I'd suggest spices for Indian and Ethiopian cuisine, which have a lot of really flavorful vegetarian dishes. I suggest you buy them from an Indian grocery store where the sizes are large and the prices low. An Indian cookbook and/or list of good websites would also be good.

Here's a short list:

cumin seeds
garam masala
ground coriander
black mustard seeds
chili powder

also ghee - which is Indian clarified butter
posted by shoesietart at 8:42 AM on November 13, 2011

If this was my gift, I would put together a package that included everything he needs for one type of meal, e.g., wild mushroom soup, rather than a bunch of random things together.

It's really hard to say what will be most useful since you don't know what he has run out of and can't afford to buy. I hear you when you say he doesn't want luxury items, when you are on a strict budget that $15 bottle of avocado oil seems ridiculous.

Also, we cook at home a lot and have a ton of herbs and spices. We're even kinda snobby about them, but even we don't replace them once a year. Giving him a bunch of spices he already may have doesn't seem that helpful.

Is a gift card too impersonal for you? If it were me I would combine a gift card to Trader Joes (assuming he has access to one) along with a package like I described above. That way you have something that is a treat and immediately useful (the soup) along with a gift card that can be used for what he really does need, or consider a treat.

Here are most of the makings of a great mushroom soup. A couple kinds of dried mushrooms (shitake, porcini, chanterelles), one of the vegetarian Better than Bouillon jars, some leeks and some fresh cremini mushrooms. If you want to be fancy you could add a small bottle of sherry or white wine. If you add an ice pack you could put some nice butter in the package (butter is expensive!). Tell him that since it's the holidays he might splurge on a small container of heavy cream and make it truly amazing.
posted by lvanshima at 8:59 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would send a good infused olive oil (we were recently given some blood orange olive oil that makes fantastic salad dressing) or some nut oils. They're useful but fancy.
posted by vespabelle at 9:02 AM on November 13, 2011

As a vegetarian cook, I have particular preferences around ingredients. My worry would be that you might choose something really nice that is a total albatross to your friend - something that just doesn't fit into his/her style of cooking. I've had well-meaning gifts gather dust in my pantry for years. I'd rather receive a gift certificate so I could choose the things that I will actually use. Savory Spice Shop is my favorite - their prices are much better than Penzey's.
posted by jocelmeow at 10:03 AM on November 13, 2011

Nuts are expensive these days, and keep well.
Dried mushrooms and dried chili peppers are another nice staple, and lightweight for shipping.
Does he like nice coffee or tea?

Things that would be nice but heavy for shipping:
Sushi rice is a nice practical luxury, nicer than plain medium grain rice.
Nice oils (sesame oil comes to mind, for Japanese food), nice vinegars.

Skip sending fresh veg.
I agree that you should check about his veg requirements re: cheese (rennet issue mentioned above). Cabot cheeses are vegetarian (they use synthetic rennet), they're a nicer supermarket brand.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 AM on November 13, 2011

I was just at the Whole Foods at Union Square (14th St.). If you look near the fine cheeses (the far corner of the downstairs level), there's a table with lots of clear tubs of dried shiitake mushrooms, for less than $2 a tub. You could buy several of these without spending much yourself, and they should keep for 6 months. Again, he just needs to know to reconstitute them with hot water.

Yeah, double check his brand of vegetarianism before sending cheese or pesto, proper parmesan isn't vegetarian (at least it isn't in the UK)

The Amore brand tubes of pesto don't have any cheese; they're just basil, nuts, garlic, and oil. So he'd be free to add his preferred parmesan cheese if he wants. (Whole Foods in NYC sells explicitly "vegetarian" parmesan cheese, but I don't know about shipping it.)

Worcester sauce

You mean Worcestershire sauce. Yes, it's usually not vegetarian since it contains fish (including the ubiquitous Lea & Perrins brand), but Whole Foods carries Annie's Worcestershire sauce, which is clearly labeled as "vegan."
posted by John Cohen at 11:20 AM on November 13, 2011

Saffron. I've usually got most spices in the store cupboard, but this is the one I run out of and it's the first to go when the money's not flowing.
posted by handee at 11:20 AM on November 13, 2011

You mean Worcestershire sauce.

Errr, yeah, that too. I was sort of hoping no one would notice, given that I grew up within spitting distance of the Lee & Perrins factory...

posted by Helga-woo at 12:39 PM on November 13, 2011

Whenever I see someone suggest interesting recipes for people on tight budgets that a big hurdle is the price of spices, long term spices are low cost necasue you only use a teaspoonful but up front costs mount up, especially for dishes that need a few different herbs and spices. I would suggest you culd make a nice package by sending a recipe book plus a collection of spices. i recommend Madhur Jaffrey for Indian food, though she also has a world vegetarian book with 650 recipes in it. If you order a book then look through for frequently occurring spices and put the whole lot in a care package that might fit the bill nicely.
posted by biffa at 1:20 PM on November 13, 2011

This is such a great idea.

Nuts! They are expensive and very nutritious. I would love to get an assortment of nuts.

Spices are great, but a broke person needs food to use the spices with. How about a bag/s of textured vegetable protein? Hard cheese would work too. I would also send some high-protein bread or pancake mix. It is cheap to make and satisfying. (I know you said not to many carbs).

Having been a broke vegetarian, I would have been disappointed if I just got spices.

You can order from Amazon and get a nice discount with free shipping.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 1:43 PM on November 13, 2011

Consider calling a market that does delivery in his area. You're going to spend a ton of money on shipping while risking breakage. Whole Paycheck offers shopping concierges, I bet they'd work with you to make sure the receipt didn't list prices.
posted by herrtodd at 4:09 PM on November 13, 2011

As a vegetarian, when I had less money, things like soy "beef" jerky strips were really nice treats.

Stone fruits (peaches, apples, etc) wrapped well (so they don't bruise) would be great. When I'm scrimping on a given week, fresh fruits are what gets cut from my budget.

I know you said he's not big into carbs, but quinoa is very high in protein and hearty, and to me feels much less like a grain. And I would suggest Bragg's Liquid Amino Acids. It's super good for you, a soy sauce alternative.

Maybe dried beans as well? Or even cans.

Also want to rec the nutritional yeast, raw nuts (cashews, almond slices, walnuts), flax (seed or ground), nice oil, and fancy mustard.

You are such a sweet friend! A super thoughtful holiday gift.
posted by manicure12 at 8:22 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vegetarian here:
Things I cut when I want to save money but really wish I could buy:

-giant wedge of parmesan (cheese is fine to mail- it should be wrapped in wax then plastic then foil then in a ziplock for maximum protection and minimal stinkification of the other things in the package)
-giant wedge of pecorino
-pine nuts
-slivered almonds
-asian pears (they come in those net protector things and ship well
-high quality chocolate chips or discs
-fancy aged real balsamic vinegar
-sundried tomatoes
posted by rmless at 8:53 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you said he's not big into carbs, but quinoa is very high in protein and hearty, and to me feels much less like a grain.

Yes, strongly seconded. I'm surprised no one mentioned this before. If he doesn't already make quinoa, you could let him know it's really simple: it can almost always substitute for white rice (for a huge net gain in nutrition). Simmer half a cup quinoa in 1 cup water (or stock) for about 15 minutes or until water is gone.
posted by John Cohen at 11:55 AM on November 15, 2011

Quinoa is great, but it is only 15% protein. That's about the same as wheat and oats.
posted by davar at 12:40 PM on November 15, 2011

Quinoa is great, but it is only 15% protein. That's about the same as wheat and oats.

Quinoa is very high in protein. Quinoa has 14 grams of protein per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) (per Wikipedia). That's over a quarter of the FDA's Recommended Daily Allowance of 50.

By comparison, white rice, a close analogue to quinoa, has only about 2 grams, and wild rice doesn't have much more. Couscous has 6 grams.

Quinoa also has other nutritional benefits.
posted by John Cohen at 6:13 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

John Cohen, you're comparing cooked rice to uncooked quinoa. Cooked quinoa has 4,4 grams protein per 100 grams. It's not bad at all, but like I said, about the same as wheat and oats (which the OP said the friend was not interested in). Another comparison: 100 grams cooked macaroni has 5,8 grams of protein.
posted by davar at 12:00 AM on November 16, 2011

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