Food Columnist Judi Leaming offers up gift ideas and quick dinners from the kitchen.


Throughout the year as I come upon recipes that I think might make good Christmas gifts, I print them out and pile them on my desk. The pile is quite high and the days (and columns) between now and Dec. 25 are rapidly flying by so this week I promised myself that I’d start to test my way through the pile.

In the past 10 or so years “gifts-in-a-jar” have become popular make-to-give Christmas presents. My personal thinking is that the mixes in these jars should be as convenient as possible for the recipient to use. Therefore before I can recommend the recipes that have the ingredients packed into jars, I felt compelled to test them to make sure that they both will fit into the jars and that they would be tasty treats once they are prepared.

When I searched the grocery store shelves for the package of 1.6-ounce brown gravy mix that the first recipe called for, I realized that this was not something that I could find. So I settled for a 1.2-ounce envelope of Knorr Classic Brown Gravy Mix. The ingredients did fit nicely into the pint jar that was called for but, when prepared, Spicer and I both felt that the end product was much too watery and so I’ve changed the recipe that once was called a soup mix and I’ll share it with you as a Quick-and-Tasty Goulash mix. Having recently visited our grandson Jack and his roommates in their college-rental home near St. Joseph’s University, I realized that this would be a recipe that four hungry males really could fix for themselves that would be far more nutritious than frozen pizza.

I found the recipe for Coconut-Brownies-in-a-Jar in Gooseberry Patch’s Recipes for Warming Hearts. (Spicer doesn’t usually care for coconut but he really enjoyed these brownies!) This would be a great dessert recipe to accompany the Goulash. You just pour the mix into a large bowl, add 2 eggs and 2/3 cup of Canola oil along with 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract and stir to blend then pour this batter into an 8-x 8-inch baking pan. If you are planning to give this to college students or a bride, you might want to also include a nice bright stainless or aluminum baking pan because my research tells me that brownies are best when baked in a bright metal pan. (An aluminum foil disposable pan would work too if you offer the advice to place the pan on a cookie sheet before placing it in the oven to bake.)

Quick and Tasty Goulash Mix in a Jar
1 wide-mouth one (1)-pint Mason jar with lid
1 (1.2-ounce) envelope brown gravy mix
2 tablespoons mild red chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried minced onion
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1 1/2 cups small size pasta such as macaroni or small shells
Needed to prepare Goulash:
1 pound lean ground beef
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (11-ounce) can vacuum packed shoe peg corn
To prepare mix: Pour gravy mix into wide-mouth pint jar and shake to level out across bottom of jar. Stir together chili powder, oregano, cumin, onion and celery salt. Pour into jar to make the second layer. Add enough past to fill jar to the top and close with lid. Add directions as follows: “To prepare Goulash: brown 1 pound lean ground beef in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Pour in contents of this jar and half of the 28-ounce can of tomatoes with juice. Stir and whisk over low heat in order to dissolve the gravy mix. Stir in remaining tomatoes and corn. Add up to 1 soup can full of water (based on the thickness that you want the goulash to be); cover and continue to simmer over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes until pasta is tender.”

Coconut-Brownies-in-a-Jar Mix
1-quart wide mouthed Mason jar with lid
1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup flaked coconut
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Needed to prepare Brownie Mix:
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup Canola oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
To assemble mix: layer ingredients in order into the jar. Gently tap jar on counter after each addition to eliminate air space. Secure lid. Add directions as follows: “To prepare Brownies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease bottom and side of an 8x8-inch metal pan. Dump contents into a mixing bowl and, using a spoon or spatula, mix in the eggs, oil and extract until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.”