With just a click of the computer's mouse, you can order pasta from Italy, olive oil from Spain, chocolates from Belgium — or you can run by your neighborhood Home Goods or Big Lots stores.
The gourmet food aisles at these types of stores double or triple in size this time of year. It's worth a visit to check out what unique food items are available. You can stumble on some special gifts for the foodie on your list, as well as snag a great deal.
During a recent visit to Home Goods (which offers high-end designer goods found in department stores and specialty stores at lower prices), we found gifts perfect for cooks. If you're concerned that the food products may be outdated or not flavorful, rest assured that food items often make their way to these stores because package design or size has changed, or certain flavors are no longer produced. Many of the items have expiration dates on them so be sure to check before you purchase.
Here's what we put in our shopping cart at Home Goods:
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■ Imported pastas are fun to try and were in plentiful supply when we shopped. Plus, they're priced right when you consider what you'd pay if you ordered them online and paid shipping.
A bag of Le Specialita Cascina San Cassiano Stelle alpine, durum wheat semolina five colors pasta is $4.99 at Home Goods. A 16-ounce package sells for $5.19 on the company website, Cascinasancassiano.com, but shipping would triple the cost.
■ Cookie, scone, brownie, and bread mixes are plentiful, too. A package of Firenza traditional beer bread mix can be prepared, and the baked bread given as a gift, or present the mix to a friend with a colorful mixing spoon attached.
Firenza baking mixes were created to give the homemade taste of "from scratch" baking in mixing. It takes three minutes to mix up a batch of beer bread, and about 50 to 55 minutes to bake. It also can be used to make pizza crust. Go to Great-recipes.com. Cost is $3.99. ($5.50 at Great-recipes.com.)
■ Make old fashioned oatmeal on Christmas morning using steel-cut oats from The Salish Lodge & Spa at Snoqualmie Falls, 30 miles east of Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest. The Lodge was an eight-room inn built in 1916 as a rest stop for travelers. It quickly became famous for its country breakfasts — multi-course meals that nourished visitors before they journeyed over the mountain pass.
Salish Lodge is famous for its four-course country breakfast and the iconic "Honey from Heaven" service where honey from their own hives is poured from high above the plate onto homemade biscuits.
In 1988 the building was completely remodeled and reopened as the Salish Lodge. (The Salish was the setting for Twin Peaks, the David Lynch TV mystery series.)
You can try their oatmeal for $4.99 at Home Goods, or order it from Salish's The Country Store for $8.95 (plus shipping). Go to Salishlodge.com.
■ Sea salt is available in a variety of flavors and colors, and it's fun to experiment with different varieties. Gourmet Nut's Himalayan pink salt is a light pink color that is found naturally deep inside the Himalayan Mountains. An 8-ounce resealable bag costs $3.99.
■ Earth & Vine Provisions cinnamon pear culinary sauce is no longer available on the company's website, which is probably why it's at Home Goods. The company, in Loomis, Calif., offers more than 60 jams, sauces, beverage elixirs, and dressings made from California grown ingredients. The culinary sauce can be served over vanilla ice cream or pound cake, or paired with goat Gouda cheese. An 8-ounce bottle is $5.99.
■ Hongar Farms Gourmet Foods in Tucker, Ga. makes flavor-infused gourmet oils and vinegars and packages them in interesting bottles. We picked up a bottle of Parmesan garlic seasoned oil, which is now part of the company's Benissimo product line. An 8.45-ounce bottle is $4.99. Go to Hongarfarms.com.
At Big Lots, the food aisles feature everything from potato chips to cookies, some well-known brands, some not. You can always find a nice selection of chocolates, but you do have to check expiration dates.
■ Classic Wheels Belgian chocolate is more about the packaging. Each box has unique illustrations, some with vintage grand prix racers, others with American cars of the 1950s, and European cars from the same era.
The chocolates are made with 100 percent pure cocoa butter-based chocolate, with no artificial coloring agents or preservatives. The producers use only real Belgian chocolate and have signed "The Belgian Chocolate Code" which says it is forbidden to use anything other than Belgian Chocolate. Cost is $7. Go to Classic-wheels.be.
■ The name Godiva means great chocolate and when you find a Chocolatier dark chocolate with orange bar at $2.50, it's a bargain. Suggested retail for the 50 percent cacao with orange flavoring is $5.99.
■ GBS chocolate seashells are marbled in white, milk and dark chocolate and filled with hazelnut praline filling. They're made in Belgium and are $3.50 for an 8.82 ounce package.
■ Hageland premium Belgian chocolate is made in the Hageland region of Belgium. We found a 10.5-ounce bar of 53 percent cacao dark chocolate for $3.50.
■ A variety of nuts are available at Big Lots. We bought a 19-ounce bag of extra large premium California pistachios for $9. The Setton Farms pistachios are grown in the Central Valley of California and you can buy them in specialty bags that are made of 100 percent reusable cotton and feature a sealed inner bag of clear film, which guarantees that the pistachios inside remain fresh. Go to Settonfarms.com.
While searching for Christmas gifts, it's fun to find an item that your family and friends won't find at the local supermarket. When you do, go to the company website to learn some interesting facts about the product or how it's made. That will make the gift even better.