IT'S THE SEASON of consumption, and life is too short for Crayola-colored cheese logs and tubes of bland processed meat. The gift of food is always the right size, the right color, and in perfect working order – and, selected carefully, it's rarely ever returned. Bottles of wine and champagne kick off any holiday in high spirits, but a gift basket filled with well-made tasty bits can really warm the heart. Homemade treats like cookies or fudge in hand-decorated tins might be the best way to melt a winter chill, but there are plenty of local, store-bought consumable options for the culinarily challenged. If you've got more cash than kitchen skill, fear not, as plenty of gourmet-food purveyors will be happy to pack up sweet stuff on your holiday behalf.
Friends and family between coasts may be unfamiliar with Trader Joe's excellent selection and dirt-cheap prices (though the chain has made some recent inroads in the Midwest). Take advantage of their ignorance and flavor their holiday season with tiny, magical jars of what T.J.s does best – cilantro-walnut pesto, dried cranberries, roasted peppers, sun dried-tomato spread, aged balsamic vinegar, and the like. Buy a big basket from a thrift store in which to arrange things, add some Belgian chocolate bars and fancy crackers, and they'll think you shopped gourmet. If you're shipping T.J.'s holiday cheer, pick up a package of their ubiquitous checked kitchen towels as an extra layer of protection that will last long after every marinated artichoke heart has been eaten. Voilà! Instant present for the distant food fan. 555 Ninth St., S.F. (415) 863-1292; 3 Masonic, S.F. (415) 346-9964. For other locations go to www.traderjoes.com.
To gift your more savvy recipients, you'll have to try a bit harder. Let them think of you every morning as they slather up the gift you gave them from Tea-n-Crumpets, which offers the dainty British-style pastry, tea, and jam but – we promise – no country kitchen frills and no overdoses of sickeningly sweet Victoriana. Big, satisfying, fluffy organic crumpets come six to a pack, and two of those (about $12 total) are the start of a tasty present. Add a couple of Tea-n-Crumpets' fruit preserves and spreads ($5.50-$10.50), and you might not get a lump of coal in your stocking next year. There are organic, home-style, and sugar-free varieties; peach-ginger, loganberry, huckleberry, cranberry-orange, and Michigan red tart cherry are just a few examples of the selection. Of course, you'll want to include some tea – black, green, or herbal ($9-$19) – for them to wash it all down. Those willing to shell out an extra $12 to $25 or so can even add a tasteful English or Thai teapot to the mix. 1105 E. Francisco Blvd., San Rafael. (415) 457-2495, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tea-n-crumpets.com.
Then, of course, there are the vegans, the macrobiotics, the chronic dieters, and those who hate everything you give them, no matter what. Before crossing their names off your gift list completely, try this last-ditch effort: Harry and David. The 60-year-old mail-order gift company offers an array of beautifully packaged sweets, but it's best known for its enormous, attractive, Oregon-grown pears, apples, and other seasonal fresh fruits. This is not a schmaltzy fruit basket; this is high-quality, orchard-grown gift fruit. Harry and David is also the inventor of one of the greatest phrases in the English language: Tower of Treats. For around $35 you can send someone a carefully engineered stack of ribbon-wrapped boxes, each one filled with goodies yummier than the last – such as succulent fruit, chocolate truffles, and mixed nuts. Other, pricier towers include savories like cheese and smoked salmon. Recipients will love each holiday handful, and they'll be sure to remember you when they're sitting in a Weight Watchers meeting in January. Mail-order to anyone anywhere through the Web site or print catalog. Or you can visit Harry and David's new San Francisco store inside the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell, No. 668, S.F. (415) 296-9233, www.harryanddavid.com.
If you prefer to keep it completely local, making the trip to Stella Pastry Café in North Beach will win you a seat around many a holiday table. Bring boxes of cannoli, tiramisu, house-special sacripantina (a layered zabaglione and cake confection), and holiday favorite panetone, flip on The Sopranos, and you've got the decadent warmth of a real Italian Christmas. Tony might even shun the advances of a hot young mistress for a box of Stella's incredible Italian cookies – perhaps the powdered-sugar wedding cookies, the delicate sugar cookies, or our favorite, the olive oil-soaked anisette cookies studded with pine nuts. Mama mia! If you're willing to put in some effort to pursue a perishable gift in a touristy part of town during the holiday season, the wide-eyed gratitude of your recipient, and perhaps a cookie or two, will be your reward. 446 Columbus, S.F. (415) 986-2914.
Of course, for the truly hardcore, nothing will suffice except chocolate. Look locally for some amazing ready-made gifts of exceptional quality. Joseph Schmidt Confections offers an incredible selection of first-class Belgian truffles, dainty, European-style chocolates, and signature confections such as saucer-size "slicks" and artfully orchestrated mosaics. For purists, there are also collections of the humble chocolate bar. Sweets are arranged in hand-painted boxes tumbling over with ribbon. And there are dozens of choices for under $30. More pricey, more elegant, and more unusual, Recchiuti Confections also offers incredible off-the-shelf possibilities. The Green Box packs together eight outstanding chocolates, in flavors like star anise and pink peppercorn, lemon verbena (very popular), and heavenly burnt caramel. The Rust Box is filled with enticing rose caramel, sesame nougat, and the most excellent candied orange peel. For holiday big daddies, consider the Black Box, which combines the two. Joseph Schmidt Confections, 3489 16th St., S.F. (415) 861-8682, www.josephschmidtconfections.com. Recchiuti Confections, available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, Sat., 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Embarcardero at Green, S.F.; at specialty stores; and through www.recchiutichocolates.com.