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Come Home to Comfort Food

Familiar and inviting, comfort foods are what we traditionally eat at holiday gatherings. But they seem especially welcome this year in the wake of September 11, when the world suddenly began feeling so uncomfortable.

That's why in our annual holiday season search for incredible edibles, we decided to focus on American purveyors of foods that make us feel good. From meat to munchies, here are gifts you can ship that can provide warmth and solace to the people you care about.

For beef eaters, steak and potatoes are the definition of a reassuring meal. If you want to sink your teeth into a delicious hunk of meat, try the 12-ounce ribeye steaks--dry-aged for 21 days--from Conservation Beef in Helena, Mont. (table). These steaks are not only tender and flavorful, they come from cows that graze on Nature Conservancy land. That helps preserve the natural landscape by ensuring that the ranchers won't have to sell out to developers.

If a pastrami sandwich is your thing, as it is for many New Yorkers past and present, you will be pleased to know that the famous Carnegie Deli ships its peppery pastrami, rye bread, and horseradishy mustard anywhere in the country. Just follow the reheating instructions carefully. (You have to steam the meat in a large pot for a few minutes.) You can order the three pounds of pastrami sliced or unsliced.

TENDER AND LEAN. Barbecue is high atop the comfort-food list, and so is brisket. The tastiest slow-smoked brisket I ever ordered from afar came from Black's in Lockhart, Tex. Black's, which opened in 1932 and claims to be the oldest family-owned barbecue joint in the Lone Star State, turns out a tender, lean, and moist brisket suffused with just enough smokey flavor. Best of all, if you're having it shipped, it reheats well.

Many people have sworn off red meat, so for them a perfectly steamed lobster might do the trick. Claw Island lobsters are cooked and flash-frozen as soon as they are trapped off Vinalhaven Island, Me. They're then bagged and shipped on dry ice in individual slotted cardboard boxes, making it easy to cook them one at a time. I know, you're thinking precooked frozen lobsters can't possibly be as succulent and sweet as fresh ones. But these 1 1/4-pound specimens are mighty fine. Plus, you won't have to wrestle them into the boiling water yourself.

Those who snack in times of stress will find no finer hard pretzels than the hand-twisted beauties from Martin's in Lancaster County, Pa. Made with flour, water, yeast, and salt, Martin's 4-inch-wide pretzels are crunchy and slightly charred. They also come in an attractive red tin that can be recycled for various household uses after the hungry hordes have devoured its contents.

Wash down your pretzels with one-quart jugs of cider from Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, N.Y. Elizabeth Ryan grows and presses all the fruit herself in a state-of-the-art cider mill on her 75-acre farm. The apple-raspberry has a wonderfully balanced, sweet, slightly acidic flavor. The pear cider is thicker, smoother, and sweeter without being cloying. The apple cider, made exclusively with crisp, sweet winesap apples, is spicy and just winey enough. These nonfermented ciders contain no preservatives, so you must refrigerate them and drink immediately.

Pies are quintessentially American, and in this time of renewed patriotic fervor, I find myself dreaming about the perfect cherry pie. Lots of goopy, awful cherry pies exist in this land of ours, and then you have the magnificent cherry pies from the Grand Traverse Pie Company in northwestern Michigan. What's their secret? "We keep the cornstarch out of the pie, make flaky crusts by hand, and use the best cherries in the world, which happen to be grown in our backyard," says Denise Busley, who owns the company with her husband Mike, a California aerospace-industry refugee. Indeed, GTPC's Old Mission cherry pies have a thin, flaky shortening crust encasing lots of Michigan cherries and virtually no syrup.

CHOCOLATE MICE. For the dieters on your gift list, how about a box of special citrus fruits grown by the Polito family in north San Diego County, Calif. Famed pastry chef Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles swears by Polito's Satsuma mandarin oranges. They're intensely sweet and juicy. You can also order Meyer lemons, tangerines, and persimmons.

I haven't forgotten that chocolate is sometimes the only food that will do the trick in times of extreme stress. I first met Larry Burdick almost 10 years ago, when he was making chocolates for upscale restaurants in a ground-floor apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He has since moved his family to bucolic Walpole, N.H., where he now produces his handmade creations.

His mice-shaped chocolates may look overly cutesy when you remove the top of the classy wooden box they come in, but their taste is sensational. Though I usually prefer the more intense flavor of dark chocolate, my favorite is the milk chocolate mouse filled with mocha ganache (that almost mystical combination of chocolate and cream). If you want a more intense experience, try Burdick's 3-in.-by-6-in. Harvard Square. Made of rich chocolate and walnut cake layered with creamy ganache, it's like the fudgiest brownie you've ever eaten.

Burdick also sells a hot-chocolate kit that includes a bag of chocolate and a whisk sunk into a handsome white mug and saucer. Put 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chocolate mixture into the cup, then whisk in 6 to 8 ounces of scalding milk. It's the liquid equivalent of a down comforter, a perfect beverage for our time. By Ed Levine

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