A Gourmet To Go Holiday Sampler

If your hard-to-shop-for friends are food lovers, you could whisk them away to the airport and, hours later, escort them to dinner at K-Paul's in New Orleans or Legal Seafood in Boston. Sound impractical? Well, how about letting K-Paul's or Legal Seafood bring dinner to you?

The boom in air-express service makes it possible for dozens of well-known restaurants, as well as thousands of mom-and-pop kitchens, to ship food practically anywhere--getting even perishable goods there fast and at a reasonable price. So if you're looking for an alternative to the same old crate of grapefruit, these foods are perfect either as gifts or as a flourish to a holiday meal. (Note: Most prices don't include shipping, which ranges from around $5 for slower ground delivery to as much as $20 for overnighting of perishables. Most offer free catalogs, although a few charge a buck or two. To ensure delivery by Christmas, order by mid-December.)

YULE LOX. For a memorable dinner, consider Balducci's (800 225-3822), a shop that's the gastronomic mecca of New York's Greenwich Village. Balducci's offers such distinctive specialties as its 8-pound holiday roast--a partially cooked, multilayered mix of loin pork chops, beef and veal tenderloin, provolone, and herbs that feeds eight ($98).

For an appetizer, look no further than Homarus Inc. for savory smoked Norwegian salmon. Based in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., Homarus (800 23-SALMON) supplies Balducci's and leading delis, restaurants, and hotels, including Zabar's, the Rainbow Room, and the Beverly Hills Hotel. A 1.3-pound smoked salmon is about $42.

By New Year's Eve, you probably can't face any more turkey or roast. So how about a New England clambake? Boston's renowned Legal Seafood (800 343-5804) or Clambake Celebrations of Cape Cod (800 423-4038) will fly in live lobsters and fresh clams, plus such trimmings as potatoes, sausage, and corn, all packed in seaweed and shipped in a lobster pot. To serve six, figure $175 to $300.

A different kind of holiday spice comes from New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, who offers Cajun favorites from the kitchens of K-Paul's (800 457-2857). For $99, shipping included, you get six to eight servings of Prudhomme's crayfish etouffee or seafood jambalaya--a tasty mix of crayfish, redfish, andouille sausage, tasso ham, and rice.

For a true down-home treat, ring up Corky's (800-9CORKYS) in Memphis. Within a day or two, you'll be feasting on some of the best wet or dry barbecue ribs anywhere (three slabs, shipping included, $90). And for a do-it-yourself barbecue, Specialty Sauces in Northbrook, Ill. (800 728-2371), offers five-packs of sauce from the country's best rib joints--such as Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Mo.--for $30.

If your friends have a sweet tooth, surprise them with cheesecake from Eli's Chicago's Finest Inc. (800 999-8300). For $35, the international sampler combines three slices each of ricotta, tiramisu, crme-caramel-amaretto, and white-chocolate-espresso mousse cakes. Or for a Texas treat, order the two-pound chocolate-and-pecan whiskey cake from Wunsche Brothers Cafe (713 350-6609, $20) in Spring, Tex.

Devout chocoholics will worship the creamy fudge prepared by the Brigittine monks in Amity, Ore. (503 835-8080). At $8.95 a pound, it comes in chocolate (with or without nuts), chocolate amaretto, chocolate cherry nut, and pecan praline. For something a little fancier, call Winand Chocolaterie Suisse in Concord, Mass. (508 369-8588) for its bche de Noel (yule log) of Valrhona chocolate, containing truffles and pralines. A 14-ounce log is $27.50. And Divine Delights (800 4-HEAVEN) in Novato, Calif., offers jewel-like petits fours molded in Christmas shapes for about $28 a dozen. A simpler treat comes from Old Salem in North Carolina Inc. (800 822-5151): Moravian sugar cookies, hand-rolled and cut paper-thin. Fifteen dollars gets you a one-pound tin of either plain sugar, ginger, or lemon cookies.

Java addicts can tell you if Starbucks (800 782-7282) is in their town yet: Many swear by its trademark dark-roasted blends. If they're still waiting, surprise them with Starbuck's CARE Sampler, which, at $21, contains four half-pound packs of its Guatemala Antigua, Kenya, Sumatra Boengie, and Estate Java beans.

For even more ideas, subscribe to Mail Order Gourmet, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to the subject (800 989-5996, $18 a year). Or pick up a copy of Food Finds, a 346-page directory by Allison and Margaret Engel ($16, HarperPerennial) that lists hundreds of small mail-order food providers. And with luck, maybe your friends will be willing to share their goodies.

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