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Are there things you can do now, in your kitchen and pantry, to make the holidays easier and more pleasurable?

Yes, there are, lots of things, especially this year, with Thanksgiving coming so late in the month. There is time before it is all upon us — the demands, the pressures, the elaborate dinners, the search for the dried sage and that pie dish you use just once a year. Taking a bit of time now can make it so much easier.

First, clean your spice cupboard. If you've had ground cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg, for example, on the shelf for a decade or more, it's a great time to replace them and it's never been easier locally. We have two brick-and-mortar spice shops now — Penzey's in Montgomery Village and Savory Spice Shop in downtown Santa Rosa — and there are spice vendors at several local farmers markets, too.

Ground spices should be replaced annually if you want the fullest flavor. They won't go bad and if you're used to old ones you may not notice a difference. but there is a drop-off in flavor as volatile oils dissipate into the atmosphere. Start over with fresh spices and you'll notice a brightness, a pop; it's unmistakable.

The same is true for ground pepper. Replace it after six months. Or better yet, use whole peppercorns, ground at the last minute. Whole spices last for years, especially when stored in airtight containers in a dark cupboard.

OK, your spice cupboard is refreshed. What's next? I like to sort through and organize my vinegars around this time of year, discarding bottles with little left in them and replacing my favorites. I like both pomegranate and cranberry vinegar during the holiday season and usually make my own, not from scratch but by combining the fruit — separately — with a good vinegar. If you do this in the middle of November, the vinegar will blossom by Thanksgiving.

Olive harvest is underway now, too, and by the week of Thanksgiving there should be local olio nuovo available. This new oil is delicious but not stable; flavors diminish quickly. It's best to buy enough to get you through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Day. Indulge and then wait for the 2013 vintage to be released in the spring.

If you bake, replenish your flour, cornmeal, polenta, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and such and organize your baking dishes. How many times have you reached for a pie or cake pan and found it missing? I love not having to take everything out of a cupboard to find something at the last minute. I love making popovers for a holiday breakfast, for example, and can't count the number of times I haven't been able to find my popover pan. This year, I plan to take my own advice.

If you are already a role model for organization, you can move on to other time-saving projects, like sauteing onions and celery in butter, tearing sourdough bread into bite-sized pieces for stuffing and making stocks. All these foods freeze beautifully and having them on hand gives you more time to relax with a cocktail or sleep a bit later when the final preparations must be done.

You can candy pecans, walnuts, lemon peel and orange peel, dry persimmons and prepare chestnuts, all in advance.

You can also think about what you don't want to cook yourself and place your orders early, for pies from Dominique's Sweets, perhaps, or a Buche de No? from Patisserie Angelica or Della Fattoria.

You may want to order a turkey, especially if you want a heritage bird. Slow Food Russian River has about 150 heritage turkeys, raised by 4-H families and currently available at slowfoodrr.org.

Victorian Farmstead Meat Company is taking orders, too, for turkeys (broad-breasted and heritage), bone-in ham, porchetta and more. They are now located in Community Market (6762 Sebastopol Ave., #100, in The Barlow) and offer counter service daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Owen Family Farm is taking orders for ham; you'll find them at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market on Saturday and at the Sebastopol Farmers Market on Sunday.

My mother was not much of a cook, perhaps because she was a widow and for much of her adult life had only me, a delicate and picky eater, to feed. Our tastes rarely converged. But she loved making candy and began in the fall. By Thanksgiving, there were containers full of colorful handmade fondants, all manner of chocolate bonbons and brownies, creamy white divinity and, my favorite, penuche. She'd set them on nice platters when we had guests and arrange some in pretty little boxes as gifts to neighbors. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner were always chaotic but when it came to sweets, she always planned ahead.

If you've never made candy before, it can seem daunting — but it's not, not really. It is, however, precise and you should have a candy thermometer if you are not comfortable judging what is meant by "soft-ball stage." Even experts rely on thermometers.

Old-Fashioned Penuche

Makes about 1 pound

3 cups brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup shelled walnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped and very lightly toasted

—Grated zest of 1 orange, optional

Put the brown sugar, salt and cream into a heavy saucepan, set over high heat and stir gently until the mixture comes to a boil.

Cover and cook for 1 minute, to allow steam to wash sugar crystals from the sides of the pan.

Uncover, reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently, until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, 234 degrees. Do not stir while the mixture simmers.

Remove from the heat, add the butter and let cool until the candy reaches 110 degrees. Use a wooden spoon to beat vigorously until it turns creamy. Add the vanilla, nuts and orange zest, if using. Stir well and pour into a buttered pan. Let cool a bit and then cut into 1 1/2-inch squares.

Stored in an airtight box in a cool area, the penuche will keep for a few weeks. Do not let individual pieces touch each other; it's a good idea to wrap each piece in wax paper.

Fruit vinegars add a brightness to holiday salads and to sparkling water over ice (add just a teaspoon or two of the vinegar). They are very easy to make and are lovely holiday gifts.

Fall Fruit Vinegar

Makes 1 pint, easily doubled or tripled

1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds), chopped cranberries or ripe peeled and chopped persimmons

2 cups, approximately, good-quality medium-acid (6 percent) vinegar (see Note below)

Put the fruit into a pint jar and cover with vinegar.

Cut a large square of wax paper, set it over the jar and add the ring and seal.

Set in a cool dark cupboard for at least 3 days and as long as 2 to 3 weeks.

To finish the vinegar, set a paper coffee filter in a funnel set in a clean pint bottle and pour the vinegar into it slowly, so that it doesn't spill over. Let drain for a few minutes, discard the fruit and seal the jar, preferably with a cork (metal will corrode fairly quickly).

Label so that you don't forget what is in the bottle and store in a dark pantry. The vinegar will be best used within 2 or 3 months.

Note: The most important thing is to use a vinegar you like. For pomegranates, I prefer a champagne vinegar. For cranberries, sometimes I use a hearty red wine vinegar, such as B.R. Cohn's Cabernet Sauvignon Vinegar and sometimes I use a champagne vinegar. For persimmons, I prefer a white wine vinegar and when I'm feeling indulgent I use a good sherry vinegar.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. Email Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs. pressdemocrat.com.

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