How to prepare ANY feast, stress-free

Yesterday was FREEZING. The wind was blowing. The ice was not melting. Yet all systems were go for leaving our cozy house and venturing into the insanity that is pre-holiday food shopping.

It could have been a disaster packed with shopping cart brawls and egg scrambles and thrown elbows in the macaroni aisle. Fortunately, my mother is an experienced and wise shopper, who -- with 7 distinct fish dishes and assorted sides to prepare for 12 people come Christmas Eve and about minus-6 degrees of patience left -- is not about to mess around.

Truly, I learn from a master Italian Mother. Allow me to pass her unspoken wisdom on to you before you begin your own feasts, whatever the season or occasion.

Tip #1: Make a list.
My mother sits down at the table with every recipe she's planning out, and lists out the type and quantity of every ingredient. She then breaks them up by store, depending on availability, quality, and prices. While this is knowledge she has accumulated over time, you can always get some recommendations for good stores in your areas from friends, or even the grocers at stores where you can't find what you need.

Tip #2: Check the circulars.
My mother cross-references her master list to the circulars of said stores to refine where she's purchasing something or to clip some coupons. When you're buying hundreds of dollars worth of food, this step can save you time AND money (on gas, sale items, # of stores hit, etc.)

Tip #3: Learn to substitute.
We did a lot of sole-searching yesterday and came up empty-handed. This could have been a huge problem since it was a sole recipe. But my mother knew what she had to accomplish in the recipe (rolling the fillets), and also knew the basic taste and consistency of the fish that would make it happen (white, light, mild fish). So she was able to substitute tilapia with minimal agita, thanks to her advanced prep.

Tip #3: Fresh is best.
Preparing the Feast is not meant to be a logistical accomplishment. It is first and foremost a culinary one. That means finding the freshest, tastiest ingredients -- and knowing the off-the-beaten-path places that sell them. For example, we bought our fish and produce at Assi Korean Market. And we found homemade pasta sheets (rather than storebought lasagna noodles) at Taste of Italy. Look up locally owned or ethic stores in your area that might carry some of your more unusual ingredients -- and usually at more reasonable prices to boot.

Tip #4: Train a helper.
Sometimes I wonder if my mother had children so she'd have extra hands in the kitchen. (Don't tell her I told you that.) No matter her motives, the outcome works for me because 1) I'm alive, and 2) she gets a tried-and-true right-hand woman for the days leading up to the feast. Find your own version of me -- someone who can make their way around a kitchen without injury, quickly respond to all demands requests, and support you emotionally throughout the process.

Tip #5: Cook ahead.
My mother puts the emphasis of the holiday in exactly the right place: on the people coming together to share her love and food. So, to leave herself time to enjoy her guests, she tries to prepare as much as possible in advance so her Feast day is not spent only in the kitchen. That way, it's just a final bake/toss/saute the day of, and off to the living room to visit. For your feasts, find dishes that are either a) easy and fast to make the day of your gathering, or b) can be broken up into stages to eliminate crunch time later.

Tip #6: Never make anything with French lentils.
They're arrogant. They're little. They smoke too much. And they're impossible to find at any area stores. Just ignore them. (See Tip #3.)

And now for a food moment of Zen: