Tuesday, December 23, 2008

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:


  1. Tip #6: They may not be French Lentils, but you can get lots of different types of Lentils at any Indian store. The color is different, but from what I can tell, the taste is the same.

    Aren't Moms amazing? Watching my put together a dinner for a bunch of people is awe inspiring - and somewhat intimidating. I suck at actually cooking anything, so I usually do clean up duty... that at least I can do well.

    Have a wonderful Christmas.

  2. Anonymous5:13 PM

    Julia, the photos of that woman in the white coat did not do her justice. I have known her for nearly 35 years, and she is gorgeous. It was a shame to photograph her in a moment of stress.
    The White-coated Woman's Husband of Nearly 30 Years
    Your Father

  3. Anonymous6:03 PM

    Any mouse says it's nice to see the pretty Mama appropriately garbed for shopping in the frigid northern weather. My beloved followed the same feast preparation that your mother does. I,as the current shopper, always have a list, but I don't seek out the best buys. I feel lucky just to get home with all the stuff. I must confess I get alot of help from women who know where everything is located.
    We are invited out for Christmas dinner.
    You'd think the other ANONYMOUS would be wore willing to give his real name ,wouldn't you?
    I really thought I had that copyrighted!!!

  4. Anonymous6:19 PM

    Aww, Mrs. R! I miss her!

  5. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Um, excuse me, but isn't anyone else concerned about the guy in the background giving "woman in the white coat" aka "MY AUNT MARIE" the stinkeye? He better not get fresh.