MANILA, NOVEMBER 26, 2012 (MANILA BULLETIN) With Undas fever behind us, it is time to brace ourselves for the busiest family holidays of the year: Christmas and New Year. Yes, it’s that time of the year again; the frenetic month-long Christian celebration of the Redeemer’s birth and the start of another year with untold promises and surprises.

When Filipinos think of Christmas and New Year, the first picture in our mind’s eye is that of holiday food: Morcon, Embutido, Buko and Fruit Salad, Chicken Relleno or Galantina, Estufado, Lengua, and pastas of all shapes drenched in sauces of various colors.

All these mean money for mostly imported ingredients, which most wives and homemakers fear they might not be able to afford at this time when prices of everything have gone up.

But with careful planning, the family’s Christmas dinner tables could still be laden with special dishes just like the ones in magazine photos. All it takes is judicious research, careful budgeting and a lot of discipline.

Plan the menu now – The first step is to decide what dishes to make for which holiday meal. Next, determine what quantity to prepare.

Guided by the menu, make a list of the ingredients of each dish, and write them down as a guide for shopping. Many ingredients can be bought in advance, such as raisins, cream, tomato paste, tomato sauce, cheese, chorizo, canned red pepper, canned garbanzos and gisantes, wine for cooking, special pastas.

Purchase a few of the ingredients with each supermarket trip and keep them in a special cupboard. With this system, almost all the ingredients, except the meats, will be in the cupboard ready for cooking even before the first Simbang Gabi begins.

Imaginative substitutes – Do not be afraid to use substitutes, which sometimes even produce surprisingly delightful surprises.

A perfect example is using canned sliced peaches instead of the traditional canned pineapple chunks around sweet-and-sour dishes or ham. Canned peaches cost about the same as pineapples, and are considered more “classy” and unusual, aside from being less acidic and harsh.

Instead of paying thousands of pesos for an imported turkey, it would be much cheaper (and better preferred by most Filipinos) to buy several large chickens. Prepare them the same way as one would a stuffed turkey, and watch them disappear fast.

Cook what the family loves – Soon after we acquired five kids from an overseas brother, I tried to impress them by serving spaghetti with pesto sauce. They all asked for banana ketchup to drench their pasta with, and ate their hearts out. I was hurt, but immediately realized I should stop cooking for myself.

Democratic planning – Do not presume you know what the family wants to eat. This is the time to sit down with them and consult each one about the menu. There could be disagreements, but that is better than finding out their dislikes after slaving 10 hours over a hot stove.

The devil is in the details – Make it a truly holiday event with appropriate décor and accoutrements such as table cloth, napkins, flowers, candles, etc.

Save money by buying yards of inexpensive cloth and sewing the tablecloth and napkins yourself. Use fresh leaves from the garden or the neighbourhood to spruce up silk flowers and metallic Christmas décor for the table and other parts of the house.

Get the kids to help by making name cards for each one, to be decorated any way they want. Pentel pens, Crayolas, sequins, old buttons, paper flowers and antique lace could be used for special effects.

Start a tradition – A special holiday meal could be the start of a tradition. Family members could plan anniversary meals, birthdays, reunions, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, All Saints Day and TGIF meals together.

We did this with our five kids, and before they left to start their own lives, they had taken over the entire project with their own menus and recipes.

We have our kids only a few years. It’s nice to make memories that will stay with us a long time.

Happy holidays!

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Stock Early For Xmas Feasts SOL VANZI November 7, 2012, 10:47am

MANILA - It is never too early to start preparing for Christmas. There’s a house to clean, furniture to dust and re-arrange, Christmas trees to re-assemble and decorate. And there’s the biggest task of all: cooking feasts for the long Yuletide season, not just for the immediate family but for visitors, expected and unexpected.

A sudden increase in the number of people to be fed is the biggest headache for hosts. This is especially difficult when the budget has been stretched to the limit, precluding a very expensive home delivery of fried chicken or pizza. The solution to this common predicament is really simple: have on hand ingredients for easy-to-cook but festive meals and snacks.

In the kitchen, a disaster in the making is finding out, an hour before the meal, that one does not have enough supplies or is missing a vital ingredient. To stay within one’s budget, the pantry has to be well stocked with the very basic non-perishable needs: sauces, herbs and spices, pastas, canned fruits and vegetables.

Here are the items one can start buying now for the holiday entertainment period:

PACKAGED SAUCES – The most basic and important packaged vegetable product is tomatoes in different forms: plain sauce, paste, whole or seasoned.

Tomato-based sauces go into pasta, pizza, menudo, afritada, morcon, stews and paellas. Even more convenient are the new products in the market: spaghetti sauce in soft pouches, available in many variants.

With pre-cooked packaged sauces, it would take only a few minutes to boil pasta in salted water, drain, mix with sauce and sprinkle the whole thing with grated cheese. Voila! Spaghetti or baked macaroni.

To make the presentation more professional, stick the tray or bowl of mixed pasta in the microwave or conventional oven to melt the cheese topping. Add more cheese to the top before serving.

Want more personal touches? Try a handful of chopped parsley, cilantro, green onions or basil mixed in with the grated cheese.

INSTANT PAELLA – Filipinos, who always eat rice with every meal, consider paella a separate dish from rice. To make paella in minutes instead of an hour, mash cooked rice to separate the grains, then stir into a frying pan with browned onions and garlic until heated through.

Mix in any variant of tomato-based pasta sauce, sliced green and red pepper, a handful of clams, peeled cooked shrimp, chopped ham and sausages, and pieces of cooked chicken. Season with salt and pepper and serve once the clams open.

CREAM SOUPS – Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup is probably the most versatile packaged food product ever invented. I use it for everything except soup. In emergencies, I have even used Cream of Chicken and Cream of Asparagus.

To make a very rich gravy, dilute the soup with an equal amount of water. Enrich with several tablespoons of melted butter, darken with a few drops of soy sauce or Kitchen Bouquet and sprinkle with minced parsley or spring onions. Fantastic alongside fried chicken, breaded pork chops, fish and chips, hamburgers and meatballs.

Cream soups make white sauce for pasta carbonara and lasagna, in place of the usual flour roux and cream.

ALL SHAPES OF PASTA – Dry pasta is a neat item to store in the pantry. It stores well without refrigeration, cooks in a flash and can be served hundreds of ways, from soup to salad to casseroles and main courses.

To make soup, add macaroni or inch-long spaghetti pieces to boiling water flavored with bouillon cubes or chicken powder. Throw in diced vegetables; almost any kind except ampalaya will do: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, green beans, whole kernels of corn, radish, celery, onions, green and red pepper.

For deeper flavor, add chopped leftover ham, chicken, pork, sausages or even Spam. A whole bay leaf for aroma, and either tomato sauce or cream to decide the final version of the soup. There you have it: Minestrone, a universal comfort food.

Pasta salad is even easier. Boil, then rinse pasta in cold water. Drain well. Add any or all of the following: diced boiled carrots, beets and green beans. For protein, use either leftover meats or a drained can of tuna. For sweetness and crunch, you may choose diced apples or pineapple. For splurgers, there’s always canned fruit cocktail. Drain one last time before folding in the mayonnaise.

Pancit, always a winner at celebrations, is another easy and simple dish. When you run out of pancit noodles, boil some spaghetti or fettuccine until done, then rinse and drain. Use for any pancit recipe.

CANNED FRUITS – Ice cream is plain ice cream until you serve it surrounded by sliced peaches and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Fried itik (and/or lechon manok) is a native concoction for gin drinkers until you present it glazed with the syrup from canned peaches and decorate the plate with peach halves.

Fruit cocktail and mayonnaise convert a simple camaron rebosado or fried calamares to a Chinese delicacy.

Even ordinary French toast becomes a five-star option when topped with canned fruit and a dollop of cream or ice cream.

VIDEO: HIMIG NG PASKO by Apo Hiking Society

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