A Christmas Feast: Celebrating the Holiday on a Shoestring
For many families, in many ways, Christmas is shaping up more Bob Cratchit than Martha Stewart.
The meager wages Tiny Tim's father earned would not support a Christmas feas, but at least he had a job. And a few friendly ghosts.
Even the outcome -- a fat goose, stuffing, mashed potatoes and applesauce -- sounds thin compared to American Christmas feasts, which often include a Christmas Eve repast plus Christmas Day brunch and supper.
The groaning board is groaning a different tune this Yule. Food prices continue to rise, as does unemployment, despite the drop in fuel costs. Unemployment, ironically, was cash-strapped Dickens' reason for writing "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, just before the birth of his fifth child.
Food bank donations are down; demand is up. Nationally, food stamp applications have increased 17 percent in a year, the USDA reports. Ten percent of North Carolinians receive food stamps.
A recent cartoon depicted an office Christmas party featuring Cheez Whiz, saltines and a cash bar. Pre-Thanksgiving Fresh Market in Southern Pines advertised a "grocery bailout" deal.
Yet food, glorious food -- that other Dickensian banner -- will always belong to Yuletide celebrations.
This year, perhaps slightly less glorious, reflecting the national trend toward careful spending.
"Turkey's still the cheapest," says Stella McDonald, of Whispering Pines, filling her cart at a Southern Pines market. "I never did splurge."
She calls roast beef "not Christmas-y enough."
Good thing, since McDonald single-handedly prepares dinner for 23. For two dozen celebrants, beef tenderloin or prime rib, the entre of choice for Victorian aristocrats, could cost $100. She will expand her menu with sage dressing, ham, mashed potatoes, salad, pies and a spinach dip appetizer.
Ruth Ganster, of Pinehurst, still splurges, but for health reasons.
"Everything organic," she insists, including the turkey, which her husband will roast for the couple.
"He's not Southern and isn't used to the vegetables, so I do that."
The vegetables will be organic also -- and worth the surcharge, according to Ganster.
"It really makes a difference in my health," she says. "I'm never sick."
"Bah! Humbug!" on the economy, is jovial John Sullivan's attitude. No scrimping on Christmas dinner at the Sullivan home in West End.
"The one thing I preach is gifts are gifts, but you have to sit down with the family and have a wonderful dinner," he says. "We stay at the table for hours and don't clean up until everyone's fat, dumb and happy."
Ethnic traditions marry on the Sullivans' table. John's wife, Marie Sullivan, is French Canadian. Her mother, who lives in Montreal, provides classic (and inexpensive) tourtieres -- rich, double-crust pies made of well-seasoned ground beef and pork, doused with a chutney-like ketchup. John's Greek heritage contributes green beans in a sweet tomato sauce.
But the main event will be turkey, American-style.
Even if your holiday food budget is recession-proof, in the spirit of Christmas Present, consider these adaptations
Savvy Ways to Save
The Nativity happened in the Middle East, land of sand and palms, not snowy, evergreen-covered New England. Acknowledge this with an appetizer of hummus and pita triangles. Homemade hummus costs a fraction of store-bought: puree a can of partially drained chick peas, one or two peeled garlic cloves, a splash of olive oil and juice of a lemon. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. For a holiday touch, stir in finely chopped red and green peppers and parsley leaves.
Replace costly prepared party hors d'oeuvre with
bite-sized bruschettas. Slice slender baguettes into thin rounds. Spread with marinara from a jar, black olives pureed with garlic and olive oil and finely grated cheese. Five minutes in a hot oven, and you'll please a crowd.
Beef tenderloin and prime rib are off the charts. Satisfy the craving for festive beef with sweet-and-sour cranberry meatballs. Make small meatballs from a standard meatball recipe, using part beef, part pork. Broil on foil-lined baking sheet until brown (not necessary to turn). Puree a 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with a cup of whole-berry cranberry sauce and a tablespoon of chopped fresh gingerroot. Bring to a simmer, add zest grated from an orange, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. Add meatballs, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Let stand at least an hour before serving. These taste even better reheated.
Jumbo turkeys cost less per pound and have a greater ratio of meat to bone. If presentation isn't primary, buy a frozen 20-plus pounder, and ask the butcher to saw it in half lengthwise. Keep half in the freezer. Roast other half, cut side down, on a bed of stuffing or onions and apples.
Pay special attention to side dishes. Confetti rice (finely diced colored peppers, grated carrot, snipped scallions), whole green beans with toasted almonds, a gratin of root vegetables (parsnip, carrot, rutabaga) are all festive.
Baked cranberry sauce is lovely. Mix a bag of fresh cranberries with three peeled, chopped apples and 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger. Barely cover with orange juice, apple juice or cider. Cover and bake until fruit is bubbling and tender. Sweeten to taste while still hot. Serve warm.
Instead of buying spices in jars for holiday baking, purchase by the tablespoon in bulk at Nature's Own in Southern Pines. Savings are substantial, and the flavors are stronger, fresher.
Homemade eggnog is less expensive and usually tastes better. Use a simple boiled custard as a base; thin with milk, season with vanilla, nutmeg, sherry or spirits. For Christmas brunch, make French toast by soaking thick slices of French or Italian bread in eggnog.
Brown in butter, on medium-hot griddle. Top with thawed frozen raspberries or strawberries.
This last, busy week before Christmas, set up a cookie bar to entertain the kids. Make a batch of sugar cookie dough in the food processor. Chill, roll into logs, wrap in plastic, refrigerate.
Fill small plastic containers with sprinkles, mini-chocolate chips, colored sugar (stir a drop of food coloring into granulated sugar), dried cranberries, chopped and whole nuts. Children can slice dough with plastic knives, decorate as desired for Christmas or New Year's, and bake with adult assistance.
This Christmas, bless the beasts and vegetarians by preparing a substantial side dish to double as an entre for non-meat eaters. This Earth Casserole works well: mix cooked rice (brown, white, wild), couscous, barley, quinoa, orzo -- any or all -- with grated raw carrot and sweet potato, sauted chopped onions, garlic and mushrooms. Stir in a generous amount of chopped parsley, a few tablespoons of melted margarine and soy sauce, a dash of curry powder and enough vegetable broth to moisten. Put in greased casserole; bake, covered, at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with finely chopped pecans or almonds, if desired, and run under broiler until top is crunchy.
And set a "place" at the Christmas table for one or more hungry people by donating the cost of their dinners to a hunger relief organization.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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