Often when people think of food at Christmas, they think of the traditional Christmas dinner with the turkey and all the trimmings. Then thoughts probably turn to the candies and cookies that are made and exchanged as gifts at this time of year. There are alternatives to Christmas foods, though, that can be served or made as gifts, and which don't have to break the bank.

Herbal vinegars are always popular, and while the boxed sets from specialty shops may be a bit overpriced, it is very easy to make delightful ones at home. The key is in knowing the vinegars, and knowing the appropriate herbs and spices to use with them. The base vinegar needs to be of good quality, and less than 5% acidity. White wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar (not distilled) make a good start. Make sure all the equipment is either glass or wooden, so as not to react with the vinegar. Use whole spices, not ground; ground spices will make the resulting vinegar cloudy. Store the finished product in a dark place, as light can also cloud the vinegar. Appropriate spices are rosemary (this is a good foundation spice as it seems to go with nearly everything vinegar), garlic (whole cloves, peeled and pierced to let out the oils), green onions (the soft green tops are flavorful and colorful), parsley (use this fresh; add it last and let it fan out in the bottle to hold down the other spices), and seeds, such as dill or pepper corms. Exact recipes can be found online, but it is easy to see that this is not expensive to make, and when put in a decorative glass bottle it can make a really attractive gift, with a shelf life of about eight months.

Salad dressing mixes can be made in a similar way. Collect the dry ingredients from a favorite recipe, and package them in decorative jars. The dried herbs and spices have a long shelf life, and make a delightful dressing when added to a bit of sour cream, yogurt, or other carrier. Dips can be made in the same way, too. Gather the desired ingredients in the appropriate quantities, and package in jars with a festive theme. For the really adventurous, crocheted tops can be added to the jars, or perhaps a cross-stitched label can be added to the lid.

Soups can also be given the homemade treatment when considering alternatives to Christmas foods. Just like with the salad dressing and the dip mixes, the ingredients are gathered and parceled in an attractive manner. There are many recipes for 'soup jars' online, with lots of decorative ideas. They too, can be given the crocheted or the cross-stitch treatment, to make them all the more special and festive. Consider adding a homemade loaf or a basket of home-baked crackers to compliment the soup jar, or perhaps adding the soup jar to a larger gift basket.

Don't forget that traditional foods can be cooked in unusual ways to add interest and diversity to seasonal favorites. Muffin tins make a fabulous way to serve individual portions, and whole courses can be served in this manner. There are several books on the market that focus on just this type of cookery. Many recipes and ideas can also be found online. Breakfasts, side dishes and desserts might be made in the smaller 'cupcake' type tins, while larger meals such as pizza, lasagnas, and pot pies are more suitable for the larger containers.

Every family has their own tradition, in addition to those that are widespread seasonal favorites. Every year, those time-honored practices adapt and evolve from generation to generation, and this is one way that alternatives to Christmas foods are created. What started as an experiment one year may well become a family favorite. After all, the main ingredient that all recipes share, both traditional and the alternatives, is the love that goes into them when they are being prepared.



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