TRADITION is what makes holiday foods so special. Those once-a-year favorite dishes - such as creamed onions or peas, mincemeat or pumpkin pie, or a nut-covered cheese ball for hors d'oeuvres - recall fond memories for many of us. Though we may expect to see them on the table, these rich foods can seem a little heavy at times.
There are ways, however, to make cream sauces and sugary sweet desserts lighter, but still satisfying. By altering ingredients a bit or by featuring leaner foods, such as exotic festive fruits, holiday cooks don't have to sacrifice tradition or creativity.
For instance, instead of floating onions in heavy cream and butter, try a smaller amount of a low-fat sour cream. Or make a smooth white sauce with skim milk for vegetable casseroles, fish, or poultry.
No need to lose all control when it comes to desserts. Use margarine instead of butter or lard in your piecrust and in some cases, such as mince pie, make a single crust instead of two.
Pumpkin pie can be made without crust at all. Make sure the filling will be firm enough for easy slicing. You can use skim milk for this kind of custard and garnish the finished pie with a few mint leaves.
Here are some additional tips:
Chill gravies, stocks, and stews, then skim off the fat. Remember that simple pan juices are a fine substitute for a thick gravy.
Make salad dressings with buttermilk or low-fat yogurt. Season carefully with herbs, mustard, capers, or flavored vinegars.
Make Christmas cookies a bit smaller by using less fat and sugar (ingredients that make drop cookies spread out on the pan more).
Use half the amount of nuts called for in a recipe.
Garnish desserts with fresh fruit instead of whipped cream.
Use fresh fruit juices in punch and mix them with seltzers.
Exotic fruits are among the oldest of family traditions, started in the early days when oranges and lemons were given as rare, special treats in Christmas stockings.
Today supermarkets have several kinds of new and unusual fruits from many parts of the world. These items make a refreshing contrast to heavier foods and add an element of surprise to a holiday meal.
Carambola, or ``star fruit,'' papaya, passion fruit, and kumquats are all in season at holiday time.
This fruit, golden yellow in color, has an oval, ridged shape and a star shape when cut crosswise. It makes slices that are most attractive on a cheese or fruit platter, in a fruit salad, or as a garnish for meats or beverages. It has a juicy citrus flavor and looks great floating in a punch bowl.
Papayas come in a variety of shapes and colors. Green, yellow, orange, rose, they range from half a pound to 20 pounds and can be shaped like avocados, bananas, or pears. The smooth flesh inside is similar to that of a melon. The center cavity is filled to bursting with shiny, black-gray seeds, which are edible and a little peppery.
Look for small fruit that is partly or completely yellow, and gauge its ripeness more by feel than looks. Chill once it is completely ripe and serve within a day or two. Sliced, diced, or chopped papaya makes a pretty and subtly flavored fruit cup. Papaya is good mixed with rich fruits like strawberries, pineapple, orange, and lime. Papaya needs only to be halved and seeded, as you would a cantaloupe.
Although this is grown in both Florida and California, it is not commonly used, perhaps because it is expensive. Usually a dull, purple brown, it looks somewhat like a deflated tennis ball.
When you open the shell with a knife you find liquidy bits of a yellow pulp, and each of the tiny yellow teardrops contains a dark seed. A very small quantity of passion fruit provides a concentrated amount of intense flavor.
This tiny, golden orange fruit is available from November to April in most supermarkets. Whether loose in baskets or under plastic film, they should be pressed to determine whether they're firm.
Serve kumquats as you would grapes, as part of a formal fruit bowl, or on a dish alone as a palate refresher. You simply eat the entire kumquat in a mouthful. It gives a powerful, orange flavor that is a treat for most people.
Kumquats can also be blanched, sliced, and seeded for use in stuffings, cakes, muffins, or sauces. If they're to be left whole, be sure to wash and dry to remove fungicides.