In these trying economic times, socializing can become a challenge. Restaurants are still expensive, and if you want a nice leisurely evening, with an appetizer or salad, an entrée, and a cocktail or glass of wine you can easily be out $50 with tax and tip, and lord help you if you want a dessert or a second beverage.
Entertaining at home is often much more affordable. For the price of a nice glass of wine in a restaurant, you can get a decent bottle that will serve five people. For the price of that two-course meal out, you can serve six to eight people at home! As we head into the holiday season, I thought I’d weigh in with some economical ideas for entertaining at home.
First, make friends with someone at your local wine store. There are surprisingly good wines for $7-$10 a bottle, and once you find the ones you like, it takes the pressure off stocking up for a party, or bringing a couple of bottles to someone else’s fete. Punch is making a comeback—a very affordable alternative to setting up a bar. My recipe for Gin Punch, below, can also be made with vodka.
When it comes to hosting, keep a few things in mind:
Plan to have three or four things in abundance for dinner and keep your pre-dinner nibbles simple, unlike expensive, time-consuming cheese platters and fancy hor d’ouevres. Pretzels and popcorn are much easier and less expensive. If you prefer something more substantial, stick to something minimal like hummus with snap peas and pita chips or baby carrots and potato chips and your favorite sour-cream dip.
Let your guests bring bread, wine, and desserts—all readily available and inexpensive—and they’ll be happy to have a duty.
For dinner, explore alternative cuts of meat. Chicken is always a crowd pleaser, but with boneless breasts running at $5-$7 a pound, it can get pricy, plus they’re very easy to overcook. Chicken thighs and drumsticks are a great bargain at $1.50-$2.50 a pound, and they’re good for stewing and braising, so the busy host doesn’t have to stay tethered to the stove to prevent disaster. Want to do a fancy roast of beef? Stay away from prime rib and tenderloin roasts at upwards of $18 a pound, and try an eye of round roast, usually closer to $4 a pound. Your local butcher can steer you toward other great cuts, especially those for slower cooking.
Sides are your friends at a dinner party, especially on a budget. Portion expensive protein for single servings, but bulk up the sides for people who might want seconds. Rice and pasta, both very inexpensive, can easily be spruced up with of herbs and spices or stir-ins to be elegant and delicious. For vegetables, double up, one green and one other, to really fill out the plate. Avoid those tempting but pricy spears of asparagus, and go for the green leafy stuff…kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens, all easy to make and inexpensive. Economical root veggies like parsnip, carrot, turnip, and celery root get caramelized and delicious quickly in a hot oven.
For a sample menu, try the recipes below! All serve up to eight people pretty generously, and the TOTAL cost is about $60 (if you have basic staples on hand).
Celery and Apple Salad
Chicken in Vinegar
Pasta with Chives and Lemon
Braised Kale and Collard Greens with Apple and Caraway
Roasted Root Vegetables
Have your friends bring:
Red and White Wine
One pound sugar mixed with one cup of water and heated over low heat till dissolved. Add 1/8 oz. orange flower water if you like.
Peel two lemons with as little white pith as possible. Put peels in large bowl and cover with one 750 ml bottle of good gin. Press peels lightly with muddler or ladle. Let sit for 30 minutes. Add one cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice and 1/2 cup of simple syrup and stir. Add 1 ½ liters of club soda or sparkling water and one lemon sliced into thin wheels. If it is too tart add more simple syrup.
3 T peanut oil
¾ cup popcorn kernels
3 T nutritional yeast (with dietary supplements at Whole Foods or health food stores; adds a nutty flavor like parmesan cheese that pairs great with popcorn)
1 tsp. ground mustard powder
1 ½ tsp. salt (and more to taste)
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves (or herbes de Provence or Italian herb mix)
½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
Mix all the spices and herbs with the nutritional yeast in a small bowl.
Put oil and popcorn in a large pot, shake to be sure all the kernels are coated, cover pot with tight-fitting lid and turn the stove burner on high. Leave the pot alone until you hear the popping slow down, and then give it a shake or two to make sure all the kernels get popped. When the popping slows to three seconds between pops, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and pour the popcorn in a bowl large enough to mix it around easily. Sprinkle hot popcorn with about 1/3 of the yeast/spice mix and toss thoroughly. Taste. Add more yeast mix and salt until you get the flavor you want. Then let the popcorn sit uncovered at room temperature until completely cool. Store in Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers for up to 36 hours.
You can toast on sheet pans in a 400 degree oven for 3-4 minutes to recrisp or to serve warm.
Celery Green Apple Salad
2 heads celery with hearts, cleaned, sliced on the diagonal in long pieces about ¼ inch thick
2 Granny Smith apples, sliced thin
½ lb. parmesan shavings
Juice of one lemon
¼- 1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Chicken in Vinegar
3-4 lbs. chicken thighs and drumsticks
2 T olive oil
6 T unsalted margarine
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1/2 cup red wine or sherry vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
1 T honey
1 heaping T tomato paste
1 cup chicken stock
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 T thyme
1 T fresh chopped parsley
Season chicken to taste with salt and pepper. Heat oil and 2 tablespoons of the margarine in a large frying pan over medium high heat. Brown the chicken on all sides; you may need to do this in batches, removing them when done and setting aside on a plate. Pour off all but a thin coating of fat from the pan.
Reduce the heat to medium, add the shallots and garlic, cook until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and wine to the pan with the honey and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Reduce the liquid by about one-third, about 3-5 minutes, then stir in the tomato paste. Add the stock, the nutmeg and thyme and the browned chicken, lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pan. Simmer the chicken, turning and basting every 10 minutes or so, for about 45 minutes, or until the meat is fork-tender.
Remove chicken from the pan and set aside again. Increase the heat to medium-high, continue cooking until the sauce is thick and glossy, about 5 minutes. Cut remaining margarine into small pieces. Remove pan from the heat and whisk in margarine one piece at a time. Adjust seasoning; add salt and pepper and additional vinegar if needed—it should taste smooth but still a little bit tart. Return chicken to the pan, turning to coat evenly with the sauce. Serve hot.
Pasta with lemon and chives
1 lb. extra wide egg noodles
6 T unsalted butter, melted
Zest and juice of one lemon
One bunch chives, chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook noodles in salted water according to package directions. Drain and stir in butter, lemon juice and zest and chives along with one ladle of the pasta cooking water. Salt and pepper to taste.
Braised Kale and Collards with Apples and Caraway Seeds
2 T olive oil
3 T finely chopped red onion
1 lb. kale, washed and chopped into large pieces
1 lb. collard greens, washed, stemmed, chopped into large pieces
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, coarsely grated
3 T sherry vinegar
2 T honey
1 tsp. salt
1/8 to ¼ tsp. caraway seeds
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until translucent and slightly golden. Add kale and collards, apple, vinegar, honey, salt, and caraway seeds; then cover pan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very soft but not falling apart, about 40 minutes to an hour.
Roasted Root Vegetables
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel and cut into 1-inch chunks:
4-6 carrots 1 large celery root
1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
Toss all of the above with 1/3 cup olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, 1 T dried thyme and put on baking sheet in one layer.
Roast for about 40 minutes to an hour, stirring every 10 minutes, until golden and crispy outside and soft inside.