This is going to be a bit different than my other gourmet on a budget features, as I’m not offering you one recipe as much as a bunch of ideas for a yummy, cheap, expensive-looking/tasting holiday party.

I found myself tackling this: how to spend less than $100 (including booze) for a party for 15-20 people (yup that’s $5 to $6.67 a person, did I mention including alcohol?). Well, first, I cheated a little by asking people to bring either alcohol or an appetizer to the party (no shame in that). But here are my other ideas for good tasting, inexpensive food/drink that you make yourself:

Typical party spread (courtesy of Jon Ben, Flickr)
  • Do a signature drink. With not very many ingredients, preferably with only one kind of alcohol. Have the guests bring beer or wine. I think a punch, mulled wine, or some simple cocktails will do the trick. You could go with a keg or a ton of cheap beer, but we’re trying to keep it classy here.
  • Other cocktail thoughts: Make your own simple syrup: YES. Super easy and inexpensive (and it’s our little secret: infused simple syrups are SO easy and sound so impressive, make one). Squeeze your own orange /grapefruit/pomegranate juice: NO. More expensive and time consuming. Might not be as good but we’re on a budget here.
  • Make smaller versions of your favorite comfort foods as appetizers, maybe something that reminds you of the holidays. Suggestions include mini potato latkes, meatballs, pizza, and eggplant parmesan (buy smaller eggplant or cut the pieces small). And the key here is MAKE, not buy pre-made.
  • Vegetarian food is generally cheap and by serving it you cater to the vegetarians who might be coming to your party. Have a massive crudite spread that includes plenty of fresh vegetables, breads, etc. Make your own dip (in fact, make multiple dips by yourself): it will taste better than store bought, be cheaper, and impress your guests. All you need is a food processor and 5 minutes and you’ve made all of these dip recipes.
  • Things that are already small/are on a stick are perfect. Kabobs, ravioli, etc. are all great options.

Things to stay away from:

  • Cheese and charcuterie plates are expensive. Especially when you’re me and need to buy the most wonderful, exotic-sounding cheese and charcuterie. Save it for a smaller gathering.
  • Also: seafood is expensive, some people don’t like it, and it spoils easily. Leave it off your menu for a larger party.
  • Don’t get too complicated (this is especially hard for me). Sometimes when things are cheap, the trade off is that you have to spend more time making it: try to strike a balance. Choose some things that are quick and some that might take longer. Don’t tackle 5 things that each take 2 hours to make.
Fancy mac and cheese

Fancy mac and cheese

I love comfort food taken up a notch, and it’s what a lot of restaurants like to do. They take your mom’s meatloaf and make it with veal and bison, and all of a sudden it’s transformed into something more than it was. A lot of chefs have done this with mac and cheese: a luxurious dish that can be made even more fancy by the addition of a few other ingredients. So I’m jumping on the bandwagon. And, while it’s warm today, the past few days have been cold and snowy, which left me craving comfort food like mac and cheese to warm me up. And apparently I’m not the only one.

I found the recipe on Epicurious, and modified it a bit (lobster doesn’t quite fit in with a gourmet on a budget dish). Truffle oil, my friends, is what makes this recipe especially amazing.  OK, it’s black truffle flavored olive oil, but it’s all I could find, and probably afford.

Budget: $15 for 4 to 5 servings; or $3 to $3.75 a serving.

Recipe details after the jump.

A regular feature in which I cook cheap, gourmet dishes. (more…)

Spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs

I love me some America’s Test Kitchen, and in an episode I saw last weekend they made spaghetti and meatballs. So I decided it was time to make some as well. Let me be honest, I’ve had trouble with meatballs in the past. I’ve tried to pan-fry them, but I’ve found that as you try to cook them on each side they don’t look as round but more octagonal. Plus, they didn’t cook all the way through, and when I was trying I wasn’t making my own sauce, and even so, wouldn’t have thought to continue cooking them in the sauce.

Of course, America’s Test Kitchen has the answer: cook the meatballs in the oven and then finish them in the sauce. Genius. I modified their recipe a little bit because I didn’t want to use pork sausage for the meatballs, just beef. Otherwise I stayed true to the recipe.

This takes time, about an hour and a half for me. But man, is it rewarding to have made your own sauce and have meatballs that are round. And, it’s very filling and comforting, good food for a cold day like today. Plus, this recipe, which I halved for the sauce but not for the meatballs, could feed an army. They say it serves 8, but I would say it could easily serve 12 if not more. The leftovers are going in my freezer for another cold day.

Not very pretty, but very tasty French onion soup

Not very pretty, but very tasty French onion soup

OK, secret here: the cheapest dish you can make that is healthy, low calorie, and low fat is soup. I have so many soups in my repertoire, from butternut squash and apple (I make it without the cheese topping and it’s delicious), turkey chili, classic tomato soup, curried pea soup,  and the great summer hit peach and tomato gazpacho.

French onion soup, with the melted cheese topping, isn’t exactly low fat or calorie, but it is a great dish for these cold winter days. Like most soup, it does take time to make, but the reward is how cheap you can make it for. And, it’s so hearty it can be a whole meal for me, maybe with a side of salad.

I have to admit, I found this recipe harder to make than I expected. The onions took forever to caramelize, and I had to speed up the process by turning up the heat to make it in less than two hours. But, the results were still very tasty.

And, if anyone has any tips to get onions to caramelize in less than an hour and a half without turning the heat up, I’m all ears.

Budget: $10, makes about 4-6 servings, $1.66-$2.50 a serving.

Recipe details after the jump.

A regular feature in which I cook cheap, gourmet dishes.

(more…)