ten tips for frugal entertaining

After my bill shock episode last week, I got an email from a reader, who had recently been made redundant, saying how much she is enjoying the life of the newly unemployed. She also mentioned that she had had a similar incident with her ISP but had demanded to speak to a manager and had ended up having her excess usage waived. Which shows that I could learn a thing or two about negotiating.

She also said thanks for the shepherds pie recipe and to keep the budget friendly meals coming. Which got me thinking. I’d been planning to do a post about some little onion tarts I’d made for a recent girls dinner when Missy Helgs was visiting from Melbourne. One of the reasons I’d made the tarts was that I was still feeling the effects of bill shock. Which got me thinking about the things I do when I feel the need to keep my food costs down. And so I give you:

ten tips for frugal entertaining

i. Keep it simple.
I have a friend who is a wonderful cook but she hardly ever entertains. When she does it is fabulous, always an extravaganza of flavours and textures. So many different dishes, so much complexity. It must take her ages to prepare and cost a bomb which probably explains why it is such a rare occurrence.

ii. Allow your guests to contribute.
People are always asking what they can bring. Make the most of it. I find that either something to start or something to end the meal works well. Keep simple it to something that they can pick up on their way. Think olives or prosciutto or cheese for a starter or icecream or some chocolate for dessert.

iii. Don’t skimp on quality.
Just because you’re entertaining on a budget doesn’t mean you should start buying inferior quality produce. If you can’t afford good steak, don’t compromise with a cheap cut. Change the menu and go with top quality sausages or some osso buco instead.

iv. Think of less expensive alternatives.
The recipe which inspired the salad below used goats curd on top but I made it much more affordable by substituting in good old ricotta. Not the same but lovely none the less. Another favourite is to use speck instead of pancetta. Or bocconcini to replace buffalo mozerella – but never if it’s going to be served without melting.

v. Go for comfort food.
When you have someone over, it’s unlikely that they’re expecting cheffy restaurant food. They’ve come for a home cooked meal so play up the comfort factor. Bangers and mash or a simple roast chook work a treat every time.

vi. Use eggs as a source of protein.
Eggs are the most complete source of protein and one of the most cost effective as well. Even the best free range organic eggs are affordable compared to most meats. A frittata, savoury souffle or quiche with a salad and some crusty bread and butter shouldn’t break the bank.

vii. Keep serving sizes moderate
I’m not saying be stingy, just be mindful of the amount of food you are serving and aim to have your guests going home contented and happy not stuffed to the gills.

viii. Invest in a pasta machine.
Sometimes it’s good to invest in the future. I’ve had my pasta machine for longer than I care to admit, and sure I’m not pulling it out on a weekly basis but it never lets me down when I need to make a special meal on a budget. Think ravioli or parpadelle or even delicate angel hair.

ix. Make dessert the star
Lets face it, apart from salt, sugar is one of the cheapest ingredients there is. If you steer clear of expensive nuts, fruit and Valhrona chocolate, desserts tend to be pretty economical. Think rice pudding, creme brulee, pot roasted pears, pavlova.

x. There’s always pizza
I always keep yeast and flour in the house and I find that no matter how sparse the cupboards and fridge, I can usually pull together a half decent spread of home made pizza. You just need to be creative and remember that a good crust fresh out of the oven will make up for a lack of buffalo mozerella.

a frugal girls dinner
marinated olives
little onion tarts
spinach, pearl barley & ricotta salad
plenty of vino

little onion tarts
serves 6

I’m not normally into buying ready made pastry but in this case it works really well and saves a heap of time. You could of course make your own if you happen to be one of the time rich. I can’t remember where I read it but the secret to cooking with commercial puff pastry is to make sure it is well cooked – when you think it’s done, leave it in the oven for another ten minutes. Works a treat every time.

I’ve notice that there are two types of balsamic and two types of olive oil in this recipe. You’ll note that the less expensive option of each is cooked through where as the top quality is reserved for the finishing touches in the dressing. An example of matching your quality level with the end use. I think I’ve found rule number 11.

You could make one large tart if you didn’t have small ones. A 24cm (10in) tart tin would work. If your tin has a removable base best to line it with foil so the lovely oniony juices don’t get lost during the baking process.

50g butter
2T olive oil
900 (2lb) red onions – approx 5, peeled & finely sliced
1/4C balsamic vinegar
50g (2oz) brown sugar
900g (2lb) baby onions, unpeeled & halved lengthwise
3T olive oil additional
butter for greasing tins
2 sheets commercial puff pastry cut into 6 x 10cm (4in) circles
for the dressing:
4 sprigs thyme, leaves picked
2T best quality balsamic vinegar
4T extra virgin olive oil

Heat butter and olive oil over a medium low heat in a medium saucepan. Add red onion and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the onion is very soft – about 30 minutes. Remove cover and add balsamic and sugar and allow to simmer for another 30 – 45 minutes or until the onion is caramelized and jammy. Season and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 200C (400F). Place baby onions cut side up in a baking tray and drizzle with 3T oil. Cook for 40 – 50 minutes or until the onions are golden and soft. Allow to cool and remove the skins – I find this much easier after they’re cooked.

Grease six 10cm (4in) diameter tart or pie tins (without a removable base – see note above) with butter. Arrange onion halves cut side down, packing them in. Top with onion jam and a pastry circle. Tuck the edges of the pastry down the side of the tins using a spoon.

Increase oven temperature to 220C and bake for 25 – 35 minutes or until the pastry is deep golden brown. Allow to stand for a few minutes before inverting tarts onto warmed dinner plates.

Combine the dressing ingredients and season. Drip dressing decoratively over tarts and serve.

spinach, pearl barley & ricotta salad
serves 6
Inspired by Rodney Dunn in the April 2009 Australian Gourmet Traveller.

I just love this salad. There’s something so healthy about eating spinach like this. And then there is the lovely chewy texture of the pearl (dehulled) barley and creamy cheesy ricotta. Delish.

50g (2oz) pearl barley
3 bunches English spinach, trimmed and well washed
250g (1/2 lb) ricotta
zest & juice 1 lemon
1t chilli flakes, optional
3T extra virgin olive oil

Place barley in a small saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25 – 30 minutes, or until cooked through. Drain and rinse with cold water and transfer to a large bowl.

Wilt spinach in a large covered frying pan over a medium high heat. Stirring frequently. Drain and refresh under cold running water. Squeeze to remove excess water and toss through the barley. Add lemon juice and zest and toss again.

Scatter spinach mixture over a serving platter. Dot with dollops of ricotta. Combine oil and chilli, if using and drizzle over the ricotta.

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