Want to throw a fabulous holiday get-together for a crowd without spending a bazillion dollars? Claire’s recession-proofed menu includes ample quantities of filling, delicious food, in addition to flowers and a fabulous cocktail, all for under $100 at Trader Joe’s. Yes, Virginia, you CAN be a domestic goddess without breaking the bank.
The trick here is a strategic balance of fresh and prepared foods, as well as making the best use of what you already have at your house.
Antipasti & Cheese Plate
Spiced Pork Tenderloin
HOUSE COCKTAIL: The “Santa Baby” (pink champagne with muddled sweet cranberries)
This menu/shopping list relies on a few assumptions that I would like to address head-on.
1) This will comfortably cover up to around 20 people who eat regular-person amounts of food at a cocktail party. I don’t know if your particular friends are the kind who leave food untouched or the kind who hoover English cheddar like it’s going out of style, but most people don’t eat tons and tons at a cocktail party.
1.5) Timing is vital here. If your party starts at 6 or 7, people will expect dinner and you’ll be screwed because everyone will be starving and pissed at you. This is an ideal proportion of food for like a 4-5 p.m. start time, or an 8-9 start time. If you had to dinner-ify this, you could add a big bag of Trader Joe’s fancy French beans (saute them with olive oil and garlic) and a bag of fingerling potatoes (halve them, toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them with the pork) for less than $10. You will also probably need another pound or two of pork if it’s the main course of dinner, plus something for our vegetarian brothers and sisters that might suffice as a main course so they’re not just eating green bean sandwiches and silently hating you. Have the cheese, olives and peppers out as appetizers with half the bread, and serve the other half with dinner.
2) Out of 20 people, it is virtually guaranteed that, unless your friends are horrible mooches, at least 3 or 4 will offer to bring something. ALWAYS SAY YES. Don’t be proud. Accept the free merchandise. The answer to that question is always, “A bottle of wine.” This is a win-win. People feel better about themselves when they don’t show up empty-handed, but they will also appreciate not being expected to actually cook anything or put in a huge amount of effort. If they want to cook something, give them some guidance. This is a cocktail party. We’re aiming for finger food. Nobody should be trucking in with a vat of mashed potatoes. Good safe options are bread, crackers, cheese, fruit or veggie trays, nice cookies, olives or nuts.
3) Clear plastic tumblers and decent plastic or paper plates are perfectly fine if you also jazz them up with really cute cocktail napkins. This only goes for cocktail parties. If it’s going to be a dinner, I’d use real plates and silverware. Unlike many people fancier than I, though, I have no problem with paper napkins at dinner if they’re dressy and cute.
4) I am operating under the assumption that you already have at your house the following staples: salt, pepper, spices, sugar, vegetable oil, olive oil, pan spray and coffee.
5) Basics from the store will look way better in good dishes. Even if you’re serving hummus and carrot sticks, pouring the hummus into a glass bowl and sprinkling some cumin on top as a garnish will make it look classier than just ripping the plastic off the tub and putting it on the table like some kind of barbarian.
|ITEM||Price Per Unit||#||Total Cost|
|Wheat Baguette (2)||2.29||2||$4.58|
|Cranberry Stilton (.75 lbs)||9.49||0.8||$7.12|
|Chevre With Honey||3.79||1||$3.79|
|Double Cream Brie (.5 lbs)||6.49||0.5||$3.25|
|Red/Yellow/Orange Bell Peppers (3)||1.29||3||$3.87|
|Pork Tenderloin (3 lbs)||4.99||3||$14.97|
|Mushroom Turnovers (3 boxes, frozen)||3.29||3||$9.87|
|Amusant Bubbly Pink Moscato (4 bottles)||5.99||4||$23.96|
|Glitter Poinsettias (2)||3.49||2||$6.98|
The Night Before Or Early In the Day:
Brine the pork tenderloin. Here’s how. Boil 1 cup of water. Add 4 tablespoons kosher salt and 4 tablespoons sugar and stir until dissolved. Add 3 cups of cold water and stir in 1/4 cup whole black peppercorns and 2 tablespoons of any other wintry spices you like - allspice berries, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, etc.. If I have fresh rosemary or sage, that’s always my first choice. If you’ve got a splash of apple cider or cranberry juice, toss 1/2 cup or so of that in there too. This will make enough brine for all 3 pounds. I usually brine in a Zip-Loc bag to save mess, but you could do it in a covered bowl or Tupperware as well. It should brine for at least 24 hours, but you can leave it in for a couple days if you have to.
Wash, sort and drain the cranberries. Boil 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cranberries to the sugar syrup and simmer on low heat until the berries burst. Add more water if needed to keep the mixture from becoming too sludgy.
Clean and decorate your house.
Set out your serving dishes and utensils. (My mother always did this the night before and labeled everything with Post-It notes, so that’s how I do it too.)
Set out your plates, napkins, and glassware.
Set up your food and bar areas. Set one of the two glitter poinsettias near the food area and one near the drink area. Augment with little vases of evergreen twigs or holly (don’t pay money to buy fancy greenery. Snip some from your Christmas tree. Or steal from a neighbor. You don’t need that much.)
Chill the champagne if you haven’t already.
Slice the baguettes into crostini and let them dry out overnight. They’ll bake up crunchier if you let them get stale first.
Roast the peppers in the oven. Here’s a set of easy instructions. All you need is vegetable oil.
90 minutes Before:
Get dressed, do your hair and makeup and have a drink. Everything on your to-do list can be done in your nice clothes, so when the first guests arrive you’ll be pleasantly bustling around but not sweaty and gross and smelling like meat juice. (Timing is everything. My best friend Evan still talks about the first time I met his family, when they came over to the house where we were living in college and walked into the kitchen to find me wearing my old-lady floral nightgown, shrieking and cursing at the blender which had exploded Mexican hot chocolate all over the kitchen walls and ceiling approximately 30 minutes before I was supposed to be showing up at a potluck with a giant pitcher of the aforementioned hot chocolate.)
Preheat the oven to 350.
While it’s preheating, set up your cheese plate. Slice the peppers and plate them, put the olives in a bowl, put the cheese on a nice plate or cutting board, etc. Stick it all back in the fridge until guests arrive.
Take the pork out of the brine and discard the liquid. Put the pork on the rack of your roasting pan and put it in the oven for 35-40 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, cook until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees, then take it out. Let it rest before you slice it. It will keep cooking for a few minutes after you remove it from the oven, and it should reach 160 before you slice and plate it.
Toast the crostini on a baking tray on the lower rack of your oven while the pork is cooking. Spray with pan spray or olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. When they are golden brown and crunchy, pull them out of the oven and put the mushroom turnovers in. Put the crostini in a bowl or basket by the cheese tray.
Set up your dessert area. Put the figs and pfeffernüsse in bowls, or place the lemon tart on a larger platter and surround it with the smaller sweets.
As Guests Arrive:
Take cheese plate out of fridge.
Pre-pour a tray of drinks. Place a teaspoon of the cranberry mixture at the bottom of a champagne flute and pour pink champagne over the top. If you happen to have Chambord on hand, top with a splash of that.
Greet your guests with a charming smile, knowing that you put this whole fabulous shindig together on a shoestring budget with minimal effort and you still look SUPER classy doing it.
Never say no to an offer of help with the dishes.
Wash your dishes (luckily you shouldn’t really have that many, just the roasting pan and some platters and servingware) and take out your garbage so you don’t wake up to a stank kitchen.
Sit down, put your feet up, drink the leftover cocktails and make yourself a sandwich with cranberry Stilton and pork tenderloin. I swear to God, it’s the greatest food combination I’ve ever experienced.