GIRL ON A BUDGET PRESENTS: The $100 Spring Dinner Party

Hello lovers!

So, when last we left our hero, she was telling you how to throw a sensationally fabulous holiday cocktail party – complete with flowers and a cocktail – for the low low cost of one Benjamin.  (Benjamins are hundreds, right?  I’m not so much with the kids today and their slang.)  But now it’s spring.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and it’s time for you to throw another party.  And you’re in luck, because so many delicious and beautiful things are in season that fabulousness is cheap and easy.  It’s the perfect time to throw a shindig to celebrate the resurgence of sunshine – if your weather accomodates, set your party table outside.

Just like last time, I priced this all out at Trader Joe’s, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to buy your produce at a farmer’s market if there’s one near you. I’m under the assumption that you have the following things at your house already: butter, olive oil (although walnut oil would be even better), balsamic vinegar, sea salt and cracked black pepper.

This menu will make a light but satisfying (and completely un-fussy) dinner for 12 people, including two appetizers, a salad, a main course, bread, dessert, 4 bottles of a perfectly drinkable cheap pinot grigio, and enough left over for you to treat yourself to one of these on the way out.

You’re welcome!

MENU
Blueberry Goat Cheese Crostini
Ham & Cheese Puff Pastry Bites
Warm Spinach Salad With Walnuts & Strawberries
Asparagus, Leek & Gruyere Crustless Quiche
Sicilian Chicken Sausage
Sliced Baguette
Pomegranate Blueberry Sherbet
Petit Palmiers
Pinot Grigio

POTENTIAL VARIATIONS

–The recipe will make 2 quiches, giving each guest 1/6 of the contents of a 9-inch pie plate, if you follow the original Martha Stewart recipe to the letter.  When I made this for my family for Easter I omitted the crust, and I made them as minis in a muffin tin.  The world is your oyster.

–Feel free to tweak based on whatever looks good at your farmer’s market.  For example, I don’t like mushrooms at all, but people who DO like mushrooms enjoy them in quiche.

–If you wanted to go a little fancier, crab cakes instead of the chicken sausage could be another really lovely option: light, spring-ish, elegant and easy to make in large batches.  Grilled shrimp or chicken, with maybe a mustard/white wine glaze, would be nice here too.

SHOPPING LIST

ITEM Price Per Unit # Total Cost
Wheat Baguette $2.29 2 $4.58
Blueberry Goat Cheese $4.49 1 $4.49
Puff Pastry Ham & Cheese Bites $4.99 2 $9.98
Strawberries $4.49 1 $4.49
Spinach $1.99 2 $3.98
Walnuts $3.99 1 $3.99
Eggs $1.59 1 $1.59
Half & Half $1.69 1 $1.69
Shredded Gruyere/Swiss Cheese $4.99 1 $4.99
Asparagus $1.99 2 $3.98
Leeks $2.79 1 $2.79
Sicilian Chicken Sausage $3.99 2 $7.98
Pomegranate Blueberry Sherbet $2.49 4 $9.96
Petit Palmiers $3.99 2 $7.98
D’Aquino Pinot Grigio $3.99 4 $15.96
Ranunculus $4.99 2 $9.98
Chocolate Bar $1.99 1 $1.99
$100.40

DINNER PARTY TIMING 101

This meal is designed to be served in courses.  Let’s take a few minutes for a quick primer on optimum dinner party timing.  What you DON’T want is to end up trapped in your kitchen doing some super-finicky task while your doorbell is ringing – I learned this lesson with my first foray into risotto, where I tried to make in advance and then stepped away from stirring for NOT EVEN ONE MINUTE to check my Facebook and when I came back it was burnt.  I had to make it all again the day of the party, with my sous-chef Gilberto taking over the entire rest of the meal because I could not leave my post.  But in general, if I’m having a dinner party my preference is to err on the side of things that can sit out for a bit, or stay warming in the oven, or come together with a minimal of last-minute fuss, so I actually get to sit down and eat each course with my guests instead of frantically garnishing while they finish their salads.  So this is a Claire-friendly party: unfussy appetizers, a main course you can make ahead, minimal fuss-over-the-stove time, and a totally store-bought dessert that will not feel store-bought.

Timing is one of those little unquantifiable things that can make the difference between a fun party and a stressful party.  You never want to rush people through finishing their first course; fortunately the quiche and sausage can stay warm in the oven while everyone finishes the salads.  Then I always like to let people digest and chat for awhile before shifting from dinner to dessert.  Getting up to clear plates signals a clear end to that particular phase of the party, so don’t pull the trigger until you feel like all your guests are ready or it will feel like you’re rushing them.  If everyone wants to sit around and polish off the rest of the wine for an hour after finishing dinner before they want dessert, let them.

FLOWERS, CLAIRE-STYLE

Let’s talk flora for one quick second.

Everyone always defaults to roses whenever they need flowers for a fancy occasion, but BLAHHHHHHH.  For real, you guys, the markup on roses is just insane compared to everything else.  They’re the tourist trap of flowers. Don’t fall for it – ESPECIALLY not at this time of year when there is so much other gorgeousness to be had. Allow me to introduce you to your new best friend: the ranunculus.

Ranunculi have a lot more going for them than just a name that’s really fun to say.  They’re on sale for super cheapsies at Trader Joe’s right now (and I’m sure many other places).  They come in fun zippy springtime colors.  They’re perfect dinner party flowers because, with their stems stripped and cut short, they look terrific in short, tightly-bunched arrangements (like the one I did above).  So you can get a big pop of color on your table without having to mess around with giant leafy arrangements that block your guests’ face.  That picture, above, is 2 bunches crammed into one vase, but another fun option would be a row of bud vases or drinking glasses with just 2 or 3 blooms down the center of the table, interspersed with votives (in colorful glass holders if you have them.  My hot pink Moroccan glass ones would be great here).  I saw a wedding table setting in a magazine once where each place setting had one single ranunculus in a silver mint julep cup and HOLY CRAP was it fabulous.  If you did want to do a taller, splashier arrangement, you could add a third bunch of ranunculus and a big bunch of pink or orange alstroemeria (my favorite filler flower) for less than $10.  That’s the one that looks like this:

 They’re pretty and fluttery and they last FOR. EVER.  They are always the last thing left alive when your bouquet starts to fade.  If I’m doing a mixed bouquet I like the mix of things with dense round blossoms (ranuculus, peony, tulip, Gerber daisy) and something a little looser and softer with a different shape (alstroemeria, daffodil, iris).  Vary the heights to make it look a little artfully messy, but strip all the leaves below the water line and snip any dead blooms so it doesn’t look ACTUALLY messy.  It’s the difference between fashionably smudged smoky eyeliner and crying off all your mascara.

TO CONCLUDE: Here are Claire’s top 5 tips for dinner-party flower arranging.

1) Avoid roses.  They’re just so EXPECTED.
2) Strip stems below the waterline for a clean, crisp look.
3) Vary a round, solid blossom with a more fluttery, unstructured blossom.
4) Keep your arrangements low enough for your guests to see each other across the table.
5) CARNATIONS ARE THE WORST.

The Night Before

–Slice bread and leave it out to get stale so your crostini are extra-crunchy.

–Clean and decorate your house.

–Set your table.

–Make the quiche.  Click here for the recipe, and remember, you’re doubling.  Oh, except I halved the cheese – I didn’t need nearly as much as was recommended.  I also modified it with no crust, so just spray your baking dish well with pan spray – or use a flexibile silicon cake pan like I did.  Quiche is pretty forgiving.  You could probs even make one huge deep-dish one if you wanted.  Assemble everything in the pan but don’t bake it; you’ll bake it tomorrow before you serve.

–Prep your salad – stem the spinach and chop your strawberries.  Refrigerate until tomorrow.

90 Minutes Before

–Bake your crostini until they get crunchy.

–Shower, get dressed, and do your hair & makeup.

30 Minutes Before

–Assemble your crostini.  Cut a thin slice of the blueberry goat cheese, spread on a crostini and crack some black pepper on top.

–Bake the ham & cheese puff pastries.  They’ll do just fine at room temperature and you want to make sure that they’re all ready the second your first guests get there.

–Prep your salad.  Chop the strawberries and toss them in with the spinach.  Put a big drizzle of olive oil (or walnut oil if you have it) in a skillet along with some balsamic vinegar, and warm it on low to medium heat.  Crush like a cup of walnuts and stir it into the oil and vinegar mixture, and sprinkle in some salt and pepper.  Toast the walnuts for a few minutes and then take it off heat and set aside.  You’ll dress the salad just before you serve it.

15 Minutes Before

Put your quiche and sausages in the oven.  The quiche will take about an hour to bake (you want to cook it until the center is just set).  The sausages can just chillax on a cookie sheet under the quiche until they’re nicely browned and cooked through (stab them with a fork a few times so the juices can run out). .If you put them in now, that gives you 45 minutes for everything to cook during cocktail hour.

As Guests Arrive

Serve the appetizers, pour wine and be charming.

During the Meal

–SALADS: Once your guests have all arrived, have them seat themselves and serve the wine and the rest of the bread while you do the salads.  Now, there are two ways to do this: you could plate it and serve in courses, or do it family style in big bowls and platters.  If you’re plating it in courses, divide the spinach and strawberry mixture onto plates, then top with the warm walnut dressing (reheat if you need to) and a dash of salt and pepper.  If you’re doing it family style, put it in one big bowl and toss the walnuts and dressing in. But make sure you give your guests separate salad bowls to avoid strawberry leakage on the rest of their food.

–ENTREES:  If you’re serving in courses, you’ll want the quiche to be finished right around the time you serve the salads – it has to cool for a few minutes before you can cut it.  If you’re doing it family style, you’ll have to time everything so it’s all ready to be served together.  Put a wedge of quiche and one sausage (or crab cakes, or whatever) on the plate and serve.  Or, you know, giant family-style platters.  Whatever works best for you.

–DESSERT: Place a generous scoop of sherbet in a small dessert bowl. You have 4 pints of sherbet so every guest will get 1/3 of the pint.  Or they’ll all get slightly less and you’ll have one pint left over for when you’re watching late-night Friends reruns on TBS after everyone leaves.  Put two palmiers in the bowl before serving.  Or, you know what I just now thought of that would be THE CUTEST EVER, would be serving it in a teacup with the cookies on the saucer.  Presh!  Either way, serve your dessert and sit down to enjoy it.

Afterwards

As always, I recommend you always say yes to any offers of help with the dishes.  I always sleep better with a clean kitchen – or if not clean, at least all the food put away, a load or two of dishes run, and everything that isn’t the kitchen completely cleaned of food remnants to avoid ants or other grossness.  Then park it on the couch while you watch late-night TV and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

PARTY SOUNDTRACK

Here are twelve tunes for your dinner party soundtrack that match the vibe of the food.  (I linked to the playlist I made on my Spotify account; here are the song titles if you don’t have Spotify and you want to look them up on iTunes.)

  1. “I Feel So Much Spring,” from the musical A New Brain by William Finn
  2. “Inutil Paisagem,” Esperanza Spalding
  3. “Hold On You,” Jeff Bridges (from the movie Crazy Heart)
  4. “Here Comes the Sun,” Nina Simone
  5. “Your Hand In Mine,” Explosions In the Sky
  6. “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Blossom Dearie
  7. “Simple Twist of Fate,” Bob Dylan
  8. “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” Dorothy Dandridge
  9. “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?,” Lyle Lovett
  10. “Hang That Moon,” Sarah Hart
  11. “Down In the Valley,” The Head and the Heart
  12. “It Might As Well Be Spring,” Astrud Gilberto
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