A tight food budget doesn't have to mean a strapped social life. The trick to throwing a party on a shoestring is advance planning coupled with strategic shopping. Here's an under-$30 do-ahead meal for 12 that's perfect as buffet, brunch, lunch or dinner.
Tips to keep the costs low: Look for polenta (cornmeal) in bulk--it costs about 49 cents a pound, less than the packaged variety. Buy whole chickens and cut them up at home. For the salad or vegetables, look for seasonal specials between 59 cents and 69 cents a pound. The same goes for the fruit compote made up of currently seasonal apples, bananas and oranges. Though it's necessary to buy filo, cream and chocolate in larger quantities than needed for the meal, all can be used in other recipes.
MENU FOR 12
Mozzarella and Spinach Filo Kisses Spicy Chicken Polenta Squares Green salad or fresh seasonal steamed vegetables Bread Mixed fruit compotes Easy Chocolate Truffles Cost of menu:
8 ounces mozzarella--$1.39
2 bunches spinach--$1.20
1/2 package filo $1.25
3 whole chickens--$9
16 ounces nonfat plain yogurt--$1
2 pounds polenta--$1
3 pounds onions--$1
Salad or vegetables, 3 to 4 pounds or bunches,--$2.25
Fruit, 3 to 4 pounds,--$2
1/4 pint whipping cream--35 cents
6 ounces chocolate chips--75 cents
1 pound butter--$1.39
Filo, that pastry of paper - thin sheets, makes delicious wrappings for just about any filling. Have filling ready before working with the sheets. While working, keep the unused sheets from drying out by covering with a tea towel.
2 bunches spinach, stemmed and steamed
8 ounces mozzarella, shredded
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, optional
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Black pepper, to taste
8 sheets filo
1/2 to 1 cup butter, melted
Cool spinach and squeeze moisture out using hand or tea towel. Chop finely. Place in bowl and add mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, nutmeg and pepper. Mix to incorporate.
Working quickly so filo doesn't dry, take 1 sheet filo and brush with melted butter. Top with another sheet and brush with more butter. Cut double sheet into 24 squares.
Place tiny bit of spinach mixture in center of each square, gather and pinch dough around filling and gently twist to make 1 kiss. Repeat procedure with remaining filo sheets and filling. (Can be frozen at this point; do not defrost before baking.)
Place kisses on ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 8 to 10 minutes or until golden. Makes 96.
The seductive flavors of cinnamon and cumin, along with lots of onions, give this chicken an exotic taste found in many Indian and Moroccan dishes. It can be made ahead and reheated. Save backs and necks from chickens to make stock for use in polenta.
16 ounces nonfat yogurt
1 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste
4 to 6 cloves garlic, pressed
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
9 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, or to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
Remove skin from each chicken and cut into 8 pieces: breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings. Place in large bowl and add yogurt, cumin, cinnamon and garlic. Mix well. Let marinate at least 2 hours or overnight in refrigerator.
Heat olive oil in Dutch oven large enough to hold all chicken. Add onions and saute until golden. Add chicken pieces and marinade and cook until pieces begin to brown. Add bay leaves, tomatoes, large dash sugar, salt and pepper to taste and chile flakes. Mix, cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until chicken is done. Mix in 1/4 cup parsley. Serve garnished with remaining parsley. Makes 12 servings of 2 pieces each.
Polenta (cornmeal) makes a very easy and tasty side dish or appetizer. The trick to cooking it without lumps is to add the polenta slowly to the boiling water and then to stir it constantly. Make the recipe in two batches, otherwise the stirring process will be long and difficult. POLENTA SQUARES
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cups water or chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon dried Italian herb blend
2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
Heat olive oil in skillet and saute onion until tender. Add liquid and bring to boil. Turn heat to simmer and add parsley and herb blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cornmeal very slowly in thin stream. Stir constantly until it thickens and pulls away from side, about 20 minutes.
Pour into greased (9x5-inch) loaf pan and cool. To serve, slice and reheat in oven or under broiler. Alternatively, pour into greased (15x11-inch) jellyroll pan and spread evenly. Let set 15 minutes and cut in squares, diamonds or cookie-cutter shapes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Along with a simple fruit compote, a bite of chocolate is a perfect way to end a meal. These truffles are easy to do ahead of time, and they keep well in the freezer. Flavor them if you want with coffee or a liqueur such as Grand Marnier. Make them small, so one or two are enough to satisfy any chocoholic. EASY CHOCOLATE
6 ounces (1 cup) semisweet chocolate pieces
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon instant coffee powder, dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water, or 2 tablespoons liqueur
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Combine chocolate, whipping cream, coffee and butter in small saucepan. Heat over low heat until ingredients are smooth and melted, stirring. Place in bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate until firm.
Place cocoa in shallow bowl. Place bowl of truffle mixture in bowl of ice. Grease hands with little butter (optional). Scoop with teaspoon or small melon baller and quickly form into about 24 balls, rolling each in cocoa to completely coat. Place on wax paper and refrigerate. Makes about 24.