The best holiday parties aren't necessarily the ones with the biggest budgets. There are many dishes that are cheap and easy but taste rich and luxurious.
Stuff dates with Parmagiano Reggiano and wrap them in bacon, so easy that "a 5-year-old could prep them," said Bob Blumer of Glutton for Punishment on Food Network. Turn skewers of chicken into a conversation starter by presenting them in a whole pineapple. Rub sourdough bread with garlic, grill it and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper for a pared-down bruschetta.
Making a menu of appetizers from scratch can sometimes be a way to save money, but not always. That's where caterers can help.
Whoever makes the food, the important thing is that "it has to come from your heart and you have to stick to budget," said Sacramento caterer Linda Storell.
Forego the formal holiday sit-down dinner, which tends to get Donald Trump expensive by virtue of expectation.
A party of hors d'oeuvres can be more fun and far cheaper, said Claire Robinson, chef and host of Food Network's 5 Ingredient Fix and Food Network Challenge.
Invest in one amazing appetizer, like Ms. Robinson's mini beef Wellingtons and supplement with simpler (and less expensive) hors d'oeuvres like spiced nuts and her rosemary parmesan shortbread.
At the store or farmers market, look for a cranberry chutney or jalapeno or red pepper jelly that you can drizzle over cream cheese. Add stone-ground crackers to surround it.
Want to really impress guests? Buy a big hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano at a warehouse store, use what you need for your menu, and then cut the rest up and give it away as party favors, she suggested.
"You can put it in a really great piece of cheesecloth, wrap it up and give them the [shortbread] recipe," she suggested during a phone interview from New York City.
If a sit-down dinner party is a must, ditch the fancy prime ribs and filet mignons, which are most expensive this time of year. Opt instead for cuts like the New York roast (also called a Manhattan roast) or a center-cut cross rib roast, said Mike Carroll, butcher and meat department manager for Corti Brothers in Sacramento.
Those with big budgets might be able to splurge on lavish bouquets of flowers in winter white hues, but if you're looking to save money, create a beautiful bouquet from supermarket flowers and decorate the rest of the house with ornaments in glass vases.
Color combinations such as white and metallic convey elegance, while bright colors like reds and greens are more playfully festive.
Simple centerpieces such as cranberries floating in a glass bowl of water topped with a single white mum are beautiful, said florest Kevin Cohee.
It's also important to think through the party details. If the budget allows, consider hiring a housekeeper or cash-strapped college student to help out before and during the party (going rate is about $20 an hour, plus gratuity). If children are coming to the party, consider hiring an energetic sitter and relegating the children's activities to one area of the home.
If tablecloths are looking worn, head to the fabric store and buy pieces of lace big enough to fit the table and place them over the tablecloth, turning what's old instantly new again.
White votive candles are an inexpensive addition to tables, mantels and shelves that add instant elegance and ambience. Some stores like sell bags of votive candles for a few dollars. Buy unscented candles because the scented ones often overwhelm the smell of food.
Don't skimp on glassware. It can be rented for as little as 25 cents per piece.
"Drinking wine out of a plastic cup — it just doesn't let your guest be treated special," Mr. Cohee said.
The worst thing a holiday party can be is stodgy and boring. Do something unexpected, and you'll almost guarantee a party that guests won't soon forget.
Serve a holiday dinner of chili and cornbread on fine china. Scrawl funny quotes on chalkboards and prop them up around the house.
Lisa Gnat, Toronto author of Bite Me: A Stomach-Satisfying, Visually Gratifying, Fresh-Mouthed Cookbook, said she and her sister used turkey basters as place settings at their Thanksgiving table last month.
"When people come in with a laugh, they're already having a good time," she said. "Your party is already a success."
12 large dried Medjool dates
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, in one chunk
6 slices bacon, cut in half
12 wooden toothpicks
Preheat oven to 350 .
Use a paring knife to make a lengthwise slit in each date. Splay open the dates and remove the pits. Reserve dates.
Using your sharpest knife, cut Parmigiano Reggiano into sticks that are 1 inch long by 1/4-inch square.
Fill the pit cavity of each date with a piece of cheese. Close the dates around the cheese and press to seal.
Wrap each date with a piece of bacon and set on a baking sheet, seam side down. Skewer with a toothpick to hold bacon in place. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until bacon is crispy. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.
Yield: 12 servings
Source: Glutton for Pleasure: Signature Recipes, Epic Stories, and Surreal Etiquette, by Bob Blumer
Mini Beef Wellingtons
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds beef tenderloin, cut into 24 (1-inch) cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 ounces cremini mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the beef dry with a paper towel and season all sides with salt and pepper. Quickly sear the beef on 2 sides only until deep golden-brown, about 4 minutes total; do not overcook. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Add the mushrooms to the skillet and cook until beginning to brown and release liquid, about 5 minutes. Add the shallots and continue cooking until mushroom mixture dries out, is golden brown and shallots are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 . Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
On a work surface, roll one sheet of puff pastry to a 10-by-14-inch rectangle. Put teaspoon-sized mounds of mushroom mixture on the pastry, evenly spacing them in four rows of three. Top the mushroom mound with a piece of beef, seared side up. With a sharp knife, cut the pastry into even squares around the meat and mushrooms. Working one at a time, pull 2 opposite sides of pastry up over each beef piece, then fold the ends over the top to make a packet. Invert and arrange the packets seam side down on the baking sheet and press them lightly to seal the pastry. Repeat with the remaining beef, mushrooms, and pastry. Bake the Wellingtons until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven to a serving platter and let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 24 pieces
Source: Claire Robinson,
Rosemary Parmesan Shortbread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon water, if needed
Put the flour, sugar, rosemary, salt, and Parmesan into a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and pulse just until a soft dough forms; the dough should hold together when squeezed with your hands. If not, add the water and pulse until combined.
Spread a large sheet of plastic wrap on a work surface and transfer the dough onto it. Using the plastic wrap as a guide, form the dough into a loose log along 1 edge of the long side of the sheet. Roll the dough log, twisting the plastic gathered at the ends in opposite directions until the log is tight and compact, about 2 inches in diameter. Chill until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 . Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Slice dough log into `/3-inch slices and arrange on lined sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake until edges are just beginning to brown, 12 to 14 minutes.
Cool shortbread on the pan for 5 minutes then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store shortbread in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to serve.
Yield: About 30
Source: 5 Ingredient Fix: Easy, Elegant, and Irresistible Recipes, by Claire Robinson
Rustic Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
For the marinara sauce:
1 medium white onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons sugar
For the meatballs:
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups soft bread crumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds lean ground beef
For the sauce: In a large soup pot, combine onion, garlic, and olive oil over medium-low heat and stir often until onion is tender, about 8 minutes. Add canned tomatoes, wine, salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
Remove from stove and using a hand-held or countertop blender, puree sauce to desired consistency. Stir in basil and sugar. Cover and return to medium-low heat, cooking 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
For the meatballs: Preheat oven to 375 . Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil and coat with nonstick cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine eggs, bread crumbs, Parmesan, parsley, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper. Add ground beef, mixing to combine. Shape the meat mixture into approximately 50 meatballs and place on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes total, turning the meatballs at the 10-minute mark. Remove from oven and place meatballs on paper towel to drain off any excess fat.
Place meatballs in marinara sauce. Place one meatball on a fork, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and serve.
Yield: 50 meatballs
Source: Adapted from Bite Me: A Stomach-Satisfying, Visually-Gratifying, Fresh-Mouthed Cookbook, by Lisa Gnat and Julie Albert
Asian Beef Roll-Ups
2 limes, juiced
2 heaping tablespoons light-brown sugar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1-2 tablespoons chili sauce, or to taste (such as Sriracha)
1 pound flank steak
Whisk the lime juice, sugar, soy sauce, and chili sauce until combined in a glass baking dish. Slice the steak against the grain into very thin strips and place in the marinade, tossing to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Heat a nonstick grill pan over high heat until very hot. Working in batches using tongs, drain the excess marinade from the meat strips into a bowl, quickly grilling the steak, turning once, until seared and cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes total.
Meanwhile, pour the marinade into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the cooked beef to a cutting board. Roll each strip lengthwise into a bundle and spear each roll with a toothpick. Place the beef roll-ups on a platter and drizzle the thickened glaze over them. Serve immediately.
Yield: 8-10 servings
Source: 5 Ingredient Fix: Easy, Elegant, and Irresistible Recipes, by Claire Robinson