Packing a Punch at Cocktails

Last night, a friend invited me to the coolest party. The hosts have had a standing friday night cocktail hour for years. Stop by, anytime after 6:30 for cocktails and nibbles to shake off the work week. I was amazed to see people coming and going for the better part of four hours, and they were still going when I left!

Each party has a theme, and last night’s was belated summer solstice. Our host and hostess served up this refreshing (and delicious) tarragon gin lemonade for the group.

It was a beautiful drink, served it in a large punch bowl in the center of the table. Of course, I was too busy enjoying my drink to remember to take a picture, so my description will have to do. The punch bowl was a simple glass bowl like this one from Crate and Barrel.

The punch looked lovely, and the best part was that it had a HUGE ball of ice in the middle that they made with a water balloon (!). Say what? When they told me how they made it, I just had to share! All you do is fill the balloon with water, freeze it, and cut off the balloon when it’s done. Easy and very cool. You can even had food coloring to the balloon to create a colored version. My brain is going crazy with ideas! Multicolored ice for kids parties, black or purple ice for Halloween, and, it has to be said, blue balls for a bachelorette party. Ha! So fun.

The long and the short of it is that it created a fabulous centerpiece that was super creative and inexpensive. They had small sphere ice cubes for each glass too (nice touch!). You could probably make those with water balloons as well or just order these from Amazon.

This is definitely something to line up for your next outdoor barbecue or house party. Trust me, your guests will be impressed!

 

Make Your Own Microwave Popcorn

This fabulous snack suggestion comes from my cousin who runs an adorable Bed and Breakfast in Jericho, Vermont.  Incidentally, her brother was our tour guide during our recent trip to St. John. I guess that side of the family digs the hospitality business.

Anyway, her suggestion is something that I’ve actually done before – not only to save money but also to have a diet-friendly snack food on hand at home. I crave salty snacks so homemade microwave popcorn really hits the spot and isn’t as bad for you as potato chips.

All you have to do is buy a set of brown lunch bags and a pack of popcorn kernels (I get bags of it in the bulk aisle at the Safeway). I put about 2 tablespoons of kernels in the bag, folder over the top a few times, and toss it in the microwave for about a minute and a half. The same microwave popcorn cooking rules apply here – if the popping noise starts to space out  then it’s probably done. Keep a misto sprayer on hand for when it’s done. I usually do a couple of sprays and add some seasoning. My favorite is Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning, but you can do all kinds of things.

Thanks to my darling cousin for doing the math. Here is the budget breakdown.

Total cost to purchase some chemical-laden Orville Redenbachers: $5.59 for 10 packs

Total cost for the homemade version:
1 pack of brown lunch bags, $1.29
1 package of popcorn kernels, $1.99

For a grand total of 50 servings at $0.06 a serving.

In her own words: Ba da bing, good, low-fat popcorn. Thanks for the suggestion!

Have any other Discountess (and diet) friendly snack ideas? Send them my way!

Crawfish Boil Cornbread

This weekend was my friend Dave and Sarah’s annual crawfish boil.  For those of you who have never been to a crawfish boil before, this is what it looks like.

Dave and Sarah had those suckers shipped in from Louisiana. This thing is no joke. We had 4 pots that looked just like this. It’s seriously a full-time job to get everything cooked.

Anyway, they always do such a great job with the party, so I wanted to bring them something to contribute. I went to my cupboard to see what I could come up with, and I decided on cornbread. Not only did I own all the ingredients, but I thought it would be a good complement to the crawfish. And, if we’re being totally honest, a little extra bread product is good to have at these things. You don’t really get a full meal from the boil, so the beer (or in my case, mint juleps) tends to catch up with you.

I adapted a recipe from one of my many Junior League cookbooks. It was a hit, especially with the kids who couldn’t handle the spice in the boil. I even had disposable tin pans to bake it in, so I didn’t have to worry about clean up! Double bonus.

Here’s the recipe.

Cornbread

1 1/2 c. yellow cornmeal
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 1/2 sticks of butter (12 Tbsp), melted and cooled
1 1/2 c. milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs lightly, add the butter and blend. Stir in the milk.

mix

Add the dry ingredients and mix until smooth. You can do this with a whisk, no fancy beater needed! Dump the mix into a buttered baking dish (I cheated and used Bakers Joy to grease the pan cause I’m lazy).

cornbread

Bake for 30 minutes (but start to watch it after 25, so it doesn’t get dry). Serve hot or cold. Crawfish optional.

Correspondents Dinner Rundown

This weekend’s dinner was a huge success! There is nothing like spending a Saturday night hobnobbing with celebrities (and by hobnobbing, I mean standing next to and staring at celebrities).

First things first, the outfit. After much hemming and hawing, I opted to wear a dress I already owned. I tried to get this dress from Rent the Runway, but I couldn’t get it in time for the dinner.  I looked at other options, but the ones the I liked were all well over $200 to rent. As we know, I had a $150 budget for the dinner so that wasn’t going to work. I decided to spend my budget on primping instead. I got a mani pedi at my favorite nail place, Vicky’s, and then hit VSL for my up do (thanks to my fairy godmother). Here is the final result (photos courtesy of my fabulous and patient neighbor). You might recognize the earrings from an eBay oops earlier this year.

MS_WHCD2

The hair was ok. I  always have high hopes that it will look different when I get it done, but it always ends up looking the same. In the back was a simple bun – no photo needed. I wanted to do something easy since I was going to a cheaper place. I will say that she did a nice job, and I was happy with my $58 spent. I think next time I need to put more thought into what I want and maybe I’ll get that spectacular look I was hoping for.

The party, on the other hand, did not disappoint. I get sheepish about approaching celebrities for pictures, so I don’t have a ton of those. I did manage a spectacular photo bomb in my friend Kyle’s picture with Ty Burrell at the ABC party. When I realized what was happening, I knew I had 2 choices – duck or embrace the moment. Clearly, I embraced.

CKR_MS_Ty

Amazing right? Something about movies stars turns me into a total nut. Sigh. At one point during a mid-dinner ladies room run, I found myself sharing the bathroom with Amy Poehler, Olivia Wilde, and Morena Baccarin from Homeland. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a picture in the ladies room, so I just I washed my hands for a very long time and then left when I was on the verge of being a real creep.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing evening. I was happy with my outfit, and I didn’t spend a million dollars either. Total budget breakdown below:

Dress and jewelry: FREE
Hair: $58 plus tip (courtesy of the hair fairy)
Nails: $42 plus tip (sponsored by my Aunt who took one look at my toes on friday and said “I hope you’re going to do something about those”)
Uber ride to the party (to arrive in style): $22
Taxi home: $8

Total expenditure: $148
Minus subsidies (Thank you Aunt T and my fairy godmother!!): -$118
GRAND TOTAL SPENT: $30

Not too shabby for a star-studded evening if I do say so myself! What do you think?

 

An Ode to the Hair Fairy

I have a new godmother. A FAIRY godmother to be exact. I have had regular godmothers since I was born – three of them to be exact – but this is my first fairy godmother. And man, did she show up at the right time.

My mom called me yesterday to tell me that someone dropped an envelope for me at her house, and curiously the return address was from “the hair fairy”.  We both were stumped (and still are, to be honest) about who it could be. Anyway, I finally got to pick it up this weekend, and lo and behold my hair fairy has given me a “sponsorship” for my White House Correspondents dinner up-do. Woo hoo!

I’m headed to VSL Hair Design in Dupont Circle tomorrow where there up dos start at $58. My grandmother always focused on the front of the “do” versus the back. She said that no one should be spending any time looking back there. So with that in mind, I’m looking to do something simple in the back and looser in the front. Perhaps something like this, courtesy of Dianna Agron.

T-minus 12 hours till dinner time. Do we think this will work?

Springtime Sunday Dinner – Menu of Champions

DinnerSetUp

Last night, my brother and I collaborated on a long overdue birthday dinner for my dad and stepmother.  We put on a spectacular party if I do say so myself – all very Discountess-friendly.

We planned a menu that used a lot of the same ingredients, which helped make the grocery shopping more efficient and cut down on waste. I don’t know about you, but it really fries me when I have to buy a bunch of fresh herbs only to use one tablespoon and have the rest go bad.  I felt totally vindicated when we conjured up this menu because it used up most of the ingredients we had to buy!

We started with Ina Garten’s Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas on a toasted baguette. Not only was the recipe easy, but it used basic pantry items that I had on hand.

For the main course,  we had roasted salmon. Since it was the star of the meal, I didn’t scrimp on the cut of the fish. I headed to an old family favorite, Cannon’s Fish Market, in Georgetown. They gave me a center cut of an 8 lb fish (I only needed about 3) for $28.89. I roasted it with a bunch of dill, parsley, lemon and green onions in the center, finished off with some salt and pepper. I drizzled olive oil on the top, added thinly sliced lemons, and tossed it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Doesn’t it look pretty?

SalmonDinner

I made a “salsa verde” to go with the salmon that used up the rest of the fresh herbs. It was a sleeper hit! We rounded out the main course with a new potato salad and fresh asparagus. Wine was courtesy of my trip to California. And for dessert, individual strawberry shortcakes, recipe courtesy of Bisquick.

All in all a lovely meal, and for my part, the total tally did not exceed $80 (which will eventually be split between the two of us). Not bad!

For those who want it, I’m including the Salsa Verde recipe below. I highly recommend it! Easy and delicious. I don’t know how capers and mint go together, but trust me, THEY DO.

Salsa Verde

1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, pressed

1 handful capers

1 large bunch parsley, washed and coarsely chopped

1 handful fresh mint, washed and coarsely chopped

Juice of  1 lemon

1/4  cup olive oil

Salt and cracked pepper to taste

Place the garlic, capers and fresh herbs in a blender. Add half the lemon juice and olive oil, and pulse a few times. Add more oil and lemon juice as needed to create a sturdy, herb-heavy sauce, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with salmon. Can be made a day or two in advance.

Bringing It, Potluck-style

I was invited to a potluck dinner party last weekend, and my job was to bring the appetizer. I was desperately trying to figure out what to bring when I remembered a recent post on fromage fort from one of my favorite cooking sites, Smitten Kitchen.

Fromage fort is the perfect contribution for the budget conscious guest. It basically takes left over cheese, mixes it together with wine and herbs, and makes it into a soft cheese pate. Depending on which cheese you use, it could taste slightly different each time. But, trust me, it is always yummy.

I used leftover brie, emmentaler, and parrano that I found floating around in the back of my fridge. This is what  it looked like in the beginning.

shreddedcheese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my way home from work, I stopped at my favorite local shop, Stachowski’s to get some fresh herbs. The owner didn’t have any out, but when I asked, he nicely gave me some from the back. FOR FREE. God, I love that place. I swear if they served coffee on weekend mornings, I would be there all the time.

Anyway, I used the grater attachment in my cuisinart to grate the hard cheese, and then cubed the soft cheese and added it in. I dumped in some fresh Stachowski’s thyme and minced garlic, hit pulse, and drizzled white wine through the feed tube until it meshed together into a consistency I liked.

I stuck it in the fridge overnight to let the flavor develop, and it was ready to go before my dinner on Saturday. I served it with pita chips, but it would be good with crusty bread or any other type of cracker. This is what the Smitten Kitchen version looks like (we ate mine before I could get a good picture!)

Here’s the recipe (adapted from Smitten Kitchen):

1 pound mix leftover cheese, harder cheeses grated, softer ones cut into chunks
1 Tbsp soft butter
1 small clove garlic, minced, or more to taste
1/2 to 1 cup leftover white wine
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme, rosemary or chives
1 to 2 Tbsp. dry sherry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Blend cheese, butter, and garlic in food processor until combined. Add the wine through the feed tube with the motor running until you get a smooth consistency, but it’s not too liquid. Add herbs and sherry and pulse until just combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Not only was the final result delicious and inexpensive, but it looked fancy and made a lot. I gave half to my mom for a dinner party she went to on Sunday night, and we both had leftovers!

 

 

Red Carpet Chili Dinner

My Oscar party and critique session was a huge success! Thank God I strategized in advance – it turned out to be the perfect action plan.

For hors d’oeuvres, we had hummus and carrots and crackers with cream cheese and pepper jelly. And wine of course! I happened to own all of it, even the pepper jelly, which I actually made with a friend a few weeks ago.

The one-pot meal was ideal. It was delicious, inexpensive, and so easy. I’d highly recommend this for an easy meal for a big group. I was able to heat it up on its own, so I could concentrate on the travesty that was 2013 Oscar fashion (check out this excellent recap from my friends at Cardigans and Couture).

Here’s the recipe:

Firehouse Chili

1 Tbsp. Vegetable oil
11/2 lbs. ground turkey (you can use ground beef as well)
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. cumin
2 Tbsp. chili powder
2 10 oz. cans Rotel tomatoes, undrained
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 16 oz. cans red kidney beans, undrained

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven. Add the meat, stirring to break up the lumps, and cook until brown. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeno and cook until the onion is limp. Drain off any excess fat from the pan.  Add salt, cayenne, oregano, cumin, and chili powder. Add tomatoes, sauce, and beans. Mix well and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes uncovered. Cover and cook for 1 1/2 hours more.

Serves 8.

For the fixins bar, I had red onion, cheese, sour cream, avocado, chopped tomato, fritos scoops, and fresh chopped cilantro. Of course, I forgot to take any pictures, but it looked something like this:

A friend contributed the salad, which she threw that together right before we ate. Another 2 ladies contributed cookies for dessert (including my favorite homemade molasses cookies – thank you Christina!). And the rest of the ladies brought wine and champagne.

Everyone ate a ton and talked even more. When I turned on my TV this morning to watch the news, the volume was at 74. Clearly, the TV couldn’t compete with our strong conversation skills!

But, I have to say the best part of the party was the clean up. One lap with a trash bag, and it was all done. Genius!

Here is my total tally for the dinner party (note: I made a double recipe of the chili to have some extra for dinner this week):

Turkey – $7.99
Kidney Beans – $1.89 x 2
Tomato Sauce  – $.65 x 2
Rotel – $1.99 x 4
Jalapenos – $.11 x 2
Fritos Scoops – $3.89
Sour Cream – $2.50
Cilantro – $1.09
Avocados – $1.70 x 2
Hot House Tomatoes – $1.65 x 2
Paper bowls – $2.29

Grand total to serve dinner to 8 of my dear friends and me: $37.72

Dinner for 9 under $40 = one happy Discountess!

Gearing Up for Oscar Night

I LOVE the Oscars. They are my Superbowl. For the past few years, I’ve hosted an Oscar fete at my house, and this year is no exception. I have 8 of my nearest and dearest coming over tomorrow night for champagne, dinner, and red carpet action.

Today, is prep day. As we know, I love hosting parties, but doing it cheaply can be a challenge. Here’s my strategy for getting this done on a dime.

1. Use what you have. I remembered to look at my cupboard  before heading to the grocery store. As I suspected, I have a bunch of unopened crackers and chips from my last shindig that are still good. Those are going to be the centerpiece of my hors d’oeuvres. As luck would have it, I also happen to have some leftover champagne and wine that I’m planning to use up as well!

2. Rely on the kindness of strangers (or in my case, friends). Every one who accepted the invitation offered to bring something. In my pre-Discountess days I would do all the cooking all myself, but this year, I decided to take my friends up on their offers. Someone is bringing a salad, and another person is bringing dessert. I’m still doing hors d’oeuvres and the main course. I’m hoping this will save me time, and make things simpler too.

3. Make an easy, one-pot dinner. I learned this lesson the hard way. The first year I did my party, I made and elaborate steak dinner with sweet potato fries…for 10. Needless to say, I was in the kitchen the entire time. This year, I’ve opted to do chili. Chili isn’t the most glamorous meal, but it’s easy, everyone likes it, and I can make it ahead. Very important! I’m going to have a full fixins bar with cheese, sour cream, cilantro, onions, avocado etc, so that everyone can customize their own dish.

4. Invest in your dinner, wisely. Yes, the cheaper option would be to use all of my own plates and dishes, but that would mean that I would be up doing dishes for hours after everyone leaves. I’ve opted for disposable glasses, bowls, and plates to make my life easier. It is on a Sunday night after all.

Wish me luck! My first order of business is to straighten up my messy apartment. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Easy Skillet Pot Pie

My mom came over for dinner and Downton Abbey this week. She believes that On Demand is a magical thing that only occurs on my TV, so she has to come to my house (with 2 dogs in tow) to watch it. We had a great time hanging out and catching up on last week’s episode.

When I have a great cook over for dinner, I automatically get nervous about what I’m going to make. And my mom is a great cook. To add insult to injury, I  haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks! I did get a box of fresh veggies from my CSA last week so I decided to start there. I also had baked some chicken breasts earlier in the week, which I wanted to use up.

I decided to make a skillet pot pie. It was a first for me. I based my version off an Epicurious recipe, but had to be creative with some ingredients based on what I had. Plus, Epicurious’ version was a little too calorie-laden, so I lightened my version up with less oil and flour. Trust me, it did not sacrifice flavor.

I have to say despite many experiments within the recipe, the dish turned out beautifully. It was easy to make, and did not take long at all. I would highly recommend it for last-minute guests or a low-key dinner with friends.

potpie

Skillet Pot Pie

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup frozen white pearl onions, thawed
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon herbs de Provence
1 1/2 c. shredded brussels sprouts
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 small butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1/2″ pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 c. shredded chicken (I used chicken breast, but you could also use about 1/2 a rotisserie chicken as well)
1  sheet frozen puff pastry (I used Pepperidge Farm), thawed
1 egg

Place a rack in upper third of oven, and preheat to 425°F. Heat oil in an 8″ cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add garlic and herb de Provence to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic begins to brown, about 2 minutes.

Add brussels sprouts and season with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing often, until it’s a little wilted. Sprinkle flour over. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.

Stir in broth, 1/2-cupful at a time, then add squash. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until squash is just softened and broth is thickened, about 8-10 minutes. Add chicken to skillet, stir, and season with salt and pepper.

Unfold pastry and smooth out the creases. Place the pastry over the skillet, allowing corners to hang over sides. Mix the egg and 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl, and brush pastry with the egg wash. Cut four 1″ slits in top to vent before placing it in the oven.

The recipe said to bake pot pie  for about 15-20 minutes until pastry is beginning to brown. Then, reduce oven temperature to 375°F and bake for another 15-20 minutes until pastry is deep golden brown and crisp. Each oven is different, so I’d urge you to watch your puff pastry in the first 10 minutes (or so) to make sure it doesn’t brown too quickly. I ended up turning the oven down after 10 minutes and moving the pan to the bottom of the oven to cook for the rest of the time.

Let the pie cool for 10 minutes before serving with a salad on the side. Et viola!

NOTE: This is sort of a “kitchen sink” type recipe, so you can experiment with a lot of different combinations of veggies. You can also speed up the cook time by chopping the vegetables and shredding the chicken in advance. Easy peasy.