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How to wow on a budget

I've invited a date over for dinner. I would like to make a stellar meal for the two of us but I'm on a budget. Any hot ideas or reccomendations? Thanks!

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  1. Chicken thighs! People always rely on skinless boneless chicken breasts when they cook chicken, but in fact, the meat is both bland and expensive. If you prepare your thighs right, you'll have a wonderful end result that is super-cheap.

    One of my family's favorites is what I call a summer cacciatore. It's skinless, boneless thighs, browned and cooked with sausages, wine, broth, fresh tomatoes, onions, basil, red peppers, spinach...whatever sounds good. Your chicken will be tender and juicy and the dinner is great.

    Or, if you want something more casual, you can always look up a nice glaze, maybe a plum bbq sauce or something. Bake your skin-on thighs on high heat until they are done, brush on the glaze and finish in the broiler.

    1. I'd suggest making risotto and a nice salad. The rice is a tad expensive, but you can take advantage of all the wonderful produce available right now. Here's a risotto I made last summer with zucchini and zucchini flowers that we loved:


      Another great risotto is with tomatoes, smoked mozzarella and basil.

      1. Pork tenderloin - Bon Appetit has a wonderful recipe for orange chipotle pork tenderloin. I bought a tenderloin yesterday for $5 and it is more than enough for 2 healthy appetites. Then accompany with some other Mexican recipes or simply classic white rice, grilled veggies, creme caramel for dessert.

        Beer can chicken is awesome, as is grilled lemon chicken under a brick (Batali).

        1 Reply
        1. re: sarah galvin

          I second pork tenderloin. Lately, I've been using this marinade recipe because it's so simple. Substitute orange juice for sherry:


        2. What is your budget? Could you get a piece of salmon? There are a million easy and inexpensive ways to prepare it and the side dish options are unlimited.

          2 Replies
          1. re: lhb78

            I can swing fish, I just can't overboard with the "luxury" items like foie gras, caviar, etc. :)

            1. re: MIss G

              One thing to think about - depending on the size of your kitchen/apartment/home is the wafting aroma of fish cooking. I ignore it at this point, but you might want to consider it. You could make gravlax ahead of time as an appetizer.

          2. I had surprise guests this weekend and had to make do with a $25 budget and 6 hours to come up with the following:

            Appetizers: Potato croquettes with chipotle yogurt and saffron aioli
            Salad: Thai basil and romaine salad with Sriracha dressing
            Mains: Red curry tofu; Chicken adobo
            Sides: Steamed rice
            Dessert: Avocado-coconut ice cream

            With the champagne I had on hand, it turned out to be a very cheap and well-received meal for 3 that has provided enough leftovers for lunch and dinner today and yesterday.

            1 Reply
            1. re: JungMann


              can you post your recipe for the thai basil and romaine salad with sriracha dressing? i would greatly appreciate it!

            2. Others are talking about what to prepare Another note:

              Set an elegant table (including cloth napkins and flowers, even if only two stolen from the park) and plate carefully: the summer cacciatore above sounds great, but salmon (another recommendation) will plate more stellar-ly.

              1. I find that a slow braise often times gives a wow (maybe because many people don't want to cook for hours these days?). The classic perhaps being osso bucco - however, the price of veal shank can be through the roof.
                You could do a similar dish with 'pot roast' or 'blade roast' or 'short ribs' or even pork shank - whatevers on sale...
                You can even do a day ahead and let the flavors age and mellow!

                1 Reply
                1. re: porker

                  I love doing braises when I'm entertaining...it's so much easier to pop something in the oven hours before anyone comes over, and then quickly plate it when we're ready to eat.

                  This is my current favorite : http://www.ranchogordo.com/html/rg_co...

                  It's quite possibly the best thing I've made in the last few months. When it's got about an hour left, I put halved acorn squashes with a chipotle-honey glaze in a casserole dish, and cook them right alongside. If I want more veggies, I make a caeser salad with avocado

                2. Fig pate w/very thin sliced bread

                  Green salad with your fresh home made viniagrette
                  Citrus chicken under a brick
                  Fresh veggie ~~ i.e. summer squash, zucchini, green beans, (whatever is cheapest)

                  hagen daaz or ben & jerry's in the teeny tiny single serve container.

                  Fig pate

                  Total time: 25 minutes

                  Servings: Makes 1 (6-inch) log

                  Note: From "Good Day for a Picnic, Simple Food that Travels Well" by Jeremy Jackson (William Morrow, $23).

                  1/2 teaspoon baking soda

                  1/4 cup hazelnuts

                  1 teaspoon fennel seeds

                  1 1/4 cups stemmed, halved dried Black Mission figs

                  1 tablespoon brandy

                  1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

                  1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

                  1. To remove the skins from the hazelnuts without toasting them, bring some water and one-half teaspoon baking soda to a boil in a small pot. Add the nuts and cook for a few minutes, then drain and rub off the skins with a kitchen towel.

                  2. Toast the fennel seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just until they start to change color. Grind them in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder.

                  3. Place the hazelnuts, figs, brandy, vinegar and 1 1/2 teaspoons water

                  in the bowl of a food processor.

                  Process until the mixture is a paste. Add the ground fennel and black pepper.

                  4. Place the fig paste on a sheet of aluminum foil and shape it into a rough 6-inch log, then wrap it tightly in the foil, rolling to shape it into a cylinder. Unwrap the foil and place the log -- still on the foil -- onto a baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees until the surface of the log dries and hardens a bit, 20 to 25 minutes. Let it cool.

                  5. Wrap the log securely in foil and keep it in a zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Serve, sliced into coins, cold or at room temperature.

                  Each tablespoon: 28 calories; 86 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 55 mg. sodium.

                  grilled citrus chicken under a brick
                  Bon Appétit | May 2008
                  by Amy Finley
                  This is a traditional Tuscan method—bricks weigh down the butterflied chicken, resulting in even, quick cooking and crispy skin (you'll need two bricks for this recipe; wrap them in foil). If you don't have bricks, a cast-iron skillet will do the trick. Ask your butcher to butterfly the chicken for you.
                  Servings: Makes 4 servings
                  1 cup fresh orange juice 1 garlic clove, chopped
                  1/3 cup fresh lime juice 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
                  1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika
                  2 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon black pepper
                  1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano Nonstick vegetable oil spray
                  3 teaspoons salt, divided 1 1/2 oranges
                  1 whole chicken (about 33/4 pounds), neck and giblets removed, butterflied
                  2 foil-wrapped bricks or 1 cast-iron skillet
                  Whisk juices, olive oil, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, rosemary, and garlic in glass baking dish. Add chicken to marinade. Turn to coat; chill 2 hours, turning occasionally. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.
                  Mix remaining 2 teaspoons salt, paprika, and pepper in small bowl.
                  Spray grill rack with nonstick spray. Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Slice 1/2 orange into 1/4- to 1/8-inch-thick slices. Remove chicken from marinade; pat dry. Loosen skin from chicken breast and slide 1 to 2 orange slices between skin and breast. Loosen skin from thighs and slide 1 to 2 orange slices between skin and thighs. Rub paprika mixture over both sides of chicken. Place chicken, skin side down, on grill. Place foil-wrapped bricks or cast-iron skillet atop chicken (if using bricks, position 1 brick over top half of chicken and 1 brick over bottom half). Cover and grill until skin is crispy and brown, about 15 minutes. Remove bricks or skillet. Using tongs or 2 large spatulas, turn chicken. Replace bricks or skillet and cook, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes longer. Let chicken rest 10 minutes.
                  Meanwhile, place whole orange on grill and cook until slightly charred, turning often, about 1 minute. Cut into wedges and serve alongside for squeezing over chicken.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: laliz

                    Everyone's ideas are great! Thank you! Laliz, if prepared ahead of time, how do you reheat? Hot oven?

                  2. forget luxury ingredients.

                    what wows people are quality ingredients cooked well to highlight their flavors.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: thew

                      exactly thew. exactly! I made a pasta dish today that didn't have any meat in it..and it was wow! It was made with a roasted red pepper pesto, basil, garlic, and walnuts..ground up. I tossed a bit of good parm cheese over the top and a few more basil leaves for garnish. it is to be served at room temp..oh, and I used jarred roasted red peppers. you could skip the garlic, but I wouldn't. a salad, candles, and wine...there ya go.

                    2. Presentation and ambiance is everything. It turns a cheap entre' and sides with Two Buck Chuck into a meal to remember.

                      As you decide on the meal, take a look at Google Images for picturesque presentations for inspirations.

                      Garnish the plate for expression: a simple fan of sliced cucumber; a good trefoil leaf from the package of celery, etc.




                      Even a meal based on fish cakes from canned jack mackerel can "wow on a budget" if you express your artful self.

                      1. Make your own salad dressing- that alone will wow- bottled just doesn't do it. Marinate a flank steak, grill and slice thin, roast some asparagus in the oven and have some dessert you know will please.

                        1. I forgot to add- Guys (Foodnetwork- Big Bite) grilled romaine with blue cheese is so good and different!

                          1. Dessert: For meringues or a meringue tart you need nothing but 3 egg whites and a cup of sugar (plus 1 tsp each of vanilla and water). You can then add any ice cream, any sauce, or any fruit to make a very showy dessert.