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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 08:48 pm

Big Fun for Less Dough

Try these ideas to trim the cost — but not the flavor or fun — of holiday dinner parties


With this year’s tighter budgets, many holiday cooks will be limiting their entertaining splurges. Fancy menus and imported ingredients are facing the ax, as shopping lists face greater scrutiny.

Instead, many are taking a new look at old favorites, which can help cut holiday-meal costs without having to cut guest lists.

While in recent years, holiday entertaining often has put the emphasis on pizzazz, this might be a good year to return to the basics. Such holiday standards as roast turkey and mashed potatoes are surprisingly affordable and provide anchors around which more expensive fresh vegetables and desserts can really shine, for a table you’ll be proud to showcase.

That’s the approach taken by TV chef Devin Alexander, host of FitTV’s “Healthy Decadence with Devin Alexander” and author of The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook. With a little pre-planning and a willingness to do more prep work yourself, a cook who already has pantry basics on hand can feed even a gathering of 12 without breaking the bank, Alexander insists.

Savvy shoppers begin with a menu plan. Are you hosting an appetizer party or a sit-down affair? Will you be serving from a buffet line or family-style? Then make out your shopping list and gather up the weekly sale flyers from your area’s markets.

“See where the bargains are for the food you want to buy,” Alexander says. It may make sense to hit more than one store, depending on your list. For example, many markets will give you a free turkey if your total goes above a certain dollar amount and almost all stores have markdowns on holiday food favorites during the entertaining season to draw shoppers in the door.

Another strategy when making your list is to think about what foods you typically purchase pre-made that you actually could make yourself. For example, Alexander makes her own sausage for use in her favorite stuffing recipe by simply running cubed pork tenderloin through her food processor along with fennel seed and other seasonings. And homemade dinner rolls cost pennies apiece, compared to store-baked versions.

However, it might make sense to buy some of your desserts instead of making them yourself – especially those with expensive ingredients.

How you present and serve your meal also can have a budget impact. Alexander keeps her costs in line, in part, by serving appetizers in batches, rather than all at once, because guests are less likely to load up that way. And the dieter’s trick of using smaller plates for a bigger visual impact is another option to help ensure your guests aren’t overstuffed and your bank isn’t busted.

Good-Enough-for-Thanksgiving Sausage Cranberry Stuffing
from Devin Alexander’s The Most Decadent Diet Ever! (Broadway Books, 20008)

  • Butter-%uFB02avored cooking spray
  • 12 slices whole wheat bread
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 recipe Sweet and Slim Italian Sausage, uncooked and unshaped (see recipe)
  • 1 1/2 cups %uFB01nely chopped sweet onion
  • 1 cup %uFB01nely chopped celery
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon %uFB01nely chopped fresh sage
  • 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 cups fat-free lower-sodium chicken broth, divided
  • 2 tablespoons light butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Lightly mist a 2 1/2 - 3-quart ovenproof ceramic or glass casserole dish with butter-%uFB02avored cooking spray.

2. Place the slices of bread side by side in a single layer (they should not overlap) on a large nonstick baking sheet.  Toast in the oven for 14 to 16 minutes per side, until the slices are dry (not at all soft in the center) and very lightly browned.

3. Place a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot, coat with olive oil spray and put in the sausage mixture.  Cook, breaking the sausage into bite-sized chunks, until no longer pink, 3 - 5 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a large mixing bowl.

4. Turn heat to medium. Spray skillet again and put in the onions. Cook for 5 minutes.  Add the celery and garlic. Continue cooking until the celery is bright green and starts to soften slightly, 7 - 10 minutes.  Add the celery mixture to the sausage.

5. Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

6. Cut each slice of toasted bread into 9 squares.  Add the bread, cranberries and sage to sausage mixture and stir.

7. Drizzle 1 cup broth slowly over the top and stir it in until the liquid is absorbed. Slowly drizzle the butter over the top and stir that in.

8. Transfer stuf%uFB01ng to prepared  dish.  Drizzle remaining 1/4 cup broth for  drier stuf%uFB01ng or 1/2 cup for  moister stuf%uFB01ng over top.  Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and the stuf%uFB01ng is hot throughout. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes.

Sweet and Slim Italian Sausage
from Devin Alexander’s The Most Decadent Diet Ever! (Broadway Books, 20008)
  • Olive oil spray
  • 1 pound extra-lean ground pork or pork tenderloin, ground
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon egg substitute
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon plain dried bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly mist a small nonstick baking sheet with spray.

2. Mix the pork, egg substitute, bread crumbs, fennel seeds, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, onion powder, salt, cayenne and black pepper in a medium mixing bowl.

3. Divide into 8 portions (about 1/4 cup each). Shape each into a log about 4 inches long and 1 1/2 inches thick. Place the logs side by side on prepared baking sheet. Mist them lightly with spray.

4. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until no longer pink inside. Serve immediately. Makes 8 links.


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