Winter Wonderland Dinner for Eight on a $100 Budget

We were all fascinated by the swank dinner party on a budget from the Times last weekend, and it also generated quite a bit of discussion yesterday. The general consensus was that the table was gorgeous and magical -- a setting for a special dinner that went far beyond our usual small arrangements of flowers and candles. It was breathtaking. But the food -- well, it didn't overwhelm us the way the once-a-year-special, magical realist table setting did.

So we went shopping. Virtually, via Fresh Direct and Trader Joe's, to see what kind of dinner party we could throw for eight people on a $100 budget.

This isn't your average twice-monthly dinner party, remember; any of us could feed eight people very well for half that amount. This is a holiday party, one with glittered snowflakes suspended above the table, and soft glowing lights in birch bark and cotton wool. It's a winter wonderland -- something special and one of a kind -- with food to match and a bit bigger budget to really impress.

What kind of food would go along with this setting? Food that would wow your guests as much as the decorations, yet still have the nostalgic, almost retro feel of the winter wonderland theme? We did love David Monn's quote about the food: “People love the permission to be comfortable." Comfort food is always a big theme during tough economic times, and we don't want to forget that with this dinner party. But the food still could stand to be a little more special than potatoes and storebought cake (not to mention well-matched to the decor).

Also, don't forget that food costs more than you think. We cook several times a month for a large group of people, and even though we do it for less than $100, when you're throwing a party with wine and dessert your costs can mount very fast. We're also not assuming that the virtual cook we're designing for has anything in her cupboards. We'll allow salt, pepper, flour and olive oil - but other than that we're budgeting for all the ingredients.

And finally, this budget breaks down to $12.50 a person, which would barely get you a burrito and beer at Chipotle. Even the original article's $30/head budget for food and decorations is very low for a swank restaurant; you couldn't get a three-course, five-hour meal with wine at a good restaurant for that amount. (Try $130 -- at least.)

So, with all that in mind, we set out to create a special, once-a-year meal to match the lovely decor in that piece. Here's our first try. What would you do?

Wines and cheeses from Trader Joe's, and everything else from Fresh Direct.

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Winter Wonderland Menu for Eight

The Budget: $100

Starter: Soft goat cheese on crackers with sliced pickled beets
• Carr's Cracked Pepper Thins - $2.79
• Soft chevre, 4-6 ounces - $3.99
• Pickled beets - $5

Starter Total: $12

Soup: Creamy mushroom soup plus Bread
• Unsalted butter - $3.49
• 1 large white onion - $.99
• 2 heads garlic - $1.50
• 1 package fresh rosemary - $1.49
• 16 ounces white mushrooms - $3.60
• 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock - $3.59
• Two baguettes - $4.60

Bread and Soup Total: $18

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Main Course: Rosemary-garlic pork tenderloin with fig-port cranberry sauce and Parmesan-roasted cauliflower

• Pork tenderloins, 2 pounds - $16
• Garlic (already purchased)
• Rosemary (already purchased for soup; will be used in pork and cranberry sauce.)
• Dried figs - $4.99
• Cranberries - $2.99
• Tawny port - $7
• Sugar - $1.79
• Balsamic vinegar - $2.99
• Cauliflower, 2 heads - $6
• Parmesan - $4.50

Main Course Total: $46

Dessert: Dark chocolate cake with red wine sauce

• Dark chocolate - $3.49 at TJ's
• Eggs, half dozen - $1.99
• Sugar (already purchased for cranberry sauce)
• Butter (already purchased for soup)
• Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, $3 at Trader Joe's

Dessert Total: $8.50

Wines

• Starters: Barefoot Bubbly from Trader Joe's. $5/bottle. You should only need one bottle.
• Dinner: Santa Rita 120 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, two bottles. Last time we looked, this was $5 at Trader Joe's, and it is Mary's top pick for a budget red wine. Open the bottle and let the wine breathe for a couple hours before your party; it makes a real difference in this wine.
• Dessert wine: Small glasses of that tawny port (already purchased for sauce).

Wine Total: $15

Total Meal Cost: $99.49

We did leave out the Fresh Direct delivery cost, since this is an extra that most of us won't need to pay. Also, we think that most of these food costs are high, and if you did all the shopping at Trader Joe's or some at your farmer's market the cost of this meal could actually come in much lower.

Recipes

Here are the recipes referenced, with any cost-cutting changes noted.

Goat cheese with pickled beets on crackers: Just smear the pepper thins with softened goat cheese and add a slice of pickled beet.
Creamy mushroom soup: Leave the wild mushrooms and white wine out of our mushroom soup (they're too costly) and puree it after it's simmered for a creamy, rich mushroom soup. It feels indulgent but is actually quite light.
Rosemary-garlic pork tenderloin: An easy dish. Use this recipe from Epicurious and ditch the prune sauce.
Cranberry sauce with port and dried figs: Serve the pork with this sauce instead, slightly warmed. We had this with Thanksgiving dinner and it was mindblowingly good.
Roasted cauliflower with Parmesan: We love this recipe from Elise. Roast while the pork is resting.
Chocolate cake: This melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake can be made a day ahead.
Red wine syrup: Also can be made a day ahead, but warm before serving. Simmer a bottle of red wine with sugar and any spices you have around (cinnamon, cloves, maybe an orange peel) - although spices aren't entirely necessary.

OK, that's our menu! Does anyone else want to have a try? What would you serve for dinner in Joanna and Alex's charming little apartment, transformed into an amazing winter wonderland, and can you make a special holiday dinner for eight, with wine, come in under $100?

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