Holiday meal, holiday bargain

Gas prices are soaring, bills are piling up, and you need to put together Christmas dinner for 10. Here's how to do it for less than $100.

By Janet K. Keeler, Times Food and Travel Editor
Published December 12, 2007

Shoestring Christmas Menu

- Cheesy Cucumber Canapes

- Sausage Balls

- White Bean Dip With Pita Chips

- Tossed Green Salad With Blue Cheese and Pear Dressing

- Ham with Cranberry Glaze

- Whole Roasted Carrots

- Twice-Baked Potatoes

- Gingerbread Bundt Cake With Whipped Topping

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Gas prices. Property taxes. Homeowner's insurance. Mortgage, rent, car payment, bills, bills, bills. These are the obligations that weigh even heavier as we stretch our paychecks for holiday trimmings.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Put the price of food on the list of life's necessities that are on the rise. Remember when a dozen eggs were under $1 and flank steak was cheap? Those days are gone, but Christmas with the family remains, thankfully.

To control costs this season, we've put together a tasty and elegant Christmas Day dinner that won't force you to decide between eating and buying your spouse something nice. Our suggested meal for 10, including three appetizers, salad, entree with two sides and dessert, comes in at less than $10 per person.

Think of it this way: For about the cost of two tanks of gas, you can put Christmas dinner on the table.

It wasn't easy to devise an inexpensive meal because some traditional holiday foods are among the most expensive at the store. Forget the cheese platter scattered with nuts, a sampling of cold shellfish and that gorgeous roast beef. Your party will be more austere, but every bit as tasty.

Basic pantry items were not included in our total cost. We expect that you'll have salt, pepper, flour, granulated sugar, eggs, mustard, garlic cloves, cinnamon, baking soda and vinegar. Grand total for the meal, if you have those items on hand, is about $8.65 per person. That'll leave you money to buy wine. See Chris Sherman's budget wine suggestions in accompanying story.

If you have to buy all of these items, your cost will be more. We assumed that many people will need to purchase molasses, buttermilk, butter, olive oil, sour cream, spices (including ground ginger, dried thyme and allspice), plus perishable items. Those prices are figured in our tabulation.

The good, the bad and the affordable

We limited the purchase of nuts, cheese and beef. Beef - and lamb - were excluded totally because enough to feed 10 would eat up at least half our budget.

The two best options for the main course are turkey or pork. Turkey is still a good buy at under $1 a pound, but the memory of Thanksgiving is too fresh. We're gobbled out.

We experimented with roasting a bone-in pork shoulder. At $1.50 a pound it seemed promising. It tasted great, but the odd-shaped slices didn't hold up for a formal dinner. Good for pulled pork, though.

We hit the jackpot with a nearly 12-pound semi-boneless half ham for $2.39 a pound. It carved nicely, and there would be plenty of meat for anyone who wanted seconds. Plus, it's the dinner that keeps on giving. That bone is the perfect starter for split pea soup.

People go crazy for spiral hams at the holidays. Yes, they are convenient but also about twice the price of a ham you carve yourself. The cranberry glaze recipe we found is simple to prepare and makes enough to pass at the table. Affordable, too.

Though the largest chunk of our budget went for the ham ($28.40), cheese was the most expensive per pound item we bought. A 1-pound block of cheddar set us back $4. However, we used it in two recipes.

Everyday ingredients

We knew which ingredients were expensive, but what was cheap? That would be beans, root vegetables and some produce (cucumbers, scallions, parsley). And so we set about figuring how to use them in a company meal.

A can of cannellini beans (99 cents) was the foundation for White Bean Dip; parsley added freshness. Three pounds of carrots ($2.70) became a side dish and a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes ($2.99) contained more than we needed for twice-baked potatoes. Start dividing those prices by 10 and you'll see how an economical meal is possible.

(We recommend buying the potatoes in the bag because of their more manageable size. Individual russets can weigh nearly 1 pound.)

We splurged on bulk sausage and cheese for appetizer recipes but even that didn't push us over our budget. It was worth it to give the meal more flavor. A tub of herb-flavored cheese ($2.99) made a yummy topping on slices of cucumber ($1.49 for two).

Here are some other tips to reduce the cost of Christmas dinner and meals through the year:

- Buy what you need. For instance, small bags of nuts are stocked in the baking aisle. If you need 1/2 cup of walnuts, buy only that amount. There are small containers of orange juice and sour cream, too. Larger packages may be cheaper but unless you have immediate use for the ingredients, they can spoil.

- Think about substitutions. Are there expensive ingredients that can be swapped for cheaper? Scallions (50 cents for a bunch) stood in nicely for fresh chives ($2.50) in twice-baked potatoes. Romaine hearts were cheaper than baby greens the day we shopped. We bought bottled lemon juice (actually the plastic lemon with twist-off top) for 89 cents. The equivalent in fresh lemons would have cost about $3.

- Use up leftovers. The fresh ginger for the Gingerbread Bundt Cake is a must. But since you have to buy a "hand" of it, you'll have some left. Use it in salads, stir-fries or hot tea. We used the excess buttermilk in the potatoes.

- Price shop. Save money by buying store-brand ingredients. Also, look for items on sale.

All these things make a difference to the bottom line, which will leave you more money to spend on presents . . . or pay the gas bill.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

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Cranberry Glaze for Ham

1 (16-ounce) can jellied cranberry sauce

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

- Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Heat slowly until smooth, beating with a wire whisk or rotary beater. Spoon over ham for last 1/2 hour of baking.

- Serve leftover sauce with ham at the table. Makes about 21/2 cups.

Note: Bake ham according to instructions on the package, about 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees.

Source: www.recipezaar.com

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Tossed Green Salad With Blue Cheese and Pear Dressinge

For dressing:

1 (15-ounce) can pear halves in natural juice, drained

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons light olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

For salad:

3/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped

1 to 2 (10-ounce) packages mixed salad greens

1 medium red bell pepper

2 ripe pears

3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

- To make dressing, puree the drained pear halves with the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a blender or food processor until very smooth and silky.

- Transfer to a jar, cover and refrigerate.

- To prepare the salad, place the chopped walnuts in a small dry skillet. Toast over medium heat about 4 minutes, until fragrant. Remove from the pan and set aside.

- Place the salad mix in a bowl and cover with a damp paper towel. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

- Stem, seed and finely sliver the pepper; put into the bowl with the salad. Just before serving, core and dice the pears and add to the salad with the walnuts and blue cheese. Add the dressing, toss to coat and serve.

Serves 10.

Source: Adapted from the Seattle Times

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White Bean Dip

- 15 ounces cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup fresh flat leaf parsley

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 medium garlic clove

Salt to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

Pita chips

- In the bowl of a food processor, combine the beans, parsley, oregano, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper.

- Pulse on and off until the mixture is coarsely chopped.

- With the machine running, stream in the olive oil until the mixture is creamy.

- Season the dip with more salt and pepper to taste.

- Serve with pita crisps.

Note: Can be easily doubled.

Source: Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis

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Sausage Balls

1 pound hot bulk sausage

1/2 pound cheddar cheese

2 cups Bisquick

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

- Break up sausage in a large bowl with the back of a mixing spoon. Grate the cheddar cheese and add to the sausage. Add Bisquick and incorporate thoroughly by hand.

- Form into 3/4-inch balls. Place on a large baking sheet with a rim.

- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 50.

Source: www.recipezaar.com

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Gingerbread Bundt Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1/4 cup peeled and grated fresh ginger

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 cup molasses

1 cup buttermilk

Whipped topping such as Cool Whip

Ground or grated nutmeg for garnish

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch Bundt pan, including the tube. Dust lightly with flour and shake out any excess. (You can also coat lightly with a nonstick vegetable spray.)

- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, ground ginger and grated ginger. In another large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and brown sugar until light and creamy. - Beat in the egg. Add the molasses and beat until well blended, about 2 minutes. Beat in the flour mixture in three additions alternating with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Pour the batter in the prepared pan.

- Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a plate. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

- Serve with a dollop of whipped topping and a sprinkling of ground or freshly grated nutmeg.

Serves 10 to 12.

Times testing note: Though delicious warm, this cake is just as tasty the day after it is it made. The addition of fresh ginger makes it extra flavorful. Use leftovers of the ginger in salad dressings or stir-fry.

Source: Holiday Entertaining from the editors of Williams-Sonoma

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Whole Roasted Carrots

3 pounds (about 25 to 30) thin carrots

3/4 cup orange juice

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

- Peel carrots but do not trim tops or bottoms. Place in a large roasting pan.

- In small bowl, mix orange juice, brown sugar andthyme. Stir until brown sugar dissolves. Pour over carrots and turn them until all are coated.

- Roast for 45 minutes. Check halfway and spoon liquid at bottom over carrots. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 10 (2 to 3 carrots per person).

Note: There should not be more than 1/2-inch liquid in the bottom of the pan or the carrots will boil rather than roast.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor

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Twice-Baked Potatoes

10 small russet potatoes

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup milk

1/4 cup butter

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

Salt to taste

Scallions, thinly sliced for garnish

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash and dry potatoes. Bake in preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, or until soft.

- Remove potatoes from oven and let cool for about 15 minutes. Carefully with a serrated knife, cut potatoes in half. Scoop out the flesh and place in a large bowl, reserving the intact skins. To the potatoes add sour cream, milk, butter, yolk and mash by hand or with a mixer. Incorporate cheese and add salt.

- Spoon the mixture into the skins, place on a baking sheet and bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Sprinkle top with scallions and serve.

Serves 10 to 14.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor