Celebrating the holidays with family and friends is a deepl rooted tradition -- and one that doesn't have to break the bank.
Who can argue that a sumptuous dinner party is not an elegant way to entertain? But those on a limited budget need to think of alternatives.
The time of the party has a bearing on expenses. Gatherings that span mealtimes, whether brunch, lunch or dinner, demand more substantial menus. But if you choose off-hours -- afternoon or early evening, for example -- simpler fare will suffice.
Savory finger foods and mulled cider or a wine punch are light snacks for a 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. gathering. For a post-dinner party, the theme can switch to desserts, flavored coffees and, if the budget allows, cordials.
The old-fashioned potluck supper also has merit in modern times. Today, with so many constraints on personal time, most people are more than willing to help out the host or hostess. Don't be afraid to say yes when a guest asks, "May I bring something?"
But if you view your guests as guests and not partners in planning your party, look to ethnic cuisines for ideas for low-cost entrees. Meat used in small portions is as trendy today as the generous beef Wellington was in the '70s. Chinese recipes often give strips of beef, pork or poultry equal status with crunchy vegetables in stir-fried dishes. Many hearty Mexican dishes such as enchiladas or burritos are filling without using meat. Dried beans and lentils simmered with vegetables and spices result in flavorful and satisfying stews. Risotto, that wonderful Italian rice dish, is elegant enough to serve as a main course. The most basic blends of rice, stock and cheese can be enhanced with bits of seafood or dried mushrooms -- expensive items, but in this case, less is more.
There are other ways to entertain without going to great expense. Here are a few ideas.
*A cooperative party is one way to involve every partygoer. Each guest contributes something: a main dish, a salad or vegetable, a dessert, a beverage, even paper goods or flowers for the non-cooks in the group. This concept tends to work better than potluck because one or two people in the group organize the menu and know in advance what guests will bring. By assigning guests specific courses or dishes, you avoid the risk of a hodgepodge of foods that don't really go together. This idea can work for a sit-down dinner, a buffet or an hors d'oeuvres party.
*A variation on the theme of potluck is the progressive dinner party, great for getting together neighbors or friends who live near each another. Guests travel from one home to another for courses: drinks and appetizers at one house, a first course at a second house and so on. One person does not bear the expense -- or work and cleanup -- of the multicourse dinner, and everyone gets to be both host and guest. The best dishes for a party of this type are recipes that can be prepared ahead or only require minimal last-minute preparation.
*There are ways to shift the focus of the gathering from food to other activities. Caroling, sledding, skating or trimming the Christmas tree are good ways to bring families together. Decorate the dining table with wrapped presents, and set out plates of cookies, spiced nuts, fruitcake and hot chocolate. You might wish to organize a grab-bag of inexpensive toys for the children.
*Guests share in the baking when they attend a cookie exchange. It is a fun way for bakers to swap recipes and go home with a variety of cookies. Each guest brings a dozen cookies for each guest plus a dozen for the table. The hostess, who contributes her own cookies, is responsible for tea, coffee and other beverages.
*For casual entertaining, involve all of your guests in a pizza-making party. For convenience's sake, the dough and sauce can be purchased, although the homemade versions are fresher and cheaper. Place bowls of topping ingredients -- sliced peppers and mushrooms, olives, shredded cheese, pepperoni -- on the counter. Then let guests take turns rolling the dough and creating their own mini-pizzas.
The following recipes, all from new cookbooks, are fine for casual dinner parties or buffets. Soup and a salad of greens or marinated vegetables will complement both the black beans with turkey and rice (from "Jane Brody's Good Food Gourmet," Norton; $25) and the cheese and pepper enchiladas (from "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant," Fireside; $16.95). The peanut butter and jelly jewels cookies -- a recipe that children can help with -- are a pretty addition to a dessert table (from "Rose's Christmas Cookies," by Rose Levy Beranbaum, Morrow;
with turkey and rice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground turkey
1 cup chopped onion (1 large)
1 cup chopped sweet green pepper (2 small)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup (1 8-ounce can) tomato sauce
2 to 3 cups cooked black beans
3 cups hot cooked brown rice