The $100 Dinner Party

With some guidance from a pro, here's how one thrifty couple pulled off an elegant meal for eight.

March 07, 2001|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Holding a sit-down dinner for eight at home can intimidate even the most accomplished cooks. There's the work - washing the crystal and pressing the tablecloth. There's the pressure - every dish should look and taste just perfect. And then there's the money - how do you create an elegant dinner without breaking the bank?

Like many couples, when Karen DeCamp and Dan Pontious entertain, they usually make it a casual affair - a pot of chili or an outdoor cookout in the back yard of their home in North Baltimore, with friends or family contributing wine or dessert.

Such informal gatherings seem better fitted to their busy schedules and tight budget. DeCamp quit her job as a middle-school teacher when their son, David, was born two years ago, and she works part time at a library. Pontious is director of a nonprofit land-use coalition. They are expecting a second child in June.

"You can't be living large," DeCamp said.

Still, there's something appealing about pulling out the best china and playing host to an elegant dinner, creating an entire meal to share with friends and family.

"It's a mark of maturity that you can grow up and actually have a dinner party," DeCamp says.

With $100, courtesy of The Sun, DeCamp, 37, and Pontious, 35, set out to hold their first elegant sit-down dinner and prove not only that they could do it but also that it could be affordable.

Of course, not everyone would consider $100 budget dining. Pontious said he and his wife probably spend less than half that amount when they have friends over for dinner. "One hundred dollars is a big budget," he said.

Nevertheless, one would be hard pressed to find a four-course dinner with wine for $12.50 a person in a Baltimore restaurant.

DeCamp and Pontious were game to try a new kind of entertaining.

Getting some help

For advice, DeCamp met with Federal Hill caterer Connie Crabtree, who agreed to help plan a menu that would stay within the $100 budget.

Crabtree says she has noticed increasing interest in home entertaining, especially sit-down dinner parties. "On a fairly reasonable budget, you can entertain and do it for about a third less than you could in a restaurant," she said.

While some hosts may hesitate because of the time involved, Crabtree has been teaching time-saving techniques in cooking classes. "You can get to the point where everything is done ahead of time, and you just assemble it," she said.

Crabtree grabbed a note pad and sat at a small table across from DeCamp. "What is your home like? What do you like to cook?" Crabtree asked, trying to figure out a menu that would fit DeCamp's abilities and tastes as well as budget.

Space wouldn't be a problem; DeCamp's dining-room table could seat eight, and her kitchen was outfitted with the basic tools needed to get the job done.

DeCamp had never been the hostess of a formal dinner party, but she had had a fair amount of experience cooking for her family.

The menu

Crabtree suggested leg of lamb for the main course. "It's a little different," she said.

DeCamp had never cooked lamb, but she was willing to try. Crabtree gave her a quick cooking lesson, advising her to rub seasoning on the lamb and sear it in the broiler to seal in the juices before roasting.

Within an hour, Crabtree and DeCamp had settled on a menu - a hot crab-dip appetizer, a mixed-green salad with Granny Smith apples and a balsamic-vinaigrette dressing, the roasted leg of lamb and side dishes of whipped potatoes and green beans or baby carrots. Dessert would be phyllo-dough flowers topped with marinated pears.

The lamb would be the single most expensive item on the budget - but it would show that this was no ordinary chicken or pasta dinner. The savings would be made up elsewhere in the menu - using claw crab meat instead of back-fin or lump crab meat for the dip and choosing an inexpensive, though respectable, wine.

"The way something is presented can have an effect on how elegant people think it is," Crabtree told DeCamp.

To dress up the table without going to the expense of ordering a flower arrangement, Crabtree advised DeCamp to look around her house or in the yard for decorations. DeCamp recalled she still had votive candles left over from her wedding and that the ivy in her yard might be fashioned into a centerpiece.

Two days before the dinner party, DeCamp drove to her neighborhood Giant and selected most of the ingredients she would need - apples, beans, potatoes, greens, Old Bay Seasoning and Worcestershire sauce.

"It'll still be in my pantry in 10 years," she said as she put the Worcestershire sauce in the cart.

Next, she stopped at Well's Discount Liquor for two bottles of Robert Mondavi wine - a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay - and then drove on to Eddie's of Roland Park to find the semiboneless leg of lamb.

Uneasy about lamb

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