Just for kicks, we dared ourselves to feed a dinner party for $25. But that seemed too easy, so we thought, Why not make it a one-pot dinner party for $25 or less? Several onions and bags of lentils later, we've come up with a few cheap tricks for feeding a crowd without going broke (or dirtying lots of dishes).
Here's how we did it (or just skip to the recipe).
Assumptions Were Made
Let's assume you have certain items in your pantry. This includes olive oil, vinegar (red wine, white wine, sherry, even apple cider), whole-grain mustard (or Dijon or spicy brown), salt and pepper. If you don't have these things, please run to the corner or call a neighborly neighbor now. Once you're sorted, take advantage of what you already have on hand. Check the spice drawer and the fridge door for inspiration—there's big flavor in there.
Filler is your friend. Think rice, grains, bread, pasta and the big winner: beans. All are relatively inexpensive and double or triple in size when cooked. We chose lentils, because 1) we like that there's no need to soak and 2) the French ones hold their shape nicely and feel kind of fancy. Green lentils will work, too, and at $1.99 a pound, they hardly make a dent in the budget. If lentils aren't your thing, try another dried bean: Great northern would be especially nice, so would dried favas, although they may require a pre-peel (and another pot).
You know what makes things taste good? Fat. And though olive oil is every cook's best friend, there's nothing like a little animal fat to get the party started. Butter, bacon, pancetta—all good base layers. We went with bone-in skin-on chicken quarters, because they're inexpensive and the ROI is huge: You get schmaltz, tender braised meat and the added heft the bones offer the braising liquid (which in this case is just water, because it's free, but you could certainly use stock if you have it). And then there's the best part: twice-rendered crispy chicken skin served on top. It'll make you wonder why you ever went skinless.
Pick hardworking ingredients. Choose vegetables you can use cooked and raw, and fold greens into the pot but then make a crunchy fresh salad to serve on top or alongside. Stir vinegar and herbs into the base and make a bright vinaigrette to drizzle over. Whiz a fresh chile into a sofrito then slice some on top for serving. Play up versatility for layers of texture and flavor. It's like having twice as many ingredients at your disposal.
Keep It Moving
Just because it's in one pot doesn't mean it has to stay in one place. Start on the stovetop to render and sauté, then move to the oven for even braising, crisping and browning. Plus, clearing off the stove makes it easier to give the kitchen a quick Windex before guests arrive.
Crucial next step: Have a glass of wine and breathe.
Shop smart, cook strong, eat well, party on. Oh, and tell your friends to BYOB.
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