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Ditch caviar dreams and entertain on a budget

Contrary to the Hollywood image, you don't need Champagne and caviar to entertain with flair.  Top food and entertaining editors share tips for throwing a fabulous yet frugal party.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Contrary to the Hollywood image, you don't need Champagne and caviar to entertain with flair.

Which is not to say luxurious foods in a stylish setting aren't impressive. For most of us, they just aren't practical, necessary or affordable.

Entertaining — and doing it with panache — on a shoestring boils down to using food savvy in the market and in the kitchen, as well as some creative sleight of hand with the presentation.

Here are some tips from top food and entertaining editors for throwing a fabulous yet frugal party:

At the store:A smart party plan starts at the market. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you plan to serve and what you need. This helps avoid making unnecessary or impulse buys.

But you'll also want to keep an open mind while shopping, looking for inexpensive ingredients you might not have considered, but that can have a big impact.

"When considering your menu," says Debra Puchalla, editor-in-chief of Everyday Food magazine, "seek out less-expensive ingredients at the store, such as seasonal foods or those on sale."

  • Splurge on key ingredients. The editors of Cooking Light magazine point out that high-quality ingredients, used sparingly, can make a big impact. A small amount of truffle oil, prosciutto, artisanal bacon, or Parmesan cheese goes a long way, taking dishes such as pasta, risotto, pizza or soup from simple to sublime.
  • Garnish with gusto. Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine, recommends buying modestly priced garnishes that make a big splash, such as kumquats, salted capers, one big sprig of an herb, or bundles of mixed herbs. A big single strawberry on a stem always dresses up a dessert plate nicely, even if all you serve is purchased ice cream.
  • Buy in bulk. It's easy to put together an impressive offering of olives by visiting your gourmet grocer's olive bar. Select a variety of flavors and colors. Exotic nuts, such as macadamias and Marcona almonds, also often can be purchased in bulk.

In the kitchen:
You don't need filet mignon or lobster salad to impress. With the right touches, any food can be stylish and festive.

"An exciting menu doesn't mean that each recipe has to be difficult, expensive or time-consuming," says Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of "Your menu can consist of five simple hors d'oeuvres. As long as each recipe has a different flavor, temperature or texture, your guests won't be bored."

  • Go homemade. Guests appreciate the care that goes into anything made from scratch, says the editors at Cooking Light. Not only will your bread, pasta, pizza crust, pesto, salsa or chocolate sauce taste better, it will be cheaper than store-bought versions and make your guests feel special.
  • Use cheaper cuts of meat. They may need to cook for a little longer, says Food & Wine magazine executive food editor Tina Ujlaki, but they'll reward you with more flavor. In the summer, consider pulled barbecued pork shoulder. When it's cooler, try a beef bourguignonne made with inexpensive beef chuck.
  • Everybody loves pasta. It's inexpensive and often times you can make better pasta dishes at home than you would get in a restaurant, says Ujlaki. Splurge on key flavoring ingredients in the sauce, such as good cheese, pancetta and olive oil.
  • Think casserole. Kemp Minifie, executive food editor of Gourmet magazine, says a basic pasta casserole can be elevated to a wonderful main dish by topping it with an ample layer of quality bread crumbs.
  • Do brunch. A well-done brunch can be just as enjoyable and posh as a dinner party, but much cheaper. The editors at Cooking Light suggest a menu that can be as simple as a hearty egg dish (such as a strata that features an artisanal cheese), a seasonal fruit salad, and some home baked muffins. Complete the meal with a coffee bar and pitchers of mimosas or bloody Mary's.

At the bar:
Beverage costs can get out of hand quickly, but with planning and careful shopping it's easy to stick to a tight budget.

Don't feel obligated to offer a full bar. It's difficult and expensive to stock a wide enough selection of liquors to please everyone, and there are plenty of creative ways to serve drinks that will appeal to most of your guests.

  • Keep it simple. Cooking Light's editors suggest choosing one signature cocktail to serve at your gathering so you don't have to purchase several different wines and liquors.
  • Stretch the liquor by pairing it with seasonal fruits. Think peach margaritas and watermelon daiquiris for summertime, or apple cider martinis in the fall. Since you'll be mixing the liquor, you don't have to use top-shelf varieties.
  • Keep up with current wine trends and try to buy wines before popularity and exposure drive up the price. And be adventurous and opt for lesser-known wines such as Chile's merlot-like carmenere.
  • Buy enough for now and later. Many stores offer discounts on cases of 12 (and you can mix and match).
  • Skip the alcohol. This is the best way to keep costs to a minimum. Put out pitchers of fruit juice and sparkling water and let people mix and match. There also are plenty of boutique sodas on the market. They might cost a bit more than ordinary soda, but they will be a change of pace for your guests and still be cheaper than beer, wine and mixed drinks.

On the table:
Table settings and other visual touches, such as how the food is presented, can add easy panache to a party.

You can create almost any mood by decorating your table or buffet with items you already have in your home. And spend the extra time to creatively and artfully arrange your food — this costs nothing but can make all the difference.

  • People eat with their eyes. Gourmet's Minifie recommends using slightly smaller dishes so that the plate of food will look more bountiful. And plate the food in the kitchen so you can arrange it attractively and control portion size.
  • Get vertical. Borrow the restaurant style of stacking food rather than spreading out various servings on a plate. This makes the meal look more ample. For example, portions of meat could be stacked on roasted potatoes.
  • Downsize old favorites. Cocktail party nibbles or even a limited tasting menu can be a fun and economical alternative to a full meal. People love little foods, such a mini gourmet burgers (sliders), one-bite tacos and tostadas.'s Steel suggests ladling your favorite soup into shot glasses or baking a luxurious macaroni and cheese in mini ramekins. For dessert, the editors of Everyday Food suggest serving a small dish of store-bought sorbet garnished with a few fresh berries or a sprig of fresh basil or mint.
  • Decorate with food. Cooking Light's editors suggest picking up extra produce to be used as decorations. A wooden bowl of funky heirloom tomatoes (get a variety of shapes and colors) makes a stunning — and edible — centerpiece.
  • Create an arrangement with herbs instead of flowers. Often when you buy a bunch of herbs, you use only a small amount in a recipe. Arrange the rest in a vase or pretty glass to create a fragrant table dressing.