Special doesn’t always have to mean expensive. Last week I had a houseful of visitors and, although I chose menus based more on cooking time and the likes and dislikes of my guests than on the cost of the ingredients, a few of those choices fed a crowd for very little money.
Add to that the upcoming holiday season, which drains our wallets as well as our energy, and I thought you might welcome ideas for a few special dishes that won’t push you over the edge — financially or otherwise.
Sweet Potato and Bean Soup
This fast and easy soup is elegant enough to grace the table at a fancy dinner party, but is also warming and satisfying on a Saturday night when you’re too pooped to cook anything elaborate. It’s a real meal and budget stretcher. The flavours are so strong you can even get away with bouillon powder instead of the broth, although a good quality store-bought — or even better, homemade — always makes for a better outcome. This amount serves eight as a first course or can be lunch with a salad or sandwich.
1 large onion, diced
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. each ground coriander, cumin and turmeric
1/2 tsp. 5-spice powder (optional)
1 large can navy beans or white kidney beans
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
Fry onion and sweet potatoes in oil in Dutch oven until starting to brown. Add garlic, coriander, cumin, turmeric and 5-spice powder and cook another minute or two. Stir in beans and broth, cover and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 15 minutes. Pour into a blender and puree — smooth or chunky, whatever you like. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with crispy croutons or maybe a dollop of plain yogurt.
We’ll be potatoed out soon enough, so these are a welcome change. Pick up whatever is on sale at the grocery store today — pork chops, chicken legs, some nice fish or even a can of baked beans. Then turn it into a feast with these crispy, tasty morsels. This recipe makes about 16 pancakes and would serve at least 4 as a side dish.
4 medium white potatoes
1 tsp. salt
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
generous sprinkle of pepper
Grate potatoes on a box grater or in a food processor. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Allow to drain about 10 minutes, then roll in a clean tea towel; squeeze out as much of the liquid as you can. Combine potatoes with onion, egg, flour, baking powder, and pepper and drop by small spoonfuls into a generous amount of hot vegetable oil — don’t crowd the pan. Press them down with the back of a spoon and fry until golden and crisp on one side; flip and brown on the second side. Drain on paper towels and keep hot in the oven until ready to serve. I know it’s gauche, because applesauce or sour cream are the traditional sides, but I like these with bottled chili sauce or even ketchup. Don’t tell, OK?
Special Occasion Ginger Cake
The crumb of this cake is amazingly tender, and the flavour is huge and aggressive, but somehow refreshing — perfect after a family dinner. Butter will give you slightly better taste, but with all the spices you can get away with a firm margarine. The fresh and ground ginger are both necessary here, and the cost of this amount of fresh ginger is just pennies. Try peeling it with a teaspoon — easier than a knife, I promise. Grate with a box grater — on the small hole side — or a microplane. If you don’t have buttermilk, put 1 tbsp. of plain vinegar in a half-cup measure and fill with two per cent milk.
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (omit if using salted butter or margarine)
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 cup butter or margarine (unsalted is best but not absolutely necessary)
1/4 cup each white and firmly packed dark brown sugar
1-1/2 tbsp. finely grated fresh gingerroot
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk
Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves; set aside. Cream butter until creamy and light. Add white sugar and brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Beat in fresh gingerroot, egg and molasses. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk, starting and finishing with dry. Pour into a well-greased eight-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes or until a tester in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then turn out on a rack. Wrap tightly when completely cool and store at room temperature. Delicious served as is or with a simple custard sauce, preferably warm.
Vanilla Custard Sauce
This creamy confection, both easy and inexpensive, will dress up bread pudding, fruit crisps, fresh fruit or ice cream, or a warm, fragrant piece of gingerbread — perfect for the holidays.
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
2 tbsp. soft butter
2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Combine sugar, flour, salt, eggs and butter in a small pot. Whisk in enough milk to form a paste, then gradually whisk in the rest. Bring to a simmer over low to medium heat, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. Stir in vanilla and cool to desired temperature.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.