Dinner Parties on a Budget

We started with crostini and roasted almonds, finger-friendly foods that invited mingling and chatting as we waited for everyone to arrive.  As the last two guests hurried through the door, I put on the water for the pasta.

Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting down for the first course: parsley and tomato pasta.

When plates were nearly empty and we were breaking out the second bottle of wine, I cooked the steak, reduced the sauce and reheated the spinach-prosciutto salad and the roasted carrots.

We lingered over the last course, guests fishing the last few caramelized carrots out of the dish and sipping their second or third glasses of wine, this time a slightly sweet red.  After dinner, we settled in on the living room floor for games and birthday cake.

I worried that hosting a dinner party would be prohibitively expensive, especially when it involved a four-course meal and nine diners.  But by using some planning super-skills, I managed to pull it off for under $85, steak course and all.

A few dinner party budgeting tips:

1.  Use cheaper cuts of meat for flavoring.  I was only using the prosciutto for a little smoky flavor, so I bought irregularly-shaped proscuitto “ends” –they aren’t as pretty and can be a little more fatty, but I didn’t need much and they were half the cost of prosciutto.  I’ve also bought bacon ends and smoked bones from the Piggery for cheap to use when the meat is just a flavoring agent, not the star of the dish.

2.  Use expensive ingredients twice.  I used goat cheese on two of the three crostini, and prosciutto for both the steak (just the fat) and spinach salad (the actual meaty bits).

3.  Have a vegetarian course.  Traditional Italian meals have a pasta course before the main course, which worked out well for my Italian feast.  People had already had appetizers and pasta and were eating spinach and carrots with the main course, so we didn’t need as much steak as we would have otherwise.

4.  Use ingredients that are in season, or things you preserved when they were in season.  I froze the tomatoes and peppers in the bruschetta and pasta last summer, and simply defrosted them a few days in advance.  If you don’t have frozen tomatoes and peppers on hand, you can certainly use canned tomatoes and whatever peppers you can find.  Alternatively, this would be a wonderful summer dinner party!

Red Wine Steak

Prep Time: 12 hours

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 10-12

You may be tempted to only marinate the steak for an hour or two. Don't give in-- marinating overnight lets the red wine really sink in to flavor the meat. Set the prosciutto aside to use in a spinach salad (recipe follows).


  • 2.5-3 pounds boneless sirloin steak
  • 1 bottle dry red wine (750 mL)
  • 2 ounces prosciutto, diced
  • 2 tablespoons butter


  1. Place the steak in a baking dish just large enough for the steak to lay flat, and pour the wine over the meat. If the dish is too large, the steak won't be covered and won't get fully marinated. If the steak is too thick to be completely covered, that's okay.
  2. Refrigerate for 12-24 hours, using tongs to flip the meat about halfway through. Move the baking dish to the counter about 30 minutes before cooking to allow the steak to come to room temperature.
  3. In a large skillet, brown the prosciutto on all sides over medium-high. Remove the prosciutto from the pan, leaving as much of the fat behind as you can. Add the butter and heat until just melted.
  4. Use tongs to carefully transfer the steak to the hot skillet and cover. If you don't have a large enough lid, place a baking sheet on top of the skillet (be careful--it will get hot!). Cook over medium-high for 10-15 minutes per side.
  5. The steak is done when the internal temperature is 145F. Insert a thermometer halfway into the center of the steak to get the most accurate reading. Transfer the steak to a cutting board and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing.
  6. While the steak cooks, pour the wine into a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Remove the lid and reduce the heat to medium-high, simmering until it is reduced by 1/2 or 2/3. While the steak rests, scrape the remaining fat and juices from the skillet into the saucepan and stir well. Continue to simmer the sauce until the steak is ready to slice and serve the meat and sauce together.

Make Ahead and Storage

Store any leftover steak in the sauce. Refrigerate in an airtight container, and use the next day for sandwiches or salads.


Spinach Prosciutto Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

This recipe is easily halved for non-dinner party meals. Instead of prosciutto, you could also use bacon or a little pancetta.


  • 2 pounds baby spinach leaves
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 ounces prosciutto, cooked


  1. Pour the water over the spinach in a large wok. Cover and heat, stirring occasionally, over medium-low until wilted and warmed through, about 15 minutes.
  2. Toss the wilted spinach with the prosciutto. Serve warm.

I Never Thought I’d Say This…

Nook 1

I’ve always been a reader. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading books hidden under my desk.  There is always a book in my purse for whenever I have a few free minutes. And when I travel, my carry-on luggage is usually half-filled with books.

I never thought I’d be an e-reader fan.  How could an e-book ever compare to the feel of a physical book in my hands? And what would I do without the beloved “new book” smell, or the musty “old book” smell, for that matter?

But then Dan got me a Nook Simple Touch for my birthday, and I’m a little bit in love.  Here’s why:

1. It is so much easier to read 2 or 3 books at a time when you have them all in a little 5×7″ tablet.

2. I realized yesterday morning that I can upload any PDF to my Nook.  So I copied and pasted my favorite blog posts from Joy, Cheryl and Jess into a Word document and saved it as a PDF. Now I have instantly accessible writing inspiration, even when I need to unplug from the internet!

Nook 2

3. I’ve been really pushing myself on the trainer lately.  My cycling rides often end with my sprawled on the living room rug, exhausted.  With the Nook, I can make the font of whatever I’m reading as large as I need, so I can still read as I push myself past 17 mph at high resistance.

4.  Free books! Turns out, public domain books can be downloaded for free.  I now have a collection of classics I’ve always meant to read, but haven’t yet: Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Time Machine, Vanity Fair.  Maybe now I’ll actually get through Les Miserables— it is so much easier to read a few pages at a time when you don’t have to carry a 3-inch book around.  I’ve also downloaded some of my favorite classics: Jane Eyre, Little Women and Phantom of the Opera.

Of course, e-books will never fully replace “real” books, especially when it comes to beautiful cookbooks and books that I know I’ll want to lend to friends and read again and again.  But the Nook is still one of my new favorite things.