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Inexpensive ideas for holiday party food

By Yelena Moroz, Shivani Vora, Kaija Helmetag, and Brad Tuttle
November 21, 2011 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
The perfect Christmas pudding can be hard on your wallet. Ice cream can be just as festive
The perfect Christmas pudding can be hard on your wallet. Ice cream can be just as festive
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elegant holiday parties can be thrown with affordable food and drink
  • Champagne is not the only bubbly beverage worthy of commemorating the holidays
  • Skip rich tartes and souffles for dessert -- ice cream is a festive crowd-pleaser

(Real Simple) -- Don't let sky-high food-and-drink bills crash your party. These affordable strategies let you scrimp without looking like Scrooge.

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Drinks

Skip: A full bar.

Opt for: A single, memorable cocktail. For example: a winter lemonade. Muddle ¼ cup fresh cranberries in 8 ounces of this traditional summer drink, then top it off with 2 ounces of vodka or whiskey and a splash of seltzer. Presto! An instant merrymaking hit.

Skip: Champagne.

Opt for: Cava or Prosecco. These affordable bubblies are available for around $10 a bottle, says Allison Enke, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market. Find one that was produced within the past two years. For roughly half of what you would pay for a vintage bottle, you'll get just as much fizzy flavor.

Appetizers

Skip: Fancy flat breads and spreads.

Opt for: Crostini. You'll save a few bucks if you buy a couple of baguettes (typically about $2 each) and make your own dip. A can of cannellini beans goes a long way: Rinse them, then combine with ½ clove garlic (crushed), 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley or tarragon), 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper and gently mash. Top each baguette slice with a spoonful of the dip. Or let guests dip the slices into a bowl of olive oil spiked with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary.

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Skip: Aged cheeses, such as Gouda and manchego.

Opt for: Fresh ricotta, mozzarella, or Feta. These cheeses are more perishable, but less time and milk are required to make them, so you'll find quality choices starting as low as $5 a pound or so—nearly $10 less than many aged cheeses, says Ariel Kalishman Walsh, a cheesemonger at Saxelby Cheesemongers, in New York City. Enhance the flavor of ricotta with a drizzle of honey, then serve with crackers. Or make toothpick kebabs with cubes of fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and fresh sage.

Main Course

Skip: Beef tenderloin or prime rib.

Opt for: Less expensive cuts of meat, such as short ribs, beef chuck, pork shoulder, and chicken thighs. Some of these cuts can retail for as low as $1 a pound. "Stew it in your slow cooker or Dutch oven to give it a top-quality taste," says Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, the author of Good Food to Share ($30, amazon.com) and the founder of TheKitchn.com, a food blog.

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Skip: Shrimp or salmon.

Opt for: Eggs. This bargain protein isn't just for breakfast, and a dozen eggs can fill up a group of friends for less than $5. Poach the eggs and serve them over polenta, risotto, or pasta, along with earthy winter vegetables, like sautéed Swiss chard or kale and roasted acorn squash or fennel.

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Dessert

Skip: Tarts and soufflés.

Opt for: Ice cream. Yes, even though it's winter. Pick up a tub—mint is a festive choice, but plain vanilla works, too—and brew a pot of coffee. Scoop the ice cream into cups, then pour in about ½ cup of hot java for a riff on the Italian dessert affogato, says Scott Hocker, the editor in chief of TastingTable.com, a daily food newsletter. The total cost: about $6

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