Entertaining: The $100 Challenge

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MENU:
Pineapple Gazpacho
Smoked Trout Spread
Rock Cod Fish Fry With Homemade Tartar Sauce
Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato Fries
Farmers Market Green SaladWith Citrus Dressing
Banana Meringue Pie

Chef Pru Mendez loves a challenge. So when we dared him to come up with a plan for a dinner party for 10 with a budget of only $100, he was game. To up the difficulty factor, we told him he had to pay for food and beverages with that C-note.

“If it can be done, I can do it,” said Mendez, owner of the highly regarded Tucos Wine Market & Cafe in downtown Davis.

Mendez set out to devise an adventurous menu that would nudge you and your guests slightly out of your comfort zone. “I didn’t want to do pasta and salad,” he said. “Too predictable.”
Instead, he envisioned a fun, casual seafood dinner—the sort you might eat while sitting on a dock in Key West while watching the sun set. The meal starts with pineapple gazpacho and smoked trout spread, followed by an old-fashioned fish fry, and ends with homemade banana meringue pie. Beverages include mix-your-own mojitos, frosty-cold micheladas (beer with fresh lime juice and salt) and ponche crema (a Venezuelan sweet cream drink made with rum).

All that for just 100 bucks. “It won’t look like a budget party,” Mendez promised.

SHOPPING

Smart shopping is key to keeping costs down, said Mendez. He comparison-shopped at Nugget Market, Davis Food Co-op, SF Supermarket in Sacramento, Yolo Fruit Stand, even Wal-Mart and Rite Aid.

His efforts paid off. He found a half-pound of cream cheese, $3.50 at the co-op, for just $1.68 at Wal-Mart. Fresh mint that cost $1.69 a bunch at Nugget was $1.29 at Yolo Fruit Stand and 69 cents at SF Market.

When an ingredient was too expensive, he tweaked the menu. Originally, he planned to use smoked whitefish in the fish spread, but at $9.99 for a 3-ounce package, it was a budget buster. So he substituted smoked rainbow trout at Nugget for $3.29 a package. “It has a wonderful taste,” he said. “I didn’t lose anything.”

DRINKS

According to Mendez, a great party starts with a signature drink. “A party isn’t a party without a beverage,” he said.

This party has three of them. Mendez suggested greeting your guests with a pitcher of mojitos. He likes to make a nonalcoholic version and allow guests to add their own rum if they wish.

With his tight budget, wine was prohibitively expensive. So with the main course, Mendez decided to serve micheladas, a popular Mexican drink of beer, freshly squeezed lime juice and ice in a salt-rimmed glass. He bought an 18-pack of Tecate beer for just $11.99 at Rite Aid.
Finally, he would end the meal with ponche crema, a creamy Venezuelan liqueur that guests can sip or add to coffee. It’s easy to make; just mix one can condensed milk and one-half can evaporated milk with one-half cup rum. “It’s delicious,” he said.

To make a michelada, salt the rim of a tall glass by running a cut lime around the edge, then dipping the rim into a plate of salt. To the glass, add ice and 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice. Fill the glass the rest of the way with ice-cold Tecate beer. Serve with a lime wedge.

Tip: Set up an appetizer and mojito station and let your guests serve themselves.  

THE FOOD

Mendez envisioned a big, family-style meal that would leave your guests full and happy. He came up with a fish fry: crispy fingers of fried rock cod, served with homemade tartar sauce and oven-fried sweet potatoes.

Mendez tested the recipes out on his staff one night after work. “Everybody loved it,” he said. “We’re going to put the fried fish on the menu.”

For dessert, he considered and rejected Key lime pie (“too sweet”) before settling on banana meringue pie.  

MUSIC

Mendez suggested playing a mix of island, country and Latino music at your Key West-themed party. His budget solution: Go to Pandora.com, a free Internet radio service. Type in the name of an artist, song or composer, and Pandora will create a radio station featuring that music and more like it. (For this party, Mendez would type in “Jimmy Buffet,” “Keith Urban,” “Bob Marley” and “Hector Lavoe.”)

Mendez offered these shopping tips:
Comparison-shop. Prices vary widely between stores.
Check out fruit stands. They can be less expensive than farmers markets.
Be flexible. If an ingredient costs too much, eliminate it or use a less expensive substitute.

 

 

How Mendez Spent $100:

Tomatoes  $1.50
Cilantro  .50
Jalapeño  .10
Lemons  2.40
Rum    11.99
Mint  .69
Club soda  1.25
Limes  2.95
Smoked trout  9.87
Chives  1.69
Cream cheese  3.36
Baguette  2.69
Pineapple  2.49
Rock cod fillets  20.48
Apples  2.00
Sour cream  1.08
Sweet potatoes  4.83
Salad mix  7.48
Raisins  .99
Walnuts  1.50
Orange  1.00
Tecate beer  11.99
Eggs  2.12
Condensed milk  1.49
Evaporated milk  1.12
Bananas  1.50
Butter  .80

Total: $99.86

Note: Mendez didn’t include pantry staples such as oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, sugar, flour, garlic or onions in his calculations. 

 

THE RECIPES (all recipes serve 10):

Pineapple Gazpacho

3    pounds ripe tomatoes, diced
1    ripe pineapple, peeled, cored and diced
1/2    bunch chopped fresh cilantro (about 1/2 cup)
2    sweet onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2    cloves garlic, finely chopped
1    jalapeño, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
Juice of 4 lemons
1/4    cup apple cider vinegar
1    tablespoon salt
1/4    cup brown sugar

Set aside 1 cup diced tomato and 1 cup diced pineapple. Place the remaining tomato and pineapple in a food processor and purée. Put the mixture through a sieve to remove any solids. Place the liquid in a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients, including the diced tomato and pineapple. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 10. All recipes serve 10.

Smoked Trout Spread

9    ounces smoked trout fillets, skin removed
1    pound cream cheese, room temperature
1/4    bunch fresh chives, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2    sweet onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1    teaspoon salt
Juice of 1 lemon
12    shakes Tabasco sauce

Break the fish into chunks and place in a medium bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and, using a fork, mix by hand until the spread is smooth. Serve with baguette slices.

Rock Cod Fish Fry

4    pounds rock cod fillets, cut into 1-ounce “fingers”
Salt and pepper to taste
Sweet paprika to taste
3    eggs, lightly beaten
2    cups cracker meal or breadcrumbs (see note)
1    cup safflower oil for frying

Sprinkle the fish fillets generously with salt, pepper and sweet paprika.
Place eggs and cracker meal or breadcrumbs in separate large, shallow bowls. Dip the fish first into the eggs, then the crumbs, coating completely. Transfer to waxed paper.
Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry the fish in a single layer until golden brown and just opaque in the center, about 2 minutes per side. (Test one for doneness.) Transfer fish to paper towels to drain. Keep warm in a low oven until ready to serve.

Note: Cracker meal makes for a finer crust than breadcrumbs. To make you own, finely grind saltines in a food processor, then pass them through a large-mesh sieve.
 

Homemade Tartar Sauce

2    egg yolks
2    cloves garlic
1    tablespoon chopped sweet onion
Juice of 11/2 lemons
1/2    teaspoon salt
2    cups olive oil
3    tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2    tablespoons prepared horseradish
6    shakes Tabasco sauce
1    tablespoon Dijon mustard

Place yolks, garlic, onion, lemon juice and salt in a blender and blend at low speed. Increase speed to medium-high and slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream. Transfer to a bowl and add relish, horseradish, Tabasco sauce and mustard. Mix in by hand. Refrigerate until ready to serve.              

Mojitos

1    cup sugar
1/2    cup mint leaves, stems removed
Juice of 12 limes
6    cups club soda
White rum

Place sugar and mint leaves in a pitcher. Using a spoon or a muddler, crush the leaves into the sugar. Add the lime juice and mix well. Just before serving, add the club soda.
To make an alcoholic mojito, mix 1 part rum with 4 parts mojito mix.
 

Farmers Market Green Salad With Citrus Dressing

1/2    cup fresh orange juice
1/2    cup olive oil
1/4    cup apple cider vinegar
1/2    teaspoon Dijon mustard
2    teaspoons chopped fresh chives
2    teaspoons chopped sweet onion
1    teaspoon salt
2    pounds salad mix
1    cup golden raisins
1    cup toasted walnuts
2    apples, sliced thin

For dressing:
In a blender, combine orange juice, olive oil, vinegar, mustard, chives, onion and salt and blend on medium speed. Set aside.

For salad:
In a large bowl, combine salad mix, raisins, walnuts and apple slices. Toss with the dressing and serve.

Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato Fries

7    pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch-wide slices, then again into 1/2-inch-wide strips
1/4    cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sweet paprika to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss sweet potatoes with olive oil, then season generously with salt, pepper and sweet paprika. Arrange fries in a single layer on baking sheets. Roast, turning occasionally, until tender and golden brown, about 40 minutes.

Banana Meringue Pie

Makes two pies
31/2 cups flour, divided
3/4    cup plus 3 tablespoons cold butter, divided
23/4 cups sugar, divided
11/4     teaspoons salt, divided
3    tablespoons sour cream
1/3    cup ice-cold water
6    cups whole milk
9    egg yolks
3    teaspoons vanilla extract
3    tablespoons white rum
4    ripe bananas, sliced
12    egg whites

For crust:
Place 2 1/2 cups flour,  3/4 cup butter,  1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor. Process until the mixture forms pea-sized clumps. Add sour cream and cold water and process until the mixture forms a ball. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one ball of dough into a 13-inch-diameter round (about 1/8 inch thick) and transfer to a 9-inch-diameter glass pie pan. Repeat with the second ball of dough. Trim the edges, fold excess dough under and crimp. Freeze until the crusts are firm, about 15 minutes.
Line piecrusts with foil, fill with beans or pie weights and bake until the crusts are set, about 15 minutes. Remove beans and foil and continue baking until the crusts are golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely.

For filling:
In a heavy saucepan, whisk together the milk, 13/4 cups sugar, 1 cup flour and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring continuously. Continue to boil until thick. Gradually whisk in the egg yolks and bring mixture back to a boil. Continue cooking for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add the remaining 3 tablespoons butter, vanilla extract and white rum. Set aside to cool.
Lay the banana slices over the bottom of the cooled piecrusts and top with the cream-egg mixture. Refrigerate overnight.

For meringue topping:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place 12 egg whites and 3/4 cup sugar in a large bowl. With a mixer, beat at high speed until the whites form soft peaks. Spread the whipped whites over the pies and bake for 5 minutes, until the meringue is a light golden color.