Archive for December, 2008

$100 Dinner Party Recipes

December 31, 2008

I am anticipating some requests for the recipes we used for our NYE dinner party.  I’ve decided to provide them all in a separate post, as the original post is so long.

Prime Rib Au Poivre

I found this recipe on Epicurious.  As I said, I’ve never made it, so I looked for the most basic and highly rated recipe on the site.  We followed this pretty closely, substituting shallots with onions and using brandy, as that’s what we had at the house.

Bitter Greens Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Apple with Walnut-Mustard Vinaigrette

I flew by the seat of my pants with this one, basing it on a salad from one of our favorite restaurants.  I like REALLY tart and light salad dressings.  If you are looking for a more detailed recipe, I recommend the Radicchio & Haricot Verts Salad with Candied Walnuts from Epicurious.  I made this for Thanksgiving and it was a hit.

For the salad at our NYE dinner, I used greens from our garden.  Mesclun, Red Leaf and Arugula.  The greens were quite bitter, something I personally do not enjoy, but everyone else loved it.  I toasted some walnuts under the broiler, and added some shaved carrots and sliced green apple.  For the dressing, I whisked together some walnut oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, S&P and a bit of sugar.  You can easily substitute the walnut oil with olive oil.  This salad would also be excellent with feta cheese.

Sautéed Green Beans with Almonds

This is a stand-by dish for me that is always popular.  I usually try to get Haricot Verts, which are essentially mini green beans.  David bought normal green beans and had gotten them ready before I got home, so he broke them in half.  Personally, I don’t suggest doing that :-)

Wash and green beans and blanch for one minute in boiling water.  Drain and reserve until ready to sauté.  Add a tablespoon of olive (or vegetable) oil to a skillet and toss in some green onions, sliced in half.  After a minute or so, add the beans and toss in a few slices of lemon.  Throw in a dash of dry white wine (from your glass, of course).  Add some almonds (sliced, chopped, whichever you prefer – or you can sub out with another nut, or omit) and continue to cook until they are browned.

Mashed Potatoes with Dill

I don’t really have any direction for this.  People tend to be VERY particular about how they prepare mashed potatoes.  My only tips are this:

  • After cooking the potatoes, drain and throw back on the stove top to cook off the water.
  • If using cream, milk or butter, warm it in a small saucepan before adding to potatoes.
  • Prepare before if possible, they are very easy to reheat.

I use a ricer.  For this dinner, I added a bunch of dried dill.  I put about 2 tablespoons of warm milk/cream/butter on the bottom of a dutch oven and threw the mashed potatoes in.  I added a bit more milk/cream and a pat of butter and covered.  When the meat came out, the potatoes went into the oven to rewarm.

Coffee/Orange Scented Chocolate Mousse

David made this and it was actually quite excellent for being lactose-free AND low in fat.  He got the recipe from his dad, an obsessive cook who catalogs countless recipes.  It is from Sunset magazine.

Serves 12

2 Packages Silken Tofu (Approx. 14 oz Apiece)
1/2 Cup Powdered Sugar
6 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa
2 Tablespoons Coffee-Flavored Liqueur
1 Tablespoon Vanilla
2 Tablespoons Grated Orange Peel
1 Package Reduced Fat Frozen Whipped Topping, Thawed
1 Tablespoon Miniature Semisweet Chocolate Baking Chips

  1. Rinse and drain tofu.  Press between think layers of paper towels to remove water.  Break each block into several pieces.  Blend tofu pieces with sugar, cocoa, liqueur, vanilla and orange peel in a food processor or blender until very smooth.
  2. In a bowl, combine tofu mixture with whipped topping and fold together.
  3. Refrigerate.

You can chill in the bowl or put the mousse into separate servings and chill, as David did.  The recipe calls for the chocolate chips to be sprinkled on top, but we used our micro-plane to grate.  We also added fresh whipped cream (for those of us not lactose-intolerant).

NOTE: You can substitute the coffee liqueur with 1 Tbsp instant coffee granules dissolved in 2 Tbsp hot water OR 2 Tbsp brewed espresso.

Now I am off to another dinner party – enjoy your New Year everyone!!


Goodbye, 2008

December 31, 2008

I think we can all agree that 2008 was a tough year, with a few bright spots.  When you really think about it, the cross over into a new year is nothing much, but it’s easy to think of it as a Fresh Start.  Following are the highlights of my year, and my hopes for the next.

In 2008….

  1. I finally voted for a winner in a presidential election.
  2. I spent far too much time on Jezebel.
  3. Prop 8 passed, making me truly ashamed of my home state for the first time.
  4. I gained 10 pounds (likely directly correlated with No 2).
  5. The first baby was born into my circle of close friends.
  6. I went to Portland, Oregon three times and discovered Stumptown Coffee.
  7. I kicked off a budget.
  8. I started a blog about it so I would have at least some chance of succeeding.
  9. I spent a few months paying $400+ for gas.
  10. The economy went to shit.
  11. Nothing much improved in the Mid East.
  12. I landed in the hospital in the first week of the year and have not self-injured since.
  13. I managed to get to NYC to visit friends.
  14. My boyfriend and I hosted Thanksgiving.  For 20.
  15. I bought a Macbook that I couldn’t afford.
  16. We planted a garden.
  17. Our dog was attacked by a raccoon.  And a pit bull.
  18. I voted for HRC in the primaries.  And it made me happy.
  19. The Olympics happened.  And I didn’t watch them.
  20. Heath Ledger, Estelle Getty, Paul Newman, Tim Russert, George Carlin and Yves Saint Laurent died.

In 2009, I hope to….

  1. Pay off at least $10K in debt.
  2. Drink more water.
  3. Drink less alcohol.
  4. Spend less time online (specifically Jezebel).
  5. Get a raise.
  6. Work from home more.
  7. Start a travel fund with David.
  8. Exercise more and lose the weight I gained in 2008.
  9. Go to the farmer’s market more.
  10. Buy a used bike.
  11. Sell all of my discarded clothing on eBay.
  12. Maintain the Penny Plastic blog.
  13. Read more.
  14. Draw more.
  15. Try my best to get to the east coast to visit friends.
  16. Finally go to San Luis Obispo with David (he’s been asking me to go for years, he went to school there).
  17. See friends more often.
  18. Become more skilled in Illustrator and Photoshop.
  19. Plant a spring garden.
  20. Try and keep some perspective about things.

Wishing all of you a very happy, warm and safe New Years Eve.  See you in 2009.


Income Log, 12.31.08

December 31, 2008

I will be posting periodic Income Logs to update on any additional income that comes my way. This will include freelance work, gifts, eBay sales and Amazon sales.

3 Books (Amazon) – $27.87

TOTAL – $164.18

Can You Host A Dinner Party For Under One Hundred Bucks?

December 31, 2008

Carly, aprés dinner, kicking ass at Trivial Pursuit.  Photo: Penny

Of course you can, I suppose.  However, how nice of a dinner can you host for under $100?  And for how many people?  I decided to find out.

Hot on the heels of the New York Times and Bon Appetit budget-friendly write-ups on holiday entertaining, I thought I might take a stab at a similar challenge.

David and I have people over a lot. It’s often the only time we can see friends and I love to cook. Unfortunately, as anyone who entertains is aware, the cost can add up, and fast. Buying food is just the beginning; soon you find yourself in need of a roasting pan for that turkey you want to make, or you don’t have enough glassware for all of your guests. And then, of course, there’s the alcohol.

When I mentioned that I wanted to have some friends over the week after Christmas, David moaned, “but I thought you were on a budget!?” I explained that I really wanted to try and host for under 100 bucks. “How about 50?” he responded.

I did get a lot of recommendations to have a potluck, but I was very focused on creating a sophisticated and somewhat gourmet meal on a budget. Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn covered the NYT piece, and I was very intrigued that Joanna Goddard (the fiancée of the man who wrote the article) weighed in, commenting:

“I just want to point out: the $30/person was for wine, decor and a three-course dinner for a 5-hour party. and of course you can have a less expensive party–a party with beer is totally fun and fine! this story, however, was more about having a party that feels super swanky, totally over-the-top in a fun way–almost like a wedding–for less money than usual.”

Now, I am not competitive by nature, but I was convinced that I could do a multi-course dinner for 8 that felt “swanky” for far less than $250. Yes, that number included 6 bottles of Charles Shaw and decorations. However, $150 of the budget went toward decorations, something I think most of us could skip, or at least modify.

Photo: New York Times

In the end, we had 6 people over for a dinner (8 including David and I). Did we keep within the $100 budget? Read on to find out.

The Plan

Before planning the meal, I decided to lay out some ground-rules:

  1. The evening must cost under $100.
  2. Alcohol would be included.
  3. The meal would be simple but not exceedingly casual.
  4. Appetizers and dessert would be served.

The Setting

We decided on an early supper gathering on the eve of New Years Eve. One of my closest friends has a new baby and she and her husband needed to get out on the early side to put her down.  As it turns out, that friend canceled so we called in for some last-minute fill ins, David’s parents, who live close by.

General Parameters

  1. I did not include ingredients such as dried herbs and spices and small amounts of oil. Most people have these items in their pantries and I am to lazy to break it down into cost-per-use.
  2. I did not include any decorations.  Nor did I buy anything new. I have enough flatware, stemware and miscellaneous items to entertain a small army. But I have included some tips on how to serve/decorate on the cheap.

Money-Saving Tips

  1. Don’t ignore less popular (and far less expensive) cuts of meat. I don’t each much red meat, but I have read countless articles extolling the many virtues of slow-cooking budget cuts of meat. If you are a big red meat eater, this is a great option to keep in mind. Check out: braising, roasting.
  2. Flavor, flavor, flavor. When you begin to explore other cuisines, such as Indian or Vietnamese, your taste-buds are overwhelmed with new and exciting flavors. Make something spicy, use garlic liberally, try lemongrass or Thai basil. International markets are a great and economical resource.
  3. Substitute olive oil when you can. Butter and vegetable oil are just fine for the majority of dishes. Reserve the more expensive olive oil for dishes where its flavor will shine.
  4. Buy from bulk bins. Need crystallized ginger? An odd spice you’ve never heard of? Cashews? Seek out a market nearby that sells items in bulk, so you can purchase just the amount needed for your recipe.
  5. Grow your own vegetables or hit the farmer’s market.
  6. Don’t get too hung up on mismatched flatware, glassware and silverware. Run with it! Use Anthropolgie catalogs as inspiration for funky decorating.
  7. When all else fails, keep it simple and classic. A nice shrimp cocktail, homemade bread, roasted chicken; you can’t go wrong.


While planning the party menu, I focused on seasonal produce and really thought carefully about which proteins I wanted to serve. Meat, as we established, is often the most expensive element of a meal. As I am not much of a red meat eater, opting for pork, poultry or fish, I decided on the latter two.

Then, David threw a rather large wrench into my plan. The week before the dinner, he came home with a $25 hunk of beef.

“Prime rib was on sale! I thought we could make it for our dinner next week,” he said while tossing it in the freezer. Whatever his reservations were a few days prior, he had obviously gotten over them. Now he had purchased an item that would take up a full quarter of my budget. And I don’t even especially care for prime rib, nor had I ever cooked it.

No bother, I would adapt.

Final Menu

The Evening

I had to work during the day, so David was left to prepare, clean and do the last minute shopping.  He also made the dessert, a coffee/orange scented mousse that was lactose-free (two of the guests were lactose intolerant).

When I arrived home, I hit our backyard to pull some greens from our mess of a garden and find some cool stuff to create a centerpiece for the table.  I found a tree with some purple-colored berries and pulled some pretty dried maple leaves off the ground.  I also found some fallen tree branches.  I have a small vase with floral foam that I reuse.  I stuck the berries into the foam and added the leaves around the edge.  I positioned the vase at the center of the table and scattered the leaves along either side.  I placed the tree branches (twigs, more like) on top of the leaves and threw out a few votives.

Photo: Penny

Photo: Penny

David was busy preparing the meat so I made the mashed potatoes, prepared the salad and blanched the green beans.  I set out the appetizer, got the music going and decanted the red wine.

If anything can elevate a $3 bottle of wine, it’s a decanter.  Photo: Penny

Our DJ for the evening.  Photo: Penny

When the meat came out, I put in the mashed potatoes that I had prepared earlier and transferred to a dutch oven.  I started the green beans while David worked on the sauce to accompany the prime rib.

Photos: Penny

We decided to plate each dish and serve the salad after dinner.

The photo is straight out of I Like You, Middle-America kitsch.  Photo: Penny

The final plate.  Photo: Penny

After dinner we cleaned up and prepared the dessert.

Photo: Penny

Enjoying dessert:  Photo: Penny

Final Cost Breakdown

Prime Rib – $25.00
Salami – $5.99
Lettuce – Garden
Walnuts – $1.50
Garlic – $3.00
Potatoes – $4.98
Apples – $0.50
Parsley – $0.50
Onions – $0.50
Green Onions – $0.48
Baguette – $2.29
Unsalted Butter – $0.68
Whipping Cream – $2.09
Orange – $0.30
Green Beans – $2.30
Carrot – $0.22
Silken Tofu – $2.98
Lemon – $0.50
Beef Broth – $0.49
Powdered Sugar – $0.99
Brie – $3.49
Parmesan – $1.99
Wine (4 Bottles) – $11.97
Organic Baking Cocoa – $0.99
Chocolate Chips – $0.50
Whole Milk – $0.99

Total – $75.22

I would say that we used about $10 (absolute MAX) on items such as oil, mustard, dill, salt and pepper, etc.  Items that we did not buy but had in the house.  That still leaves us $15 under $100!

We received two addition bottles of wine from guests.

More Tips

  • “Borrow” is not a dirty word. Need a hand mixer? Matching plates? For God’s sake, borrow them from someone! A friend, family member, neighbor….anyone. People are usually very cool about lending things out.
  • Plan ahead. If you know you’ll be making a soup for a starter, roast a chicken the week before so you can make homemade stock to freeze. Keep your eyes peeled for sales. The week before our dinner, I checked out sales at the grocery store and scored a huge bag of frozen shrimp for $10, nearly 50% off.  Perfect for shrimp cocktail!
  • Keep it seasonal. Fish and produce in season will taste better AND be cheaper.
  • Don’t get hung up on your menu. Be flexible. When you hit the store, ask your fishmonger or butcher what is fresh. Better to buy some good looking salmon than settle for gross, frozen scallops because you are hell-bent on making a particular recipe.
  • Don’t worry too much about appetizers or starters. Keep these simple. Your guests will be more interested in getting a drink in their hands and catching up, and they won’t fill up before dinner.
  • Substitute if necessary. Want to try a recipe but it calls for 2 tablespoons of brandy (that you don’t have)? You can usually find SOME kind of substitute for an ingredient. Do a search online and explore a bit before committing to a recipe. You can start here.
  • Vegetarians among your guests? Don’t worry about creating a dish just for them. Provide a hearty side (a risotto or pasta with plenty of vegetables, for example) that can be eaten as a main or side dish. Just remember to substitute chicken stock with vegetable stock.
  • Use nature as an inspiration. You don’t need to buy anything for your table centerpiece. Go out and collect leaves to scatter across the center of the table. Find some cool fallen tree branches and add to a tall vase. Look for a rosemary bush, or an orange tree – anything that looks beautiful. In the past I have created arrangements using large chard and kale leaves. Bonus: You can eat them after the party!
  • Dim the lights and throw out some votive candles. If you don’t have candle holders, use leaves, flat rocks, small glasses….anything you have around.

Daily Inspiration

December 31, 2008

What’s inspiring me today.


Stella McCartney, S/S 2008 RTW; Image: Style Dot Com

Don’t ask me why, but I totally digging rompers right now. I’ve been researching the S/S 09 shows for a write-up on Spring fashion and it’s a veritable Romper Fest!

The romper crush started when David and I were at a photography show in Portland last month. It was hosted at a lingerie shop and while David and his brother-in-law chatted up the photographer, his sister and I poked around the store. I found a beautiful, delicate, slate gray romper with spaghetti straps that gathered at the waist.

I wanted it.

I searched for the price tag and quickly discovered that I would not be buying a romper that evening. It was $250. So, I sulked away nursing my plastic cup of wine.

I am hell-bent on finding a cute romper for the Spring. The only requirement? No American Apparel. I’m not looking for a terry-cloth 70’s throw-back.

Soup January Is Almost Here!

December 30, 2008

Photo: Apartment Therapy (The Kitchn)

In November, during the craziness that was preparing for a group of 20 at Thanksgiving, David suggested Soup January. A month of soups! Initially, I thought it was a fantastic idea. I love soup, and cold, wintery January is an ideal month for soup making. But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became. I hate being nailed down and cooking is no exception. What if I craved falafel on January 18th? What if I just didn’t feel like involved soup-making?

I decided to get over it, and lay down some ground-rules to allow for a bit of flexibility. I also talked David into planning ahead for the month, so we wouldn’t be caught off-guard without ingredients.

Of course, I haven’t planned anything yet. I will do it during the long weekend. But I am open to suggestions! What are your favorite soup recipes?

Daily Inspiration

December 30, 2008

What’s inspiring me today.

Joseph Pilates.

I am a lazy fuck, there are no two ways around it. Having coasted for almost 30 years on a speedy metabolism, I am not accustomed to the concept of required exercising. But, it seems the fun is over. My trusty metabolism is packing up its bags.

It’s not as though I’ve never exercised. I have, just irregularly….when the mood struck. I grew up dancing and swimming, so I am not a fan of anything high-impact. You couldn’t pay me to join a Boot Camp class. At 12 I was diagnosed with Scoliosis and given a strict exercise program to combat the effects of my crooked spine. I didn’t figure out until years later than it was Pilates.

I almost hate saying how much I love Pilates, because it’s become so incredibly popular and trendy…..I feel almost protective of it. For me, it’s the perfect form of exercise. It increases flexibility, strengthens the back and, if done correctly, incorporates both strength training and cardio.

So, today I honor the man who started it all, Joseph Pilates. Let’s just hope my inspiration carries into the new year.

Preview: Dinner Party For Under 100 Bucks

December 29, 2008

Tomorrow we are having a dinner (for 8) and attempting to do it for under $100.  I know that might still seem extravagant, but 1) it’s not a super casual affair and 2) that budget includes alcohol.

I’ve been super excited about posting on this, as there have been many discussions floating around food sites regarding a recent NYT piece about throwing a dinner party for $250.  Because David and I are always having people over, this hits close to home.  I usually pay no attention to money, because I am too busy fixating on what I am going to make for our guests.

Yes, David likes to cook, he’s actually cooking for us right now, but he knows to leave me alone with my OCD when it comes to entertaining.

I’ve just landed on the menu, which I’ve shared below.

I can’t wait to share the results!

Discovery: Peter Callesen

December 29, 2008

While doing some research for work, I stumbled upon this artist’s web portfolio and was completely swept away by the beauty, darkness and whimsy of his work.  Not to mention the incredible skill required to create his intricate and delicate pieces using paper.

Callesen works with various media but his pieces using paper (and not much else) are my favorite.  They are, simply put, incredible.  There’s a lot to see on his website, and I highly recommend you check it out.  Below is a little taste of his work, some framed A4 papercut pieces.

The Core Of Everything, 2006; Image: Peter Callesen

Holding On To Myself, 2006; Image: Peter Callesen

Five Addictions & Fabulous Blogs

December 29, 2008

The lovely Allison (of Allison Wrote fame) was kind enough to include me in her list of 5 Fabulous Blogs.  I am keeping things moving with my five addictions and my very most favorite (and fabulous) blogs.

Penny’s Addictions


What can I say, it’s my crack.  I’m trying to cut back, but it’s difficult.

Image: Jezebel


It’s always on in our household, and even though it makes me feel about 100 years old, it’s my main source for news.

Image: NPR


My cookbook shelf is in a constant state of disarray, because I am always thumbing through books; planning menus, looking for something to make for dinner or simply curing my boredom.  My current favorite is Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Image: Amazon Dot Com

Fresh Bread

Like Allison, I’m a bit addicted to fresh bread.  I never ignore a bread basket, and I can devour a baguette within a day.  I oscillate between pairing bread with butter or olive oil with a bit of fleur de sel.

Image: Veer


I have gotten into the habit of taking piping hot bubble baths every night after David goes to sleep.  It’s where I usually read.

Image: Veer

5 Fabulous Blogs

I’m very new to blogging, and to be perfectly frank, I’ve never been especially fond of blogs.  However, it’s been a real treat getting to know some fellow bloggers and really diving into the depths of the Interwebs in search of fun, smart and inspiring blogs.  I’ve always had my favorites (like Apartment Therapy), so I’d like to list my new FFBs (Favorite Fabulous Blogs).

30 Bucks A Week (as mentioned in my Daily Inspiration post today)

Because I’m Addicted (the girl obviously loves fashion and covers it well)

Le Love

How About Orange…