Yule Be Swell! Yule Be Great!
November 3, 2013 9:57 PM   Subscribe

We will be hosting a very large Yule gathering in our home next month, and I need ideas on ways to feed people affordably but impressively with simple but very elegant dishes. We set the bar pretty high last year, so the H is O.

Last year our Yule dinner consisted of 12 people, and we served slow smoked Carolina style pork ribs, duck confit, Brussels sprouts with a maple glaze, and homemade hazelnut gelato, among other delicacies. It was totally off the hook. This year, we are expecting twice as many people, but the budget is the same.

Looking for ideas and recipes for "fancy-schmancy" food that will get me the most bang for my buck. Example: I could make a glazed carrot dish, but is that really more affordable than the Brussels sprouts? What is the most economical good quality cut of meat? If I am serving dish A, dish B won't go with it no matter how cheap it is.

Recipes that use very basic ingredients for a gourmet effect are best.

Skill is not a problem, we have several experienced gourmet cooks, and between us we have just about any equipment or skill set needed in the kitchen. We made duck confit, for crying out loud!

Also, before you suggest it, potlucking and cutting down the guest list are not options for various reasons.

Also: I hate turkey, I can't even stand the smell of it. So no turkey.

Bonus points if it adheres to a historical, pagany, heatheny, or "wild hunt" vibe.
posted by evilcupcakes to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I love this salted caramel apple tart for an elegant desert with simple ingredients. For bonus points, serve with homemade ice cream.

This beef and bacon pie is unique and impressive.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:48 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cabbage is wicked cheap and can be completely scrumptious. You could do it braised with apples chestnuts and spices, or wedges of different colors roasted with a sweet vinegar glaze and crumbles of different cheeses, as just two ideas off the top of my head.

Have you considered getting something like a whole pig or a side of beef and breaking it down, using all the parts? That is generally the most cost effective way, if you've got free gourmet labor and equipment.
posted by Mizu at 11:09 PM on November 3, 2013

asphericalcow: That tart sounds amazing, and I like the little pie idea.

Mizu: I like your cabbage idea, and my husband would be more than happy about getting a whole pig, but believe it or not we have tried to track one down before and couldn't find anyone who does that in our area (which is weird, because we live in a rural area). Maybe we should try it again.
posted by evilcupcakes at 11:27 PM on November 3, 2013

Brisket is cheap, and all about technique. Smoking it probably gives the most impressive holiday-dinner results, but you could also braise it/stew it/turn it into corned beef.
posted by kagredon at 12:03 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're in San Juan, evilcupcakes, right? Is this place accessible to you? They do whole and half pigs and would probably work with you.
posted by Mizu at 12:17 AM on November 4, 2013

Oh, another thought:

Onion soup, when done right, is magnificent. I'm talking sloooooowly perfectly cooked, deglazed ten times, deep brown onion soup. The most expensive ingredient would probably be melty cheese, but really good onion soup with home made beef stock and fresh butter doesn't really need it, in my opinion. You could even use twigs of thyme for the soup and reserve the leaves for another dish.
posted by Mizu at 12:29 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Can you get or make really delicious sausages? I'm told that homemade sausages can be very cheap because you can use offcuts of meat and add things like apple. Sausages sliced into 1" pieces laid out on platters/wooden chopping boards with little tubs of fancy and odd mustards, ketchups and sauces make for insanely delicious easy nibbles.

Is salmon or other large fish cheap in your area compared to meet? Whole baked fish served on a giant chopping board with slices of lemon, salt and herbs look impressive and taste very good.

It would help if you could say where you are and what kind of ingredients are pricey. Cheese and wine where I live for example are insanely expensive, so a lasagna with red wine for four would cost me about $70 in materials when I could make chicken curry pilaf for $15 for four.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:16 AM on November 4, 2013

Mizu: We're actually on Lummi, the Forgotten San Juan LOL. Lopez is a bit hard for us to get to, but perhaps doable.

And onion soup might just be the ticket! I love onion soup!

viggorlijah: I am in the Pacific Northwest on a rural island, but I have access to a small city. Salmon is very abundant here, but I live on an island known for its salmon and we just finished out salmon season, finding fresh local salmon would be hard and this crowd knows the difference. I have noticed that things like Homemade sausages have a certain amount of promise if I could find a really stunning recipe.
posted by evilcupcakes at 2:48 AM on November 4, 2013

Another option could be a terrine or a pate. No recipe suggestions, but you could probably go back to Julia Child and find something.

Can you get rabbit? Fullfills the game preference, and can be cheap.

For dessert, something custard based maybe? Or choux pastry creation?
posted by kjs4 at 3:14 AM on November 4, 2013

Sometimes the best stuff is the simplest, but very labor intensive.

Stuffed cherry tomatoes, pates, water crackers with creamcheese topped with a smidge of fig jam (or honey) and cracked pepper, stuffed mushrooms, bacon wrapped water chestnuts/livers/prunes- whichever is most available. Tapas are also usually amazing inspiration for good snacky things- if you have people who pick wild mushrooms, then some sauteed wild mushrooms on toast are AMAZING- but regular mushrooms on toast are also delicious.

Do you know any hunters? my family usually busts out the venison tenderloins for big holiday dinners- a simple port sauce or a juniper berry based one, a tenderloin fried in a pile of butter and freshly ground black pepper, and some simple sides like crusty home made bread is always a show stopper.

thinnly sliced smoked venison, on mini croissants with a dab of horseradish sauce cut with mayo is utterly divine, and makes a very elegant appetizer.

(with my family, sauteed venison tenderloin, with a juniper berry-port wine sauce, a garnish of wild mushrooms and some mashed potatoes is the most demanded holiday meal. we do hunt and pick our own mushrooms though (we fry them in butter before freezing), so that's what makes it very cheap for us)

posted by larthegreat at 6:42 AM on November 4, 2013

I believe this side dish fits your criteria: it's dramatic, tasty, and cheap. For two dozen people, you'll probably need to triple or quadruple the recipe.

Fresh Carrot Puff

2 pounds carrots, peeled, cooked, and cooled
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons minced scallions
1/4 pound butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup milk
3 eggs
1 egg white, stiffly beaten

Combine all ingredients except egg white in a blender; blend until smooth. Fold in beaten egg white. Pour into a well-greased, 2-quart souffle dish. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 50-60 minutes, until center is firm to the touch. Serve immediately.

(adapted from Noteworthy: A collection of recipes from the Ravinia Festival)
posted by DrGail at 6:47 AM on November 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am trying to think of dishes that match your theme but that are also easy to prepare and serve for 24 people.

Traditional French Onion soup. Cheap but a labor of love and oh so delicious. Spring for a little good earthy cheese to sprinkle on top before going under the grill.

Chicken Liver Pates or Terrines. I have 3 chefs in my family and they all beg my mother to maker her Chicken Liver Pate every year for Christmas. You can find a heap of interesting recipes online and it can be as simple or as complicated as you like and chicken livers are super cheap to buy this also freezes so you can make it up weeks ahead. Or you can make Rillettes. Can be pork or Salmon or even game serve both with toast points.

Wild Boar ragu with home made pasta, I've had it with gnocci. You can also replace the meat with pork but you don't need a fancy cut or a super large piece so while it's not a super cheap meat you don't need as much as you think as it breaks down into a delicious gamey sauce so if you can find the boar, it would also work with other game. Tastes best in my opinion made the day before and reheated as the flavours amalgamate, but is easy enough to have simmering on the day and making your house smell amazing.

If you are going a heavy hunt/game influenced menu then I'd go a light dessert, fresh fruit and maybe a lovely cheese plate (good cheese doesn't have to be expensive) served with nuts and dried fruits and maybe a nice tawny port for sipping.
posted by wwax at 8:24 AM on November 4, 2013

Affordable but impressive means that you have considered "good, fast, and cheap" and thrown out "fast" -- in other words, you do extra work.

Sooooo… Pâté en Croûte often blows minds: seeing it in the middle of the table, when some fancy pastry-work has been added, can be a highlight. (Though with 24 people, you may need to take it back into the kitchen to be cut and pull the same trick that they do with wedding cakes!)

What about cassoulet? You can bung anything in there you like, really.

Homemade ice cream can be made ahead, and makes everyone childishly happy, as you know. So this year you could either go for homemade waffle cones (with a malted milk ball in the bottom to catch melt), or make your own toppings as shown in David Lebovitz's book The Perfect Scoop.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:41 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would also recommend a Ragu of some kind. Something about it just feels "huntery." Short rib, pork or lamb could all be done cheaply if you can't get your hands on wild boar. To keep costs down I recommend serving over Parmesan polenta. This is an excellent recipe for a hands-off Oven baked Polenta that I enjoy just as much as the stirred variety that could easily be scaled up, though tasking someone with stirring is pretty fool proof.

For dessert, people seem to go wild for poached pears despite how simple they are to make. Again, very easily scaled up with a big pot and fairly cheap, and could be served with a scoop of ice cream or a creme anglaise and maybe even a smattering of cookie crumbs or homemade cobbler crumbles (sort of a deconstructed cobbler situation)
posted by itsonreserve at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2013

Wow, I am seriously loving all of these suggestions and I am forwarding this link to my cohorts in cooking!

Yes, fast is not a criteria, since we will be dividing the labor between a couple of households. I love the cassoulet idea, since several of us just spent a week in Carcassonne, France this summer. Keep it coming! (I am sure other people will find these ideas useful as well) This is great!
posted by evilcupcakes at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I put together a tarte tatin for our Halloween function. It has four ingredients (apples, sugar, flour, butter), none of which are bank-busters. Make several, or use one as part of a dessert line-up? People were sorta floored about the yumminess and how classy it looked. Tarte tatin is a food item where technique, rather than the amount you spent on the ingredients, is the important thing.

If you have people who bake, for real, home-made bread to accompany a simple rustic food item (like ragout or a stew) would be worth your time. Bread ingredients are cheap and technique is what makes outstanding bread instead of not-very-good-bread. A lean sourdough with thick, crunchy crust would work well, being robust enough to stand up to a ragout.

With a meaty, rich ragout (and I'm totally leaning in that direction), have you considered a side of vegetables that are robust enough to stand up to that? Think fall. Rutabagas, parsnips, carrots, that kind of thing. Or the heavier squashes (butternut is nice and colorful). If you're going for a seasonal theme, springy salads are not appropriate, asparagus is right out, etc. Think keeping vegetables, things that would have been available in late fall / early winter.

To go with the bread you can also make home-churned butter (use a mixer, it's totally simple) made from cream. Do you know any dairy farmers? (Real, from-real-grass-fed-cows, unpasteurized cream makes butter that is about 4x more yellow than bought butter. It's also a bit more cow-y. However, even store-bought cream makes better butter than you can buy, so do not let the lack of a real cow stop you on this.)

Also, I'm not sure what the left coast does for deer season, but here (east coast) it's the Monday following Thanksgiving. If your season is timed anything like ours, venison might indeed be a real option. Check with your local hunters? If you don't know many people who shoot deer, venison is exotic and hunter-like. (If you live in rural appalachia, venison is what you eat when you don't have the money for beef.) Venison tends to be leaner than beef by a fair piece, and it is suited to slow, moist cooking. It also makes absolutely outstanding vegetable soup, but that probably isn't going to fly as classy enough for a feast occasion. Also, elk is surprisingly tasty if you can get any. (Friend of mine did a juniper-berry and dried-cranberry elk stew that knocked me on my ass. Her husband went to Colorado for hunting trips, though, which is where she got the elk.)
posted by which_chick at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2013

For a visually impressive dessert, Buche de Noel, the traditional Christmas dessert in France.
posted by alms at 10:35 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Buche de Noel s delicious too!)
posted by alms at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2013

Molly Moon has some truly impressive ice-creams and I've gotten a lot of raves from Booze Cakes desserts. Things like a cardamom ice cream, mulled wine sorbet*, or olive oil and toasted pine nut ice cream with Amaretto Almond Delight* or Mint Julep Cupcakes* are pretty delicious.

* I've made these ones and they are amazing. Also Molly Moon is somewhat local, being in Seattle.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:45 AM on November 4, 2013

Oh, yeah -- Buche de Noel looks like a great candidate: it will take as much time as you want to pour into the project! My mom made a couple of amazing ones when I was a kid. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 12:19 PM on November 4, 2013

We actually had a Buche de Noel last year, and it was amazing! Beautiful too, she even made little meringue mushrooms for it.

Sadly, Molly Moon is a bit long of a drive for ice cream. I doubt it would make the 100 mile drive back here unmelted :(
posted by evilcupcakes at 7:02 PM on November 4, 2013

That's why I linked to the cookbook, so you could make your own...
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:22 PM on November 5, 2013

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