Looking for Inexpensive Dinner Ideas? This is the Only Secret Ingredient You Need
Before I disclose the secret ingredient, let me reveal that it is not love, sociability or friendship. At least not exclusively – despite the fact that these cherished values may encourage us to reach-out to others in the first place.
Such prizes of humanity are indeed the more fulfilling results of a congenial dinner as compared to any winning kudos for pulling off a fancy gastronomic shin-dig.
Many years ago, I read a book that influenced my views and life. Or, perhaps it just gave voice to my inner thoughts, which is just as rewarding.
What Are the Best Inexpensive Dinner Ideas?
In that book, “Your Money or Your Life,” one of their suggestions about dinner with friends was a frugal repast of crusty bread and a big pot of chili. That chili or soup theme is another simple and satisfying idea I concur with, although not my current suggestion.
The book’s point is that over-the-top dinner parties aren’t always necessary with good friends.
Most of us realize that our friends are not joining us simply for the food. Nor do they need to be impressed by our décor, presentation or epicurean wonders. They are there for conversation and connection. Yet, so often, we either forget this or experience some need to “make a good impression.”
Even though, by our age, one might expect we would think it was nonsense, insecurity can crop up and cause us to fear not “looking good” in the eyes of our guests.
Sadly, this can sometimes mean that we (the would-be-hosts) avoid inviting people into our homes if the place is not spic-and-span or we are not planning a gourmet feast. I relate to this troubling tendency. I try to remind myself of what is important even while the ugly face of uncertainty can make me hesitate.
But I ask myself if I have ever had more fun because I was entertained in someone’s McMansion? Indeed, perhaps the opposite is true. It reminds me of a sentiment growing up in my hometown – “friends always use the back-door.”
We can have back-door friends at a dinner with a back-door price tag, but a front-door presentation.
Use a few pretty platters, a unique cutting board, or other interesting décor items you already have or can even find outdoors to brighten up the table. There are a myriad of ideas about lovely table settings. But don’t forget to keep fun on the table.
Here are a few things that I have learned about having an inexpensive, yet fun, dinner with friends.
Finding Balance in Your Menu
As a compromise between the pot of chili and the over-the-top chef cuisine, there is simple elegance.
My suggested menu – minus the secret ingredient – includes wine (or appropriate alternative), cheese, specialty bread with oil and fruits. This is also a great menu for your Pescatarian friends. If just now you thought “pesca what?”, read a brief explanation of mine here.
Amazing varieties of good, but reasonably-priced, cheeses are now available in most grocery stores or specialty shops. Either be brave and include some unusual assortments or consider one very large cheese wheel for a nice presentation.
Fruits are an important complement to the cheese, but often people don’t think about the addition of jellied fruits or spreads. For non-meat eaters who never get to use that distinctive lime jelly, assuming it is only appropriate for lamb, here’s your chance.
While there is debate as to whether an olive is a fruit or a vegetable, don’t forget to include olives for a nice touch. Breads should either be crusty, locally-baked types or deli squares such as pumpernickel or rye.
How do you know if a bread qualifies? If a bread would be tasty with just butter or oil if that was all you had to eat, it qualifies.
One last thought about beverages. Folks always want to know what they can bring. If you are having numerous guests, suggest BYOB. Even if you aren’t having a large crowd, it is permissible.
The suggestion to “bring wine” is often appreciated by guests because it takes little preparation and affords easy decision-making. Being able to contribute something simple can also make your guests feel the atmosphere is more relaxed.
Note, when serving alcohol, be considerate of your guests. Keep an eye out for a bit of unaccustomed over-drinking, and provide appropriate alternatives and hydration options. See this One Trick to avoid Dehydration from Caffeine or Alcohol.
The Secret Ingredient
To spice things up a bit, we can add just that – a prepared combination of spices and nuts. Served with bread and olive oil, this product is addicting in its flavor. The suggested mixed creation is known as Dukkah.
It is an aromatic Egyptian blend of various nuts and spices for numerous uses, but most often presented as a dip. It’s not exactly used like a chips-and-dip bowl. Instead, it’s displayed with a container for dipping bread in oil and another for the mix, or using a small spoon to sprinkle spice on bread after dipping it in oil.
If you have enough little spoons and tiny condiment bowls for everyone, placing them at each plate is another touch of elegance.
The difficult part is that there is quite an array of Dukkah varieties and they are not all created equal, although each one I have tried provided some level of zing. The one ingredient that is always present, usually not overwhelming and often barely discernable, is sesame.
Spice-wise, coriander is a traditional mainstay. None of the brands I have tested so far have been premium priced products. I suspect there could be distinct blends even more sensational.
Here are 3 brands of Dukkah (pronounced doo-kah), in order of my preference.
- Trader Joe’s. Sadly like much TJ merchandise, it may have been discontinued and it seems impossible to discern who their supplier was. Its main ingredients were almonds with seeds of sesame, fennel, coriander and anise. So far this TJ product, which they nick-named “King Dipuncommon,” was my favorite, and I hope that they bring it back.
- Dukkah from Henry Langdon (Australian merchant since 1852). The main nut source for this brand is hazelnut along with sesame and undisclosed spices. Dukkah generally includes sea salt as well, but typically low or last on the list, as with this product.
- Cliff Family Kitchen (from Napa Valley) made primarily with toasted sesame, pistachio and other tree nuts, along with spices, black pepper and salt. To me this one is more mild than the other two.
One clarification note. Dukkah is not the same as “Ras El Hanout.” Although they are often seen or sold together since they are from the same region, the Moroccan Ras El Hanout is a blend of spices only. It is almost always proprietary (as is Dukkah).
There are product claims of up to 100 spices (which I rather doubt) of the best quality a particular shop has to offer. Ras El Hanout is used as a rub for meats, fish or in rice and couscous, but not as a dipping condiment. It contains no nuts, which is a principle ingredient of Dukkah.
As an alternative approach, I tried making my own Dukkah. My quantities (total guesses) are not quite right yet, since I have only attempted it twice.
My recipe? On my first attempt, I used ½ cup almonds, 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp anise, 1 hearty tsp sea salt. I blended them in my food processor by pulsing the mixture, although I think a coffee grinder might produce a bit finer grade.
Yet, you don’t want it looking like nut “dust.” I had no hazelnuts, pistachios or fennel and may have overdone the anise and salt (I prefer coarse kosher salt.) But admittedly, it wasn’t bad.
On my second attempt, I added the fennel, reduced salt just a tad, included a ½ tsp of coarse pepper and added two tablespoons of sunflower seeds. To my taste, it was a bit more interesting. A little experimenting on your own might create a decent dish at a terrific price.
If you have success with this on your own, please post your recipe in the comments. I’d love to hear bout your creation!
Uses for Dukkah
Dukkah products are meant to be dipped, but they can be used in other surprising ways. For example, it can be a crunchy coating for frying, baking or grilling chicken, pork or fish – and I can affirm that it is also good with tofu, but harder to prepare.
Other folks have suggested it for topping salad, pizza, sandwiches or pasta. One last suggestion – although there are probably heaps more – is to use it as an ingredient of salad dressing.
While Dukkah is available in large quantities for those whose cultural dishes are accustomed to it; generally it is sold in small jars (i.e. 3 ounces or so). The good news is that one such jar divided in tiny dipping bowls will serve a whole party of 6-8 people. My recipe made more than 3 ounces.
Two small warnings.
- Make sure you alert guests to the ingredients due to the common nut allergies that abound today.
- Keep it in a cool dry place after opening it and don’t let it sit on your shelf for a year. The nut oils can cause it to go rancid (or at least smell bad). Perhaps refrigeration would help that, but I suspect the coldness would decrease the taste. Just use it after you open the jar; it will last for a couple months easily.
So throw that inexpensive, but elegant “do” and enjoy having more fun with your friends. I didn’t even mention the benefit of quick and easy preparation time and being able to fully engage with guests versus being isolated in the kitchen, cooking and timing multiple courses.
Dukkah may be a secret to throwing an amazing and inexpensive dinner, but, friendship is still the most important ingredient.
I can’t wait to try another brand, or hear from others who have previously sampled Dukkah about their favorites.
Do you have another secret ingredient or tip for an inexpensive get-together? And, since it is a secret, are you willing to share it? Please join the conversation below.