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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Frugal, Fast, and Fun for Fourteen Friends

Take eight children, ages six and under, and add six adults. Stir in a schedule that keeps the hostess away from her home for about 6 hours the day of the meal, bringing her home only an hour before the first guests arrive. Blend well with a lot of fun and informality and you have the makings of an altogether wonderful evening.

Really.

Sure, we are by now comfortable with this informality because we eat together about every two weeks. Still, I do like to think that every meal should reflect warm hospitality, but an especially busy week made last Wednesday's dinner a little more challenging than usual.

The hardest part was deciding what to serve. I provide the main dish while others bring the rest of the meal.. This week, that would include a special first birthday cake for the youngest in our group. So how could I balance such a special ending with something simple and yet not too unhealthy?

Looking in the freezer, I decided on hot dogs on buns with a crockpot of baked beans. Along with the birthday cake, there was also a wonderful spinach salad and lots of sliced oranges. While I often make my beans from scratch, the week was so hectic that I used canned beans as the base. The turkey hot dogs were put in a 7 X 11 cake pan in the oven at 350 degrees, long enough to "grill" them; I then turned the heat down to 200 to stay warm until ready to serve. There were buns, ketchup, three kinds of mustard, two kinds of relish, and chopped onions to include most favorite toppings. (I know, no sauerkraut; I always forget that since it something I really don't care about. Maybe next time I'll remember.)

The food seemed rather like a picnic, even if the weather outside is still way too cold to think in those terms, so I pulled out my bright and orange plastic plates and put them on my sand-colored tablecloth to help us think warmer thoughts. The beans and franks were served buffet-style from the counter, while the salad and oranges sat on the table along with a fat candle lit for the occasion.

The end result was a lot of satisfied eaters and conversation—with the kids playing peacefully at our feet—until almost 9 pm. Gratifying too was the fact that the kids had chosen large servings of the healthier parts of the meal and there didn't even have to be any "no dessert until you finish your food" comments. In fact, six-year-old Sam proudly stacked up twenty-seven pieces of orange rind to reflect how much he had eaten of his favorite part of the meal.

Frugal? I had purchased the hot dogs and beans on sale over time and tucked them away on the pantry shelf and in the freezer. The hot dogs were lower fat turkey dogs so not as inexpensive as some brands might have been, but the sale prices meant that the three packages cost well less than $4. The total cost of the beans—which served us all with almost a quart left over—was also under $4. I bought the whole wheat buns at the bread surplus store for a total of $3 and still have one package left. The beautiful cake was made from a mix also purchased on sale for less than $1, with a basic cream cheese and powdered sugar icing, so it may have cost less than $3. We ate a four-pound bag of oranges that were featured this week for $2.50, and the salad was probably around $3 to $4. Even at the higher cost for the salad, the total food for 14, with a few pieces of cake and a lot of beans and buns left over, came to well below $20.

Fast and Fun? Sara says the salad was "really easy" to put together, the oranges were sliced while we put the rest of the food out, and the beans and hot dogs couldn't have been easier. The cake was probably the most labor intensive, but Michelle used this as an opportunity to teach one of the middle-schoolers in our church about cake decorating, so it sounds like the time they put into it was a lot of fun.

Healthy? Whole wheat buns, pinto beans added to reduce some of the overly sweet sauce in the canned variety, reduced fat hot dogs, salad and oranges on the side to balance the not quite so healthy finale, and milk for all the kids. Maybe not your perfect nuts and granola meal but still a lot of good nutrition overall.

NOTE: Everyone was aware of the potential choking hazard of hot dogs for small children, but we were careful to cut up these for the youngest among us, and none of the children was allowed to walk around with their food. When serving this meal to those under four, you really do need to exercise extra caution and watchfulness.


Quick Beans in a Pot
Serves 12 to 16
2 28 to 30 oz baked beans, any style (NOT "pork and beans")
1 29 to 32 oz can pinto beans, drained
1 to 2 15 oz cans pork and beans, drained (optional)
1/2 medium onion, chopped—about 1 cup
1/2 finely diced green pepper (optional)
Barbecue sauce to taste (optional)
Yellow mustard to taste (optional)
Dash of balsamic or cider vinegar (optional)

Open beans and put in a slow cooker. Add onion and green pepper if used. Turn to high for 2 to 3 hours (or low for up to six hours). Taste after a few hours of cooking and add barbecue sauce, vinegar, and/or mustard if desired. It is likely the beans may have more sauce than home-baked beans, so serve with a slotted spoon.

I used two different kinds of the local store brand baked beans—maple bacon and vegetarian—and found the combination to be especially good. I would not include the pork and beans next time; I tossed them in only because I wanted to be sure I had enough for everyone, but I don't think they add much more than sweetness to the overall mix.




Orange Smiles

Okay, so this isn't so much a recipe as a method. The point is that, where children are concerned, presentation can often be everything.

Oranges, preferably navel or other seedless variety

1. Wash the oranges and dry. Using a sharp knife, cut each orange in half from the stem end to the navel.
2. Lay the half orange face down on a cutting board and slice into quite thin half circles.
3. Arrange the oranges on a plate or on the cutting board—this is a good "helper task" for beginning cooks, as the end result can look quite festive.

Be prepared to serve lots of these orange smiles, allowing at least half an orange per person unless you have other fruits alongside.

CAUTION: This is a casual meal food, as you should allow—and expect—everyone to eat the smiles with their fingers. At a more formal dinner, the peeling should be cut off with a knife and then the orange can be eaten with a fork, but these are a lot more fun the casual way!

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