Like many families before the current depression began, we would often dine out to celebrate occasions both big and small. If it was someone's birthday, we would go out. If I got a consulting job, we would go out to celebrate. Heck, just our monthly pay days were often reason to celebrate. The bill was almost never less than £40 for dinner for two and a bottle of wine. If we brought the children, then the bill would be between £75 and £100. But like many other families since this whole economic downturn really began in October of last year, eating out is one luxury that has virtually disappeared from our lifestyle.
So this week, when I received a large payment for consulting work that I had done some time ago, my first thought was...let's celebrate. But I immediately realised that the traditional going out to eat was not in keeping with the Frugal Family values (at least not for something as inconsequential as getting paid money I was owed...if we won the Lottery, maybe). Instead I began to plot and scheme for something that could make me and my family feel just as special...and keep with our core values.
Family first. Any mother of a three year-old will tell you that dining out is a challenge. This option actually proved much more pleasurable because we were not worrying about shovelling our food into our mouths before Emily reached her tolerance level...or taking turns eating while the other entertained her. She played wonderfully in the comfort and familiarity of her own home while I prepared the meal...rather than trying in vain to keep her occupied with crayons and a colouring page. And anything she dropped on the floor was no big deal. If she was a little loud, she only entertained us with her conversation...not a restaurant full of strangers. Overall...for family first this experience was five stars.
Saving money. Like I said, the bare minimum we would have left the restaurant for was £40 for just me and hubby. This meal cost us £20 and fed the whole family...£5/person.
Environmentally friendly. This first thing that comes to mind on this count was the water glasses. There has been a furore for some time about bottled water served by hotels and restaurants. I served filtered tape water.
Healthy. It was a celebration so the meal was not the healthiest...steak, but by cooking it at home I know exactly how much salt and sugar were added to the meal rather than trying to read some pretty little symbols off a menu...assuming the restaurant even bothers to highlight healthy options.
In the end, I asked my husband and eighteen year old son to rate the experience from one to five. One would be fast food...and five being Gordon Ramsey or Wolfgang Puck. Both gave the evening a four, but my husband's ranking changed to five when he learned I had done it all on a fiver.
So would you like to hear about this celebration meal? It was rather American actually...steak and baked potatoes. A great deal of effort in making it seem more celebratory went into the presentation. I set the tables, including flowers and candles. Of course, in keeping with family first...Emily's place consisted of her Mr Men plates, bowls and cups; something Gordon and Wolfgang would not have thought to include.
The first course was a simple Greek style salad. It took about ten minutes to cut the vegetables and mix. I did this earlier in the day so that the flavours of the cheese, oil and vinegar would set. Here is the basic recipe:
Combine cut or torn Romaine lettuce, a little will do for this one, with sliced sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and onion. Then sprinkle with Feta cheese. The dressing is simple and fairly healthy: olive oil and Balsamic vinegarette. My family don't like them, but olives are wonderful additions to this simple and colourful feast. Remembering that the more colour of the rainbow you include the healthier it is; this dish had purple onion; green lettuce, peppers and cucumbers, yellow and red peppers. Only blue and orange were missing...and I made up for the blue with dessert.
The main course was steak, fresh from our butcher, and baked potatoes (called jacket potatoes here in the UK) with sautéed mushrooms and onions. I once heard someone say...a good steak requires no seasoning and I have come to believe that. So for these I only salted, very lightly. I then sealed in the juices by browning them on a high heat. The pan should be so hot that you hear the steaks sizzle when they heat it. One way of telling if the pan is ready is to hold your hand about an inch above it; you should not be able to tolerate the heat for long. Another way is to place a single drop of water in the centre of the pan; it should dance round and quickly disappear. Brown the steaks on both sides and then places in a baking dish to finish off in the oven or grill. I used lower heat to keep the meat juicy and tender. How long you cook will depend upon your taste in meat. A truly rare enthusiast may like their steak straight from the pan. My family all prefer well done...so it took almost half an hour on the medium-low setting (5 or 200 in the UK and approximately 250 to 300 in the US).
I had already put my potatoes in to cook about half an hour earlier because they were huge and I knew they would take much longer to bake. The topping was easy...about ten minutes to prepare and cook. I actually waited until moments before I expected my husband home to do this one. I simply tossed a cup of sliced mushrooms and half of a large onion into the same skillet I had used to brown my steaks...without washing it. The mushrooms and onions then absorbed some of the flavour of the meat as well. I topped the steak and potato with this mixture; although my son preferred the traditional cheese and sour cream for his jacket potato.
Finally, dessert. I kept this one simple actually. There was a bit of my son's chocolate birthday cake left over. I sprinkled this and bits of chocolate bar on a dessert dish and microwaved for 30 seconds. Then I topped with chocolate ice cream and fresh blueberries and strawberries. In complete honesty, it looked better than it tasted. But then again that happens in the best of restaurants too; even Gordon and Wolfgang have flops.
So this weekend if you are in the mood to celebrate, I encourage you to get creative and see how special an evening you make for your family on how little money.