Break into the Pantry and Skip the Turkey: How to Host a Christmas Lunch on a Budget | Christmas food and drink

sPerhaps you’ve offered to host Christmas brunch and are now living in a world of regrets, or you’ve simply cut the straw short between your family and friends. You might be looking at your dwindling bank balance, depleted by pre-Christmas spending and the well-documented cost-of-living crisis. But December 25th is just around the corner and whether we like it or not, hungry guests are destined to appear at your door in a matter of days.

However, Christmas lunch doesn’t have to be an elaborate and expensive exercise. We asked some hospitality industry experts—Alex Elliott-Howery, co-owner of Cornersmith and co-author of The Food Saver’s AZ; Travis Harvey, Executive Chef at OzHarvest, and Sean Christie-David of social enterprise restaurant Colombo Social—for tips on hosting a Christmas meal on a budget.

Table setting: Choose op stores

If you need to pack cutlery, crockery and linen, a visit to your local op-shop is in order. Photo: Anna Bogosh/Alamy

Charity stores are your go-to for setting the Christmas table, says Elliott Horry. In addition to encountering vintage linen, you’ll also find plenty of additional cutlery to increase your home collection. “Shops are also great for extra plates, mugs, and cutlery—mix and match for an eclectic style.”

For table decorating, she recommends looking in your own garden, or foraging in your neighborhood, for native foliage. (Check your local council’s rules about foraging in public places and nature slides.)

“We use gum leaves, garvelia, lemon myrtle, whatever grows in the garden,” she says. “If we’re feeling more festive, we dry orange slices and long red peppers to decorate our Christmas tree or table.”

Appetizers: break into the pantry

Tom Hunt's Spiced Nuts Recipe.
Break into the pantry for a surplus of nuts and turn them into this delicious snack from Tom Hunt. Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian

Bite-size snacks on a shoestring budget? It’s possible. If you have an excess of nuts in the pantry, they can easily be turned into a delicious snack, says Harvey. Roast them in the oven, then while they’re still hot, toss them in light soy sauce and your favorite ground spices and serve with pre-meal drinks. Or follow Tom Hunt’s recipe for spiced nuts.

As for biscuits, there’s no need to give up on expensive brands, he says. Yesterday’s bread is tomorrow’s toast. “[Drizzle] Drizzle with olive oil and salt and grill until golden, serve with homemade dip or cheese, or in salads to add some crunch. Lebanese bread is great for this.”

If your pantry has biscuits that aren’t quite fresh, try Eliot Horry’s “Resurrection Recipe.” Place on a baking sheet, brush with a little melted butter and sprinkle with brown sugar, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes or until crunchy – the cookies will get a new life.

Leftover roasted vegetables can also be made into simple sauces, she says. Roasted bell peppers or carrots are excellent mixed with nuts, spices and lots of garlic. And instead of expensive cheese, Elliot Horry suggests making your own labneh.

“Start the day before with a big tub of Greek yogurt, a pinch of salt and whatever herbs you like. Pour the mixture into a colander lined with clean muslin or Chux cloth, cover and refrigerate until set overnight.

To serve, spread out [the labne] Flat on a plate, drizzle generously with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs and serve with Turkish bread and homemade pickles.”

Main Event: Miss Turkey

Thomasina Myers' recipe for Grilled Chicken with Garlic Butter and Black Olives
Chicken or fish? Either one could be more affordable options than a Christmas turkey. Thomasina Miers’ Grilled Chicken with Garlic Butter and Black Olives may be simple, but it gives off lovely flavor. Photo: Yuki Sugiura/The Guardian

“Remember to cook seasonal Australian produce and think carefully about traditions that may come from Christmas in other parts of the world,” says Harvey. “Chicken can stand in for turkey any day and it’s faster and easier to cook.”

Kristi David suggests looking for cheaper cuts of meat and slow-cooking them overnight to “reduce game-day stress.”

Elliott Horry suggests roasting or grilling a whole fish. “They look great…and they feed the crowd.” If you need a veggie showcase for mains, “Whole roasted butternut squash, cut hasselback style and glazed with miso powder and mustard, is super tasty and super cheap too.”

Aspects: Keep it simple

Meera Sudha's recipe for ratatouille.
Zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers and tomatoes are all reasonably priced this time of year and that means Christmas ratatouille. This recipe from Meera Sodha comes with crumbled coconut and almonds. Photo: Yuki Sugiura/The Guardian

When it comes to salads, keep things simple and affordable with a “one-ingredient salad,” says Elliott Horry. “Choose what’s in season—the best way to see what’s on the front of the grocery store or supermarket. It’s cheap because there are so many of them. If it’s a tomato, that’s what’s on the Christmas table.”

If you’re lucky enough to own a garden of green leaves and exotic dandelions, “make a bittersweet leaf salad with roasted peach slices, toasted pepita seeds, and a simple dressing.”

For a colorful vegetable side, put summer ratatouille on your Christmas menu, she says. Zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, and tomatoes can be bought in seconds or imperfect selections, at low prices, at markets or at select grocers. “All of these veggies are so cheap around Christmas and [the ratatouille] It can be served hot or cold.”

And don’t forget the humble but beloved potato salad, says Kristi David.

“At home, we add hot sauce, high-quality mayonnaise, and some curry powder to make the best potato salad. Cost-effective, filling and [it] It only takes 10 minutes. “

Drinks: There is skin in the game

Pineapple slices and pineapple skins on a wooden cutting board.
Don’t throw away the pineapple peel – it can be made into a refreshing fizzy soda. Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian

If your house runs through a lot of citrus and ginger, don’t throw away the peels, says Harvey—they can be made into a grub (fruit syrup and vinegar) for mocktails and cocktails and to add to sparkling water.

Keep all the ginger peels and the squeezed citrus halves in the freezer until you have a good four cups. Thaw and add two cups [of] sugar and three cups [of] Apple cider vinegar. Let it sit for a week, then strain. Use a tablespoon or more as desired for chilled drinks. Store in the refrigerator and use within three months.

As for pineapple skins, Elliott Horry turns the spiky peel into a pineapple peel soda or teapatch.

Dessert: the rice is nice and cheap too

Two white bowls of rice pudding with plum sauce.
Nigel Slater’s Rice Pudding comes with a dark plum sauce. Photography: Jonathan Lufkin

For a festive end to your meal, make a Christmas-flavored ice cream, says Elliott Horry.

Take slightly diluted vanilla ice cream and stir it in with any of it [half-finished] Refrigerate jars of jam for an instant ripple. Add dried fruits, chopped nuts or chocolate buttons, and a drizzle of whatever spirit you have on hand. Refreeze and serve.”

Store-bought meringues are the basis for an Eton mess, Harvey says, with “sweetened whipped cream, seasonal fruit and bought-in cookies for crunch.”

He also suggests chilled rice pudding, which can be made “vegetarian” with coconut milk. “It costs almost nothing, is easy to prepare and goes with any fruit on hand.” Nigel Slater’s rice pudding, for example, is topped with a dark plum sauce.

Leftovers: Hang on to that sparkling wine

Three bowls of poached apricot halves with almond cream on a pink tablecloth.
Ravneet Gill’s recipe for Poached Apricots with Almond Cream. Image: The Guardian

There is more to leftover ham than just sandwiches. Enter: Christy David’s ham. “Saute the onions until they caramelize, then add the crushed garlic. Add the leftover pork, chili powder, bell pepper cubes, chili sauce, and a little bit of tomato sauce.”

If whole fish is on your Christmas menu, keep the bones and head to make stock, says Elliot Horry. “Homemade fish stock makes an impressive paella, which we often make on New Year’s Eve.”

If, for some reason, you have half-finished bottles of sparkling wine (Australian, of course), don’t let it go to waste, she says. Use them to poach cherries and apricots for a sweet and lively start to your Boxing Day brunch.

And the biggest budget hack ever

Hosting Christmas on December 27th. Yuletide food and paraphernalia goes on sale on Boxing Day, so it’s time to stock up on bacon, panettones, fruit pies, and boxes of favorites. It’s Christmas, fashionably belated and budget-friendly.

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