How to Make a Fancy Dinner Cheap

A few variations on inexpensive foods can create a fancy dinner.

A few variations on inexpensive foods can create a fancy dinner.

Fancy dinners have two main elements -- looks and taste. You don't have to spend a lot to get that high-quality taste, especially when you substitute less expensive basics for the main ingredient -- think chicken for duck. As for the look, a little extra attention to presentation will have a significant other, boss or your mother-in-law oohing and ahing. Best yet, only you will know how inexpensive your fancy dinner really is.

Items you will need

  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • Baguette loaf
  • Seasonal vegetables or mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Shallots
  • Garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • White wine
  • Lemon zest
  • Sour cream
  • Bacon
  • Greens, such as endive or romaine hearts
  • Blue cheese
  • Chicken thighs and quarters
  • Rice, plain and Arborio
  • Cream
  • Seedless watermelon
  • Fresh berries
  • Sugar
  • Whipped cream
  • Favorite spices and herbs
  • Blender or food processor
  • Cooking pots and saute pans
  • Oven-safe cooking dish

Main Course and Sides

Step 1

Chicken thighs and legs can be as rich as a duck confit for a quarter of the price. The secret? Brining. Place a medium size pot on the stove, filled halfway with water and just enough salt so it tastes like sea water. Have fun with the spices in your cabinet, or just go with one bay leaf and three to four whole peppercorns. Boil until salt dissolves, turn off heat, add three to four cups of rice. Cool, then pour over chicken. Let sit overnight or for eight hours. Pat chicken dry, then air dry in refrigerator --- the drier, the better. Melt a little oil and butter in oven-safe pan, lightly season chicken and place skin side down. Brown chicken, being careful not to burn, turn once, then place in 350 degree oven.

Step 2

While chicken is cooking, coat bottom of another pan with oil and a tablespoon of butter. When butter is melted add one diced shallot, coat, then add two cups of Arborio rice to make risotto.Toss rice and shallots, cook until it has a nutty aroma but not enough to brown the rice. Add a ladle of hot chicken stock, and be diligent about stirring consistently. Add more rice as the stock is absorbed, cooking just slightly past al dente. Keep stirring. When you have a creamy texture with just a slight bite, season with salt and add Parmesan if desired.

Step 3

Your chicken should be done by the time the risotto is set.The meat should pull away from the bone and the flesh should have a firm texture.You'll also have a nice pan of chicken fat, so when you remove your chicken, add finely chopped onions or shallots to the pan, a splash of white wine, chicken stock and cream. Reduce the mixture by half. Finish with fresh herbs and you've got a very nice pan sauce or to pour over chicken when ready to serve.

Step 4

For your greens, chop two or three slices of raw bacon into one-half inch pieces. Cook slowly on low to medium heat.Remove the bacon. In the remaining fat, cook thinly sliced red onions until tender. Increase heat slightly then add your whole, greens – try romaine hearts, or endive. Lightly caramelize, toss your bacon back in, add salt and pepper to taste. Put on plate, then finish with a tiny bit of a high-quality blue cheese.

Appetizer and Dessert

Step 1

Slice a baguette on the bias, placing slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toast until golden brown. Saute chopped white onion and garlic until aromatic, then add vegetables -- mushrooms are a good choice --or any other vegetables that are in season. Add salt and pepper to taste, your favorite herb and a dash of white wine. When mixture is soft (but not mushy), pulse in your blender or food processor until spreadable consistency. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Spoon vegetable pate on your toasted baguette, top with sour cream seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon zest, and garnish with herbs.

Step 2

Process flesh of a seedless watermelon in blender or food processor. Let sit overnight. Make a simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water. Boil to dissolve sugar and let simmer for five minutes, let sit overnight to chill. The next day, spoon off the top of watermelon mixture that has separated and discard the rest. Add just enough simple syrup to sweeten, then a pinch of salt and one-half teaspoon of lemon zest.Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Freeze in shallow loaf or cake pan.

Step 3

When watermelon is frozen, lightly coat fresh berries in lemon juice and sugar, let sit for 10 minutes. Place berries in martini glasses, scrape watermelon with fork to create an ice, or granita, over the berries. Finish with sprig of mint or whipped cream.


  • Make all items a day ahead and assemble the day of your event.
  • Use a Ziploc bag with a corner tip cut off to pipe your pate and sour cream onto baguette slices for a more professional look.
  • Give yourself 48 hours to make the watermelon granita.


  • Continuous stirring of the Arborio rice is critical to perfect consistency of risotto.


About the Author

Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.

Photo Credits

  • David Sacks/Lifesize/Getty Images