If you're looking to impress your guests with a feast that you whipped up yourself, try one of these five easy ideas, which will serve six people for $20 (or less if you've got a well-stocked pantry). Don't worry, no one will know how little you spent so don't feel bad about telling them to bring the wine and dessert.
Arepas are South American corn cakes that are commonly stuffed with cheese, shredded chicken, beans, or vegetables. The dough is simply made from arepa flour, salt, and water, so they are incredibly cheap to make. You can find arepa flour (sometimes labeled harina precocida or masarepa) in the international aisle of your grocery store, at Latin supermarkets, or online here. You can get as creative as you want with these little pockets of goodness. Leftover rotisserie chicken works nicely, or you could do a vegetarian version with canned black beans, shredded cheese, and avocado.
If you take a good look in your pantry, you probably have everything you need to make some homemade pizza dough. All it takes is olive oil, flour, and some yeast. As far as toppings go, you can spend as little or as much as you want but you can't go wrong with a classic Margherita. All you need is mozzarella, basil, garlic, and canned tomatoes to get this simple pie together.
Homemade corn tortillas are a breeze to make, with only 2 real ingredients. With one bag of masa (corn tortilla mix) you can make several more tortillas than you could buy in a package at the store. Buy as many fillings as you can afford, but we're a fan of chicken thighs, which are cheaper than breasts and more flavorful since they have more fat. Slice half an onion very thinly and soak the slices in red-wine vingegar while you cook the chicken for some quick-pickles. Dice up the other half and combine with chopped tomatoes, a jalapeño, and cilantro for a quick salsa.
Have you guys ever seen or been to an Italian polenta party? Let me paint the scene for you. A bunch of polenta gets dramatically poured on the table (or a polenta board), topped with assorted meats, cheeses, or vegetables, and guests kind of just go out it with their forks. This got us thinking about how cheap and versatile polenta can be for entertaining because all you need is salt and water to cook it. You could add your favorite cheese and herbs if you have any lying around. For the toppings we like sautéed mushrooms and greens. You don't have to make a mess on your table or invest in a polenta board either. Any combination of serving platters will do.
When does breakfast for dinner not sound appealing? Everyone knows you can make a big frittata for very little money but why not indulge by creating a customizable pancake bar. Whip up your favorite no-fail recipe, buy a couple seasonal fruits, and tell your friends to bring their favorite pancake toppings.