The Frugal Foodie: Derek Brown and Brendan Cox

A sluggish economy doesn’t have to mean a dreary holiday season. Brendan Cox, chef at DC Coast, and cocktail master Derek Brown of the Gibson, offer something to say “cheers” about: a cocktail party for ten for less than $75.

Photographs by Kelly DiNardo

Time, as the saying goes, is money, which may be why Brendan Cox and Derek Brown are zipping through the grocery store. They’re not speeding, rushing, or giving off that harried vibe that most shoppers exude this time of year, but they’re not dawdling. Their challenge: Pull together a cocktail party for ten for less than $75.

Goat cheese? Too expensive. Cox nixes a dish from his menu.

Ginger ale with real sugar cane? Too much. Brown decides to make his own.

A baguette? Doesn’t fit the budget. Cox opts to make his own crostada instead.

It turns out, when you’re tight on money, spending a little extra time in the kitchen making things from scratch stretches the budget.

A Harris Teeter VIC card helps, too.

Brown needs $20 for the liquor store, so the two can spend only $55 on food and mixers. At the checkout counter, the bill comes to $54. I fork over my Harris Teeter VIC card, and the total drops to a little more than $44. Cox lights up with excitement and dashes through the store grabbing chives and a package of smoked Gouda, bringing the total to $52.63.

At the liquor store, Brown snags a bottle of Laird’s applejack for less than $20 and, with the last $3 burning a hole in his pocket, grabs two Budweiser tall boys. In my kitchen, Brown pops open a beer and Cox requests olive oil, mixing bowls, and some music. As Bruce Springsteen rocks, Brown stirs up his own ginger ale, makes homemade grenadine, and squeezes fresh orange juice. I toss on Tina Turner, and Cox encrusts a bunch of beets in salt, peels potatoes for latkes, and mixes up a gougères batter. We switch to Stevie Wonder, and Brown garnishes the applejack punch, then turns to help Cox with the last few dishes.

The music keeps going as several of my food-and-cocktail-loving friends arrive, including Daily Candy’s Erin Hartigan, Metrocurean’s Amanda McClements, food writer David Hagedorn, and Counter Intelligence blogger Melissa McCart. Would a Frugal Foodie challenge survive their taste test?

The cocktails quickly disappear. And so does the parade of snacks—shrimp with a lime-ginger aïoli; beet tartare; Wiener schnitzel; crostada with apple, cheese, and onion; and salmon tartare. Cox decides that next time he’d trim the menu by one dish and give the extra money to Brown for another cocktail. Together they decide an extra $25 would make for a rip-roaring holiday party, which I interpret as more booze. And then, out of applejack punch and not ready to let the party dwindle, I hand over a bottle of sake to Brown, who whips up more cocktails.

Did the party survive the bon vivant scrutiny? Well, Amanda e-mailed the next morning asking if I could send her the recipes.

You'll find them below—each serve ten. 

Applejack Punch

12½ ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice
4¼ ounces homemade grenadine (recipe below)
1 bottle Laird’s applejack
Ginger ale to taste (recipe below)
Apple slices, cinnamon stick, and star anise for garnish.

Mix first three ingredients together in punch bowl and top with ginger ale to taste. Garnish to taste with apple slices, cinnamon sticks, and star anise. Serve over ice.

Homemade Grenadine

16-ounce bottle of Pom pomegranate juice
2 cups sugar

Mix the pomegranate juice and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes or until the mixture has a syrupy consistency and sticks to a spoon slightly.

Homemade Ginger Ale

2 ¾-inch pieces of fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cardamom
10 ounces sugar
16 ounces water
2 cups club soda

If you have a gas stove, place ginger over a flame and gently burn the skin (if your stove is electric, use the ginger as is). Bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar, and stir until dissolved.
Add the ginger and spices.
Let cool. Strain the mixture three times through a coffee filter or paper towel.
Add one cup of club soda and taste. Continue adding club soda until the mixture reaches the desired level of sweetness.

Salt-Roasted Beet Salad

3 medium beets
3 cups salt
4 egg whites
Zest of 1 orange
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the salt with the egg whites. Cover beets completely with the mixture and roast for two hours. Crack the salt shell and remove. Peel the beets and cut them into small cubes. Mix with remaining ingredients. Serve over toasted rounds of baguette or potato latkes (recipe follows).

Smoked-Gouda Gougères

2 cups water
4 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces all-purpose flour
8 large eggs
8 ounces smoked Gouda, shredded
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Over the stove, bring the water and butter to a boil. Add the flour and a bit of salt, and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Mix in the eggs one at a time until they’re all incorporated into the dough. Stir in the shredded cheese and place dough in a pastry bag (with no tip). Pipe little puffs in a circular motion. Bake for eight minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately.

Potato Latkes

2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 egg
1⁄8 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chives
Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Shape into small patties. Cook in a sauté pan set over medium-high heat until golden and crispy.

Wiener Schnitzel

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 egg
300 grams finely ground bread crumbs
1 lemon
1 small bunch watercress

Cut the chicken into quarters, about ¼ inch thick. Spread them on plastic wrap and lay another sheet of plastic on top. Firmly pound until very thin. Dredge the chicken pieces in egg, then bread crumbs. Cook over medium-high heat and turn after a minute. Once the pieces are flipped, shake and jiggle the pan so the crusts puff up. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon and chopped watercress.

Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp with Ginger-Lime Aïoli

1 pound 21-30 count shrimp, peeled
½ can beer, such as Budweiser
½ cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Coat the shrimp with beer and add the flour (the mixture will be runny). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Immediately cook in a deep sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Cook until the crusts are crispy and golden. Serve with ginger-lime aïoli (recipe follows).

Wild Salmon Tartare

12 ounces wild Alaskan salmon
4 tablespoons minced chives
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons ginger-lime aïoli (recipe follows)
2 teaspoons lime zest

Up to one hour before you want to serve the tartare, cut the salmon into small cubes. Stir in the other ingredients and mix until well distributed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ginger-Lime Aïoli

Juice of 2 limes
1 knob ginger, peeled
6 egg yolks
2 cups canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch cilantro, cut into thin strips

Over a large bowl holding the lime juice, grate the ginger. Stir in the egg yolks. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in cilantro.

Scallion Pancake

1 cup boiling water
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 bunches scallions, sliced and sautéed in a little oil
Salt to taste

Pour the boiling water over the flour and mix well. Stir in the scallions, and season batter to taste. Spoon the batter into a hot skillet over medium heat, and cook on both sides, like breakfast pancakes.

Apple-Onion-and-Cheddar Crostada

1 onion, sliced
2 apples, diced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
1 disk pâte brisée (recipe follows)
1 batch sherry gastrique (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Sauté the onions, apples, and balsamic vinegar together until soft. Add the cheddar and set aside.
Roll out the pâte brisée to 1⁄8-inch thickness, and cut small squares or circles from the dough. Top with onion mixture and bake for 15 minutes. Top with sherry gastrique and serve.

Pâte Brisée

350 grams all-purpose flour
4 grams salt
226 grams butter
½ cup ice water

In a food processor or stand mixer, mix the flour and salt together. Slowly mix in the butter, then slowly add the water. When the dough forms, press it into a disk. Refrigerate for one hour.

Sherry Gastrique

½ cup honey
½ cup good-quality sherry vinegar

Cook the honey over medium heat until it bubbles. Add in the vinegar and reduce by half.

Want more Frugal Foodie challenges and recipes from local chefs? Check out the Frugal Foodie archive.


Under $30 Gift Guide

Foodie Gift Guide

Eco-Friendly Gift Guide

Fashion Gift Guide

Gifts for Geeks: Holiday Wish Lists From Local Techies

Jingle Bell Shopping: Holiday Markets and Craft Bazaars


Send Us Your Holiday Light Photos

Create a Holiday Cocktail Party for $75

Handmade Holiday Classes

Timber!—A Guide to Local Christmas Tree Farms

What to Wear

What to Wear to Holiday Parties

Splurge Vs. Steal: Holiday Party Edition