The $12 Fancy Dinner

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We are back to not eating out. Again. A few of our go-to restaurants still offer out door dining but the numbers of COVID-19 are rising; more and more people are contracting the virus and dying so we have decided it is either take out or eating at home. Given that my partner really likes eating out, I thought a very fancy dinner challenge was in order. It had to be something lux, high end but also frugal.

That’s how I came up with the $12 fancy dinner. My aim was that in a high-end restaurant it had to cost triple that and it had to be something my partner wasn’t used to eating on a weekly basis. In short, a fancy dinner.

I decided to go back to my vaguely Italian roots and seek out inspiration with Italian Nonas, the most frugal of them all. Italian grandmothers are the original Mistresses of Frugal and we can learn a lot from them.

One of the things those Nonas do so well is take a really tough cut of beef and turn it into something spectacular. Enter Osso Bucco which is essentially  a meal of veal or beef shanks braised in wine and vegetables. Since veal shanks are hard to come by, I went with beef shanks which I had already bought for about $10 at my partner’s high end grocery store specializing in the best meats around. I decided to serve it over, what else? Polenta. Polenta is simply a boiled savory pudding made out of corn meal and the basis of many Italian dishes. It is also dirt cheap, costing mere pennies. Finally, such a savory and somewhat heavy entrée called for a light and refreshing side dish. In the winter I would have opted for a shredded carrot and celery leaf salad dressed in a bright lemon vinaigrette. As this is summer, I instead took advantage of my summer garden which is in full swing, and made a salad of sliced beefsteak tomatoes and crisp cucumbers topped with feta cheese and basil and oregano straight from the garden. Dressed lightly with a balsamic and olive oil dressing and topped with loads of freshly cracked pepper, it was the perfect foil for the unctuous and savory beef shanks.

The recipe is easy enough and takes advantage of another one of my go-to frugal kitchen tools, the humble slow cooker. You simply prep the beef shanks, place everything in the slow cooker and let it simmer all day. That’s it. I calculate that the meal actually costs around $11 but if you have to buy salad ingredients, bump up the cost to $12. In a high-end Italian restaurant, this meal would easily cost triple that making it a special meal indeed.

beef shanks2

Osso Bucco


3 or 4 beef shanks

1 cup good red wine

1/2 onion thinly sliced

1 large carrot, thinly sliced

1/2 cup chicken or beef stock

1/3 cup ketchup

1/2 cup tomato or pasta sauce

Flour, sale, pepper and olive oil

1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with two tablespoons of cold water



Dredge the beef shanks in flour which has been flavored in salt and pepper. Heat a skillet (cast iron is best) until screaming hot. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. If you have a little chicken fat, add that in as well. Brown the beef shanks until they have a really good crust.

While the beef shanks are browning, mix the remaining ingredients in a slow cooker. Add the browned beef shanks and cook on low for eight hours until the beef shanks are falling apart tender.

Take the juices and place them in a pot on the stove until boiling. Mix in the cornstarch mixture and whisk until thickened.

Serve the beef shanks over polenta and drizzle over the gravy. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers simply take the leftover gravy and shanks and gently warm them in the slow cooker for a few hours.

Nona’s Polenta

4 and 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 cup yellow corn meal/polenta

1/2 cup sour cream or mascarpone

1/4 heavy cream if needed

3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Salt and pepper


Boil the chicken stock and slowly whisk in the polenta. Non-quick cooking will take upwards of 30 minutes to thicken properly so keep the heat on medium. Once thickened up, add in the cream(s), salt and pepper to taste and cheese. Stir well, the polenta should not be too thick so add in heavy cream as needed. It should be the consistency of thick soup, not pudding. Serve hot and top with a pat of butter or another drizzle of olive oil

Leftover polenta can be cooled, cut into squares and fried for a wonderful appetizer treat. Serve this with leftover pasta sauce. Both frugal and delicious.












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