Blackfish & Savona Chefs in today’s Daily News

Posted on Thursday, April 2, 2009

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Cooking up holiday value: How to save on Easter & Passover feasts

APRIL HAS arrived, and with it Easter and Passover, two holidays where the big focus is food – from braised brisket to spiral ham, rack of lamb to matzo ball soup.

With families crunching their budgets and food prices on the rise in supermarkets this year, we sought out experts’ tricks and tips to make the traditional Easter dinner and Passover seder more cost-effective – without compromising quality.

Substitute cheaper cuts of meat for pricey traditional cuts.

Chefs know how to get creative when it comes to taking a so-so piece of meat and making it taste amazing at home. At Savona restaurant in Gulph Mills, chef Andrew Masciangelo suggests buying lamb shank ($5 a pound) instead of rack of lamb ($15 a pound, on average), then braising it slowly for a few hours to achieve the same tenderness.

Le Castagne executive chef Brian Wilson suggests the same. He recently won the Philly Cooks competition’s Dish of the Year category with his take on slow-braised lamb shank with wild mushrooms.

“It’s very inexpensive but obviously impressive,” said Wilson.

If ham always wins out over lamb in your family, there are ways to cut back there, too.

Spiral hams at local stores can be upward of $50 to serve 18 to 20 people. If that’s what you were planning to spend on your whole Easter dinner, you’re in trouble. Instead, buy a no-water-added ham from the grocery store, chefs say. They’re about $5 to $7 a pound, and because there is no water added, there will be no shrinkage.

“You will get a higher yield,” said Masciangelo. “So it may cost more per pound [than a water-added ham], but it will stay the same size . . . And if you buy a bone-in ham, you can make soup with it the next day.”

Anna Florio, owner of La Cucina at the Market, a demo kitchen and cooking school in Reading Terminal Market, also prefers no-water hams, which “allow for less waste and . . . [don’t] contain as much injected water as the alternative. That water, added for flavor and moisture, also makes a heavier ham, though not necessarily more meat.”

If you feel like going nontraditional to save money, Blackfish Grill owner and executive chef Chip Roman suggests buying a small piece of ham, then cubing it and adding it to a “special Easter mac and cheese.”

While the traditional Passover brisket – cut from the breast or lower chest – is not an expensive cut of meat, there’s still room to save on side dishes. Some chefs suggested throwing the brisket and inexpensive veggies such as carrots and potatoes into a crock pot for a one-dish Passover meal.

If you’re sick of ham and lamb, start a new meat tradition and save even more money, experts suggest.

Have a turkey breast or try pork loin, which can be cheaper than ham and can go a long way. Butterball Turkey Talk-Line guru Mary Klingman makes an Easter turkey, carves it up and drops the carcass into a soup pot at the same time, so she has soup the following day.

Get smart when it comes to what and how much you make.

Ask guests to bring the side dishes – or wine, since alcohol can double a meal’s budget, said Roman.

Instead of a traditional Easter dinner, try a sneaky, money-saving alternative: Easter brunch, suggested Roman. Make an easy quiche “using leftover veggies and cheese you have in the fridge,” said Roman. You can even add ham to satisfy Easter die-hards.

If you are determined to make the traditional dinner, serve a four-course meal – soup, salad, entree, dessert – but instead of putting everything out on the table, pre-plate dishes in the kitchen and wait 15 minutes between each course, said Klingman.

“Spread the meal out where everyone is sitting around. For one thing, you won’t have to make as much – people will fill up faster.”

Check your pantry.

“Utilize ingredients you already have,” said Masciangelo. “Especially for desserts. Make a bread pudding out of stale bread, or use bananas or apple sauce to make a cake.”

Really simplify dessert by creating a unique tablescape of candy, said Tom Block, owner of Naked Chocolate Café in Center City. He suggests arranging chocolate bunnies and bowls of jelly beans in the center of the table. For Passover, dip matzo crackers in chocolate.

“Chocolates are an affordable and decadent luxury,” said Block. “For just a few dollars, you can really make a statement.”

Homemade cupcakes are a fun, inexpensive alternative to pies or cakes from a local bakery. A few dollars gets you cake mix, icing and sprinkles.

“Simple colored cupcakes make a beautiful, vibrant statement,” said Block, who sells them at the cafe. “We suggest a mix-and-match dozen to create a rainbow of pastels. The dessert can do double duty as decor” on the table.

Be smart about planning from the start.

A little planning can save a lot of money.

First and foremost – and we heard this tip from almost every expert we spoke to – buy local and seasonal produce.

This means looking in the store for inexpensive fruits and veggies and being prepared to substitute them into a recipe that might call for something that’s out of season and therefore more expensive, said Whole Foods’ Barry Hirsch, who develops the chain’s bimonthly newsletter, The Whole Deal.

Veggies that are always seasonal and cheap this time of year? Asparagus, watercress, new potatoes, beets and carrots.

It goes without saying that waiting until the last minute to food shop is a big no-no if you’re trying to cut costs. Look in circulars now for sales on bulk items like butter (easy to freeze) and flour.

Never be afraid to use coupons. Also, try to find grocery stores that offer deals for free hams or turkeys.

And always, always, chefs say, avoid prepared foods.

“If you spend the extra time, you can certainly save money,” said Florio.

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