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Oct 19, 2017

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The $75 Virtual Vittles Party
by Tina Caputo
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol 4.6
d e v i e n t . a v o c a d o s
Wanna have a dinner party but don't have time to plan it? Well, what do you think that computer on your desk is for? Work? Don't be silly! Your computer's there for online shopping! With e-commerce sites springing up faster than weeds on a freshly mowed lawn, you can now buy damn near everything on the Internet, from books to chain saws to booze. (Yes, even groceries!)

With the help of online supermarkets like Webvan and Peapod, you can order everything you need for that dinner party (minus guests), while pretending to finish up that report your boss asked you for an hour ago. Just go online, click on the food items you want and have 'em delivered to your doorstep in time for the party.

Mind you, I wasn't always a crusader for online grocery shopping. When I first spotted the Webvan delivery truck cruising around my neighborhood, my reaction was something like, "Damn SUV-driving, cell-phone-totin' yuppies. Can't even be bothered to do their own grocery shopping!" A couple months after one of my outbursts, a friend gave me a Webvan gift certificate (hmmm, just like smokin' crack -- the first time's always free...) and I was forced to eat my words. Surprisingly, Webvan's prices were about the same as my neighborhood market's, the grub arrived in great condition and delivery was F-R-E-E! Who in their right mind could argue with that? Obviously not I.

To put my new-found love of online shopping to the test, I decided to invite five friends over for a Wine X dinner party experiment. The catch: everything for the dinner had to be purchased on the Internet for less than $75, including food, wine and "ambiance." Could it be done? Would we be washing down freezer-burned Hungry Man TV dinners with tumblers of Mad Dog 20/20? Suckers that they are, my friends were willing to show up and take the risk.

setting the menu

Avoiding the urge to cheat, I decided on a menu before checking to see if Webvan would have all the stuff I'd need to pull it off. For 75 bucks I obviously wasn't going to serve lobster or break out the Cristal. Instead, I went with a mostly vegetarian menu: blood orange, tomato and avocado salad; corn chowder (garnished with broiled prawns for a hint o' luxury); spinach pasta with goat cheese, and Meyer lemon sorbet. (A far cry from Salisbury steak and Tater Tots, if I do say so myself.)

shopping for virtual vittles

It took me about 10 minutes to jot down my shopping list before logging on to Webvan. After that it was just a matter of clicking on the ingredients to add them to my virtual shopping cart.

About halfway through my list, I ran into two problems: no blood oranges or spinach lasagna noodles! I was forced to substitute regular navel oranges and spinach linguine (not as good, but what the hell) and move on. After collecting the rest of my groceries, I remembered the part about "ambiance" and clicked my way into the floral department. There I grabbed a $6.95 bouquet of irises with my trusty mouse and tossed them into my cart. Credit card in hand, I checked out and scheduled the goods to be delivered after work the day before the party.

The entire shopping process took about 40 minutes, which ain't bad considering I did it on my Flintstones-era home computer instead of my super-speedy office machine. (You readin' this, boss?) If I'd physically gone to the store to buy the stuff, it'd probably have taken about an hour and a half (including driving, parking, hunting down my groceries, flirting with the stock boys, eating stray grapes without paying for 'em and reading the Weekly World News while waiting to check out). The online thing was definitely a time saver and my total bill came to just $53.84.

do not forget the virtual vino

Although I could've ordered the wine for my dinner party from Webvan, I was anxious to try out one of those nifty online wine shops everyone's hoppin' up and down about. I perused, and to see which could get me the best hooch for the least amount of cash. Although Wineshopper was offering free shipping, had a better selection of wines for less than 10 bucks. (Music to my miserly ears.) I checked out various reviews and decided to try a couple 1998 white table wines I'd never heard of: Palazzone Dubini Bianco (Italy) and Domaine de Saint-Lannes Cotes de Gascongne Blanc (France). For all I knew they'd taste like utter crapola. But for $19.02 (delivered!), how could I lose?

That brought my dinner party total for groceries, flowers and wine to $72.86 -- a mere $12.14 per person. (For once in my life I was under budget!)

the taste of victory

In spite of my last-minute scrambling, the dinner was a success. We had plenty of food (even for my gluttonous pals) and everyone was suitably impressed with the quality of the chow. Even the wine was good! (So good, in fact, that I'm thinking of ordering a case of the French one.)

See kids? It IS possible to have the makings of a scrumptious six-person feast delivered to your door for less than $75. And with all the time you'll save shopping at your desk, you might even have some left to kick that pile of dirty clothes into the closet before your friends show up.

delivery time

Fearful of UPS delays, I placed my order about 10 days prior to party time. The wines arrived in just 48 hours! In spite of their cheapness, they came in actual glass bottles (as opposed to tapped cardboard boxes) and featured real corks.

Webvan was also impressively punctual. True to their promise, their delivery guy arrived within the half-hour delivery window I selected. However, as the driver unpacked my purchases and set them on the kitchen table, I noticed that the avocados were rock-hard and totally unripe. (Paying for my guests' dental bills after they inevitably snapped off their front teeth biting into one of those suckers was definitely not within my $75 budget.) The driver was nice enough to credit me for the deviant avocados but I still had to pay a visit to an actual store the next day to get some ripe ones. (Gasp!) Other than that minor mishap, the rest of the grub looked great.

some assembly required

Once I had the supplies, all I had to do was put 'em together to somehow resemble dinner. Since I'd foolishly decided to have the party on a Thursday night, this required a little advance prep. To keep myself from going bonkers in the kitchen, I made the corn chowder the night before (it always tastes better when you leave it in the fridge overnight anyway) and threw the rest of the menu together after work the next evening.


Caputo's Corn Chowder

3 medium leeks (white part only), thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 large ears white corn, kernels cut off
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
2 celery ribs, diced
2 large red skin potatoes, washed and cut into 1-inch dice
2 1/2 T olive oil
1 t dried thyme
1 t dried basil
3-4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 dried bay leaf
18 medium shrimp, shelled and de-veined
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a Dutch oven or stock pot heat oil over medium heat. Add leeks and garlic. Sauté until leeks are opaque (about three minutes). Add thyme and basil. Saute one minute. Add corn, jalapenos and celery. Sauté five minutes. Add potatoes, three cups of broth and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (about 15 minutes).

Meanwhile, brush shrimp with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil two minutes on each side or until just cooked through. Set aside.

Remove two cups of the sauteed vegetable mixture (above) and puree in a blender, adding the extra cup of broth if necessary. Stir pureed mixture back into the pot with the remaining sauteed vegetables and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook over low heat another 10 minutes.

Ladle chowder into six bowls. Add three shrimp to each bowl and serve to drooling guests.

Blood Orange, Avocado and Tomato Salad

4 blood oranges (or three large seedless navel oranges), peeled and segmented
1 12-ounce basket cherry tomatoes, halved
3 avocados, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 t red wine vinegar
3 T extra virgin olive oil
Manchego or pecorino cheese shavings
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a food processor, puree two orange segments, four cherry tomato halves, garlic, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Toss oranges, tomatoes and avocados in a shallow bowl with dressing. Top with cheese shavings.

Tossed Spinach Lasagne and Goat Cheese Gratin
(Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

1 lb. fresh spinach pasta
2 cups herb bechamel (see accompanying recipe)
1/2 cup cream
8 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or aged goat cheese
2 T cold butter, thinly shaved
1 T chopped thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Make the bechamel (see recipe below). Add cream and goat cheese to the sauce. Don't worry about lumps of cheese -- they're wonderful to bite into.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a three-quart gratin dish. Parboil pasta one minute in plenty of salted water. Transfer strips to cold water, then drain. Toss pasta with sauce, thyme, pepper and all but two tablespoons of the Parmesan. Pile into the gratin dish and cover with remaining cheese and shaved butter. Bake until bubbling and slightly browned on top (30 to 40 minutes).

Note: This recipe originally calls for homemade pasta dough. I used store-bought "fresh" spinach pasta to save time.

Bechamel Sauce

2 cups milk
1/4 cup finely diced onion
Aromatics: 1 bay leaf, 3 parsley sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs
3 1/2 T butter
3 1/2 T flour
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Grated nutmeg
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped herbs: chervil, thyme and tarragon, or chopped parsley mixed with other herbs of your choice

Heat milk with onion and aromatics in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Turn it off just before it boils and set aside for 15 minutes to steep.

In another saucepan, make a roux by melting the butter, adding the flour and stirring constantly over medium heat two minutes. Quickly pour milk through a strainer into the roux and whisk until thickened. Stir until sauce comes to a boil. Set pan over very low heat or transfer to a double boiler. Cook 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Add chopped herbs.

If you're not ready to use the sauce right away, lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming.

grocery sites

Looking for an online grocer that delivers to your neck of the woods? Check out this list. (Note: Deliveries are made by truck, unless otherwise specified.)
San Francisco Bay and Greater Atlanta areas; soon to offer service in Chicago; Dallas; Washington, DC; Seattle; Greater Baltimore; Denver; Northern New Jersey; and Philadelphia
Austin, Columbus, Long Island, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and San Jose
Seattle area only
New York, Connecticut and Long Island
Dallas area only
Selected cities in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Arizona

Grocery Express (
Detroit area only via truck or UPS
Delivers to 48 states via FedEx
Delivers to 50 states via UPS or FedEx
Delivers to 50 states via UPS

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