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Chef's Challenge

Start With A Fresh Ham

A fresh ham glazed with mustard, molasses and sage is at the center of a comfortable, cost-conscious three-course dinner for 12 composed by chef Ris Lacoste, at top left. The price of ingredients worked out to under $11 per person.
A fresh ham glazed with mustard, molasses and sage is at the center of a comfortable, cost-conscious three-course dinner for 12 composed by chef Ris Lacoste, at top left. The price of ingredients worked out to under $11 per person. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; Page F01

Maybe this season, the realities of dinner on a budget pertain to your Christmas meal as well.

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You'd still like to serve family and friends a gloriously succulent entree, colorful side dishes and a dessert that delights. But this year, you have a closer eye on the bottom line.

One of Washington's favorite chefs, Ris Lacoste, showed us the way in accepting the Food section's holiday challenge: Create a cost-conscious yet festive three-course dinner for 12.

She did not seek out bargains all over town. Presumably, it would be possible to buy the same components and spend less than her total of $130. She bought ingredients at her neighborhood Whole Foods Market, where she gets lunch most days. "I shop there all the time," she says. "I see prices that are comparable with Safeway's."

Like the true sports fan she is, Lacoste went in with a game plan and stuck to it. Her dishes would be characteristic of the food she likes to cook. "Let's call it rustic elegance," she said, which also defines the cuisine of her long-awaited restaurant, Ris, scheduled to open in the West End next summer.

Lacoste, 52, calls herself a cook who likes to make big pots of things that simmer. That much was clear, watching her start the challenge dishes in her Glover Park kitchen. First up: a fresh ham that she studded with garlic cloves, covered with onions and shut tight in a pot in one of her two ovens. She said the pork was an obvious choice to feed a crowd, especially at $2.49 a pound. Next came the beautifully clear yield of her chicken stock, made for her first course of sweet potato and bourbon soup. The meat of the stock's gently poached whole chicken would provide a bonus meal or two.

The chef's self-description doesn't quite cover her breadth of experience, which includes recent years of consulting for restaurants such as Rock Creek in Mazza Gallerie, 10 years as head chef at 1789 and her years of service at Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom and at 21 Federal in Nantucket, Mass.

Those in Washington's food community know Lacoste as a calm, generous teacher on the line and as a bighearted professional who rarely turns down a worthy cause. Her neighbors, such as "Meet the Press" producer Michelle Jaconi, reap the benefits when the chef cooks great quantities at home, then dispenses some of it to select friendly households. (When it was revealed that the photographer on assignment lived close by, the chef jotted down her address for future deliveries.)

With practicality, Lacoste added to the soup some of the same herbs that would appear in other dishes, apologizing immediately for binding the bouquet garni with a rubber band. "It comes with the parsley. I haven't killed anybody this way yet," she said.

Most of the soup's dose of bourbon evaporates during the early cooking stages, but its taste remains to heighten the potatoes' sweetness. (Asked for a nonalcoholic alternative, she couldn't think of one.) Chunks of vegetables and orange halves imbue the soup with depth, brightness and acidity.

As the soup simmered uncovered and close to the brim of its large enameled pot, Lacoste checked on the fresh ham in the oven, basting with cooking juices until its final hour, when she would apply a killer glaze of molasses, mustard and sage.

"My mom, who cooked for seven kids and does Christmas for a huge family -- 37 at Thanksgiving -- makes a four-hour ham," Lacoste said. Incredibly, this was the chef's first attempt at it, and she wanted to do it in less time.

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