12 Affordable Ingredients that Add Gourmet Flair to any Meal
Does the ingredient list from that snazzy Food Network dish leave you feeling a bit underpaid and overwhelmed? Are you doubtful that your local grocer will ever carry persimmons? Here is an expert list of a dozen common ingredients that will add some flair to your dish — for less than you'd expect.
I'm guilty of doctoring my garlic bread with that generic garlic salt from the dollar store. Jeff Swedarsky, founder of DC Metro Food Tours, insists that you only go fresh for the best flavor. Cut whole garlic cloves in half before oven roasting, and replace the stuff in the bottle completely. “It's a little more tame,” says Jeff, but it gives authentic gourmet flavor.
Jeff also suggests using this healthy alternative to sour cream. It has a richer, more complex taste, and it still looks fabulous as a topper.
Romaine, Red Leaf, and Other “Fancy” Lettuces
Sure, the iceberg is usually what's on sale, but does that make it the best choice? Susan Palmquist, who blogs at The Budget Smart Girl's Guide to the Universe, doesn't mind “spending an extra 20 cents for something like a romaine or red leaf. Think about what's going to be the star of the dish, what ingredient are you going to be tasting more than any other and allocate more of your food dollar to that item. If the salad is just a side dish, the iceberg might work, but if the salad's going to be your main course, go with a lettuce with more texture, more bulk, and more flavor.”
These are just delish. I like to eat them straight out of the container, but Michele Samuels, a public relations consultant, mom and wife, has some even better ideas. She uses them to adorn salads, enhance a pasta sauce, dress up sandwiches, and garnish potato salads!
Seriously? I didn't even know what a caper was before I worked in a restaurant. After I learned of the odd little ingredient, however, I was hooked! Michele also loves the tiny flower buds, using them atop bagels and cream cheese and egg salads.
When you sacrifice convenience, you are often rewarded with flavor and savings! According to Anna Broadway, author of Sexless in the City (and a writer who spent nearly two years in Brooklyn eating on $50/week or less for food and transit), soaking and cooking them yourself will take extra time, but a 1 lb. bag of dried beans is a better buy. There is also a marked improvement in the flavor of the beans.
Many foodies claim that adding a few will bring impressive flavor to any dish. Blogger Stephen Bertasso dries his own, adding that the surplus of last season's fresh tomatoes were perfect as a dried ingredient in pastas, meats, and breads.
This creamy alternative to pre-shedded and prepackaged mozzarella comes recommended by Laura at Eating Well Anywhere. The higher fat content gives it a dreamy consistency and flavor (and you have to check out her grilled cheese photos).
This was an overlooked ingredient at my home. Until I accidentally planted a batch in my garden, I was unaware of the flavor and texture the little guys can bring to an ordinary recipe. Chuck Wilkins, of Reston, VA agrees. After reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Chuck began to live by shallots. “They are inexpensive and their flavor is so much lighter and more complex than ordinary onions.”
Nothing gives your dishes a zip like the zest of oranges, lemons, and limes. Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, calls it the “bonus ingredient” because you also get to use the juice!
Just about any nut can add some crunch and depth to your recipes. Julie Languille, of Dinners in a Flash, favors toasted hazelnuts, pinenuts, and almonds. She suggests adding a few tablespoons to salad and pasta for an extra special treat!
Bulk Dried Spices
The little spice containers from your local grocer aren't the best deal you could be getting (and their freshness is questionable). Stu Lustman, an equipment and tech leasing broker, buys his favorite 5 or 6 dried spices in bulk to save money. They are perfect for rubs, but Stu also uses them in the same way as fresh. The trick? He pan fries them slightly in a little oil to open up the flavor and adds them directly to his recipe.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the simple ingredients you can use to liven up your cooking (but it's a good place to start). Please share what works for you in the comments!