I was making soup a few days ago and pulled a package of dried porcini mushrooms out of the pantry. I was momentarily taken aback at the price: $5.99 for a one-ounce package. Ouch. I came to my senses pretty quickly, though. Dried porcinis are soup magic. Especially for vegetarian soups like mushroom-barley. They impart an earthy depth of flavor that you can’t get from other mushrooms. Plus, you only use a small handful at a time so that one ounce lasts awhile.
Like most folks, we have to be careful with our money. I do a lot of recipe testing and developing for my cooking classes and have discovered that some ingredients are worth spending a little extra money on. Dried porcini mushrooms, of course, and a few others:
- Extra-virgin olive oil. I’m not going to recommend a specific brand, because they’re just too different from one another. I look for evoo that is harvested from one country and first-cold pressed. Try oils from Greece, Chile and California as well as Italy. They all have a different character.
- Spices. Small, fresh containers of high-quality spices smell and taste stronger than the store brands. You can extend the shelf-life by buying whole spices and grinding them yourself. I do this to make spice mixes, such as chili powder and garam masala, that taste the way I like them (hot hot hot).
- Dried chiles, or chile powder. You’re either going to pay $5-6 a bottle for ground ancho chile or ground chipotle chile or you can buy an inexpensive bag of whole dried chiles and toast and grind them yourself. I go the cheaper route, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to toast and grind your own chiles, the bottled stuff is well-worth the steep price. If you do want to DIY, you can find large bags of peppers at an ethnic market for a few dollars. Remove the stems then toast the peppers in a hot dry skillet for 20-30 seconds, pressing them onto the bottom of the pan with a spatula. Transfer to spice grinder, or coffee grinder, and pulverize into dust. Caution: do not inhale deeply when you remove the cover, unless you like excessive nose blowing.
- Vinegar. Read the labels carefully here. It is really hard to find a quality wine vinegar, and not something doctored up with coloring and/or sugar. I look for an indication of the type of wine used in the vinegar production e.g., sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar or Chianti red-wine vinegar. No need to buy a $50 bottle of balsamic, but don’t reach for the $3 bottle, either.
- Honey. Just about every jar of honey I’ve bought at the grocery store is heinous. Go to your farmer’s market and find some produced locally. I use a raw honey that has a label warning of stray bee parts! Haven’t found any wings yet, though I remain hopeful.
- Locally raised chickens. If you visit your farmer’s market and talk to the vendors you can get the lowdown on organic, free-range, etc. and choose whichever is the most important to you. Hands-down, every chicken I’ve bought from any local vendor tastes more, well, chickeny, than the factory farmed birds at the grocery store.
- Cheese. Good cheese is subjective: you won’t find me anywhere near a package of blue cheese, but I’m willing to spend $6 on a small block of my favorite sheep’s-milk feta. Yes, it’s that good. If I am going to spend any of my daily calories on cheese it needs to be fabulous. Also, strongly flavored cheese stretches farther: you can use less in a recipe for the same flavor.
Here’s a fine way to use that sherry vinegar:
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 cup walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2-1 tsp kosher salt
Whisk together except salt and pepper. Add 1/2 tsp salt and several grinds of black pepper. Taste, add remaining salt as desired. Use to dress a green salad, or toss with hot green beans and a small handful of toasted walnuts. Store leftover vinaigrette in the fridge for up to two weeks.