How to balance cost and quality in the kitchen.
Every time I step into a shop like Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine, I’m convinced I’ve entered the foodie equivalent of Van Cleef & Arpels.
Glimmering bottles of amber-colored oils and ruby red vinegars catch my eye. Tiny emerald-like capers and crystalline sea salt from all corners of the world beckon from jars, which are equally fabulous in their own right. But, of course, these gastronomic gems cost dearly, and the price tags often emit jaw drops of their own. As a chef, and someone who cares deeply about the quality and taste of my food, I tell myself I need these items, but how do I afford them? By knowing exactly where I should splurge and remembering a few simple rules that help me shave big bucks off of everything else.
Here are my absolute kitchen must-haves for dining divinely, and the low-down on how to make it all work:
- Olive oil. Stellar first-pressed Italian, Spanish and Greek extra virgin olive oils can set you back $20 - $50 a bottle. These spectacular, fruity, bright green oils are not meant for the casual sauté or stir-fry. Drizzle this liquid gold on roasted meats and fish, and make yourself the best homemade vinaigrette you’ve ever tasted. Keep a bottle of basic olive oil — I like Trader Joe’s — as well for general cooking needs.
- Salt. Yes, there really are differences between salts, and it can be very confusing. Salt is no longer just a basic commodity; there are dozens of global varieties. I have about a half dozen different salts just on my counter top. A good, basic, inexpensive box of Kosher salt is perfect for seasoning just about everything while cooking. Then, tableside is the place for a great “finishing” salt. Try the lovely, delicate Fleur de Sel. Just a pinch of these scale-like flakes between your fingers will add the perfect touch to any dish.
- Pure maple syrup. No argument. Just do it. I don’t care how charming that talking old-lady-shaped bottle is. Once you try the real stuff, you’ll know why pancakes were invented.
- Real vanilla extract. A little goes a long way in baking, and nothing else tastes like it — or makes your kitchen smell like it.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Or any hard cheese, for that matter. Use a vegetable peeler to shave this nutty wonder over steamed veggies, pasta and rice to make it go as far as possible. And don’t ever throw away that super valuable rind. Toss it into a pot of homemade soup for richness and extra depth of flavor.
Pinch a penny:
- Grocery stores. I tend to shop the perimeter of the store. That’s where you’ll find the actual food: produce, meats, dairy and bread. The processed items are typically in the center isles. I know most folks are pressed for time these days, but processed items tend to be more expensive than whole, natural foods, which are healthier for you anyway.
- Do as many things for yourself as possible.A general rule is that anything cut up and packaged by the grocery store costs more. This includes things like produce and poultry. So pass on those colorful containers of melon. As for the poultry, don’t skimp on quality. Buy that plump, free-range bird whole, and learn to cut it up. There are dozens of tutorials on YouTube. Bonus round? You get the bones for stock.
- Make friends at the farmers market … and shop at the end of the day. Instead of lugging home leftover goods, vendors will often be willing to make a deal. Learn to can or freeze the bounty and you’re a savings super hero. There is no greater feeling than pulling summer goodness out of your pantry in the middle of winter.
- Buy basics in bulk. Legumes, grains, pasta and rice store well, and are all things that should be the foundation of your diet. They’re inexpensive, healthy and filling. Grocery store brands are fine for these.
- Herbs and spices. This one spans both splurge and save. I absolutely must have the best, freshest items, but I hate the thought of unused spices going stale in my cabinet. Always buy the smallest amount necessary. I love shopping at Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices in Findlay Market so that I can buy exactly what is needed for each recipe, and nothing more.
My Classic Vinaigrette
- 1¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- cup Sherry vinegar
- 1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbs. finely minced shallot
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped mixed fresh herbs
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped capers (rinsed and drained)
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Place all the ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake to mix. Add a tablespoon of honey, if desired. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately. Keeps in refrigerator for one week.
Photography by Gina Weathersby/Kiwi Street Studios