I am a sucker for gourmet ingredients. Whole Foods is the most dangerous place in the world for me because I am more than capable of spending my entire paycheck on peppers from places I can’t pronounce, mushrooms that are available for about a week out of the entire year, and a million other things that I really feel like I need while I’m there. Some of these things are not worth the cost at all. Gold leaf is my favorite example of a useless ingredient because it literally accomplishes nothing other than making your dessert sparkly.
If you have a lot more money in the bank than I do and nothing better to spend it on than wrapping a cake in gold, then by all means do that, but it’s not my priority. Other ingredients are sometimes worth it. There’s no reason to buy fancy salts if all you’re going to use them for is soups where the nuances of the flavor will be buried under ten other herbs and spices; on the other hand, if you want to make something like salted caramels where its will play a prominent role in the final dish, then it’s very worth it to buy sea salt or other high mineral content salt.
And then there are some things that are always worth paying more for. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.
Vanilla – Vanilla is a little bit tragic because somewhere along the line it became synonymous with “plain” or “without added flavor.” This is far from the case, and I think the problem rests with the fact that many of the so-called vanilla flavored foods that we grow up eating do not actually contain vanilla, put artificially produced vanillin. When you buy vanilla, you should look for pure bourbon vanilla extract, the flavor and smell of which is smooth, exotic, and complex.
Maple Syrup – Imitation maple syrup is made out of high fructose corn syrup, and tastes like it. Real maple syrup is earthy and sweet, and, oddly, fairly healthy as far as sugar-based foods go. It has a high concentration of manganese and zinc and a relatively low amount of calories.
Heirloom Tomatoes – I have had an heirloom tomato obsession for basically my entire life. These are old-breed tomatoes that have not been genetically engineered, so they’re not perfectly round or perfectly red, and they’re generally grown in small batches because they’re less disease-resistant than most modern tomatoes. Oh my god, the flavor, though. Heirlooms are super sweet and taste the way tomatoes should. And how can you not want to buy something that comes in varieties with names like “Mortgage Lifter” and “Green Zebra?”
Chocolate – This one is, I think, a no-brainer. Think about the difference between a Hershey’s bar and a Vosges bar and which one you’d rather eat. I’m not telling you that you have to start baking with Vosges, but I’m not saying it’s the worst idea, either. The difference between high quality, high cocoa content chocolate is just as prominent when it’s an ingredient in a recipe as it is when you’re eating it straight.
Truffle Oil – Truffles are exorbitantly expensive, and this is why you mainly see them added to food as shavings or in oil. Fortunately, the flavor is strong enough that it only takes a small amount of truffle to make a big difference. Truffle oil is more convenient for the average person’s kitchen and far easier to acquire than whole truffles, and a bottle of it will last a long time. This is a finishing oil, not a cooking oil, and it will add a unique nutty, earthy taste when drizzled on anything from risottos to eggs to popcorn.
1 tbs canola oil
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
1 tbs butter
1 tsp truffle oil (white or black)
Salt to taste
2 tbs parmesan cheese
1) Over medium heat, place the canola oil in the bottom of a small saucepan and turn until coated. Add the popcorn and cover the saucepan. Shake the pan from side to side occasionally to prevent the kernels from sticking or burning and to make sure they heat evenly. Alternately, if you have a popcorn maker, this is the time to break it out.
2) As the corn begins to pop, continue to shake the sauce pan to prevent burning. Remove from heat immediately when the popping slows.
3) Place the popped corn in a medium bowl and set aside. In a small saucepan over the stove or in a microwave safe container, melt the butter. If you like a lot of butter on your popcorn, melt two tablespoons instead of one.
4) When the butter is melted, remove from heat, and stir in the truffle oil. Drizzle over popcorn.