Wednesday, July 23, 2008

10 Foods You Should Always Splurge On

We spend a lot of time talking about cheap food on this blog, and for good reason: oftentimes, it’s just as tasty as the pricey stuff – especially when it comes to everyday meals. See, most dishes can be prepared with inexpensive ingredients without a massive dip in quality, and family and friends will never be the wiser. Because, really? NOBODY knows you’re using generic butter to make an omelet, and only Thomas Keller could identify Brand X sugar in a batch of Christmas cookies.

Yet, there are some foods where it pays to go a little more upscale. Either their bargain-basement brands aren’t up to snuff, or a lesser-quality version would:

A) ruin a dish,
B) make someone sick, or
C) anger the four-headed demon god of culinary aptitude, Anthalice Batalicchio.

This isn’t to say that all low-priced items are terrible. I like Ragu Red Pepper and Onion Tomato Sauce, and as god is my witness, that will never change. But if you’ve ever bought generic pasta, and had to serve it as Capellini a la Clump, you know what I mean.

With that in mind, here are ten edibles on which you might want to splurge.

10) Coffee. The disparity between cheap, bulk, pre-ground joe and a pound of fresh beans from Dunkin Donuts is immeasurable. One is bitter, weak, and flavored with evil, while the other (for a few dollars more) will keep you awake, happy, and gastrointestinally balanced for hours. If my office replaced their bottom-dollar devil’s brew with … well, anything, I bet worker efficiency would increase tenfold.

9) Pickles. Given a choice between this at $1.50/lb:

And this at $1.69/lb,

which would you go with?

Pickles are the rare food for which a minor difference in price means a gigantic difference in quality, so there’s no excuse to skimp out. If possible, always buy fresh.

8) Premade pasta sauce and salad dressing. My kitchen’s hovered around 95°F for the last month, and that’s without turning an oven on. I am not whipping up a batch of tomato sauce anytime soon. It’s times like this I turn to Ragu or Prego to fulfill my pasta-dousing needs. Though they’re not exactly Rao’s or Newman’s Own, they’re way better than Francesco Rinaldi, which tastes like what would happen if tomatoes farted, exploded, and were able to jar their own remains. Blech. Same goes for $0.99 salad dressing. If I wanted pink goo with a corn syrup aftertaste, I’d have a McDonalds milkshake.

7) Lemon juice. No doubt about it, individual lemons cost more than bottled juice. Yet, I find the preservatives in the former give it a chemical flavor lacking in the untainted fruit. Whether it’s lemonade, lemon sauce, or Lemony Light Hummus, buying straight-up lemons will create a fresher, truer taste. Plus? Not only do you get the lemon zest for free, but they make great decorations until it’s time for a juicing.

6) Garlic. Like real lemon juice, fresh garlic has a pungency and power unrivaled by its packaged counterpart. Though jarred garlic might be cheaper and less time-consuming to prepare, you’ll have to use twice as much for flavor, which evens out the financial playing field a bit.

5) Pasta. This is one of the few pantry standards I won’t even consider buying generic. Too many broken lasagna noodles, mealy gnocchis, and mysteriously fused angel hair dishes have taught me a valuable lesson: in pasta’s case, $0.25 makes a huge difference. Fortunately, labels like Ronzoni and Barilla aren’t much pricier than store brands, and it’s a quantum leap in quality.

4) Beer. Oh, Williamsburgian hipsters may think a $2 can of Schlitz is the height of fashion, but there’s no denying a simple, indisputable fact: it tastes like carbonated cat urine. Booze is one of the increasingly scarce items where price almost always dictates quality, and it should be purchased accordingly (especially if you’re trying to impress someone). Not to say that a Bud-lover should ever be denied and/or held up for ridicule. It’s just … life is short, man. Don’t waste it on bad beer.

3) Chocolate. First off, lemme say there ain’t nothin’ wrong with a bag of Nestles. Those delectable little droplets have flavored Ma’s chocolate chip cookies for a generation, and I will not sully their name here. HOWEVER. (There’s always a however.) Consider the average candy bar, which might contain the following:

Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Chocolate, Lactose, Skim Milk, Milkfat, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor), Peanuts, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Milkfat, Skim Milk, Vegetable Oil (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean And/Or Palm Kernel Oil), Salt, Lactose, Egg Whites, Chocolate, Artificial Flavor.

If you’re going for a treat, why not make it an actual treat, instead of a bar-shaped amalgam of brown chemicals? Why not try a dark chocolate bar, which could have this instead:

Cocoa Liquor, Raw Cane Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Powder

For two dollars more, you’re getting a sating, delicious, somewhat healthier chocolate experience, not some corporation’s overly-processed idea of what chocolate might taste like.

2) Fish. Two words: food poisoning. Seriously though, folks. Buying graying, plastic-packed fish from the nether regions of a Wal-Mart seafood case may be frugal, but it’s also a straight-up bad idea. For one, supermarkets often freeze and defrost fish before selling it, robbing the piscine beauties of some of their natural flavor. For another, certain mass-marketed species are in serious danger of extinction, thanks to increasing demand for more at lower prices. And lastly … have you seen the salmon at my Brooklyn Key Food? It’s not even pink. *shudder*

1) Cheese. Whether it’s grated, stinky, hard, creamy, chunky or spreadable, bottom-of-the-barrel cheese is almost never a good idea, especially if it’s being featured in a dish or served as a standalone food. (A few grated wisps of Jack on a taco won’t kill anyone, though.) There are distinct taste (natural vs. chemical) and textural (smooth vs. rubbery) differences between low and mid-quality frommages, many of which are perceptible to the most lactose-clueless of dairy novices. Even refrigerator-case cheddar has a hierarchy, where okay brands like Cracker Barrel have distinct advantages over 10-pound bags of preservative-caked orange plastic. So, the next time you’re in the market for a hunk of brie, pass up the $2/lb grade Z brand for a mid-range wheel. You’ll be happier, gooier person for it.

Readers, how about you? Are there any foods you pay more for, no matter what the discount?


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