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How to use special ingredients to make cheaper food seem special

The thread about recession cuisine has given me some good ideas.

Here's a related question: How can you take a special ingredient -- maybe even a luxury ingredient -- to make food that is inexpensive seem special. So that it doesn't seem like so much of a sacrifice.

One ingredient that came to me is smoked paprika. It has such a special flavor that it seems like it can elevate things that would otherwise seem very plain and modest. Like a potato soup, say.

What special ingredients would you nominate for this kind of purpose and how do you use them?

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  1. Fish sauce & sambal to make a soy-based dish more interesting. I use sambal and sometimes fish sauce in my homemade dip for TJ's pot stickers and it's really not half bad.

    Mushrooms. Even criminis, really well browned, can make jarred red sauce or eggs or pasta more interesting.

    Wine. A splash can make those mushrooms or greens or onions more two dimensional.

    Butter!! What doesn't taste better cooked in real, fresh butter? Good butter isn't cheap but it does elevate crappy bread for toast or boxed mix pancakes or a simple fried egg, or mushrooms.

    Truffle salt on egg dishes or pasta or winter root veggies or winter veggie chowders.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Vetter

      i buy good butter when it is on sale and freeze it.

    2. Truffle oil, elevates egg salad et al.

      A GREAT Soy sauce.
      A touch of butter

      1. A good sherry in French Onion Soup make it very rich. The other would be Pernod, it takes seafood to another level.

        1. I think even the simplest herbs that are relatively inexpensive dried or easy to grow can make a difference; nothing particularly exotic, but thyme enhances simple chicken (along with garlic...for most anything!), marjoram used very judiously is wonderful, and basil and oregano in their traditional uses go far for flavor...if these are fresh even better!

          7 Replies
          1. re: OCEllen

            totally agree. you can make chef boyardee beefaroni look like a homemade dish by putting it in a nice serving bowl and topping it with chopped parsley. fresh herbs are amazing.

            1. re: beelzebozo

              And then they bite into it and realize that's it's...Chef Boyardee.

              Making that stuff look good don't make it taste good.

              1. re: uptown jimmy

                One does have to have a reasonable starting point! But given 'circumstances' - perhaps a wide range?!!

                1. re: uptown jimmy

                  Exactly what I was thinking ... that's just cruel ;) But the title does say, "make cheaper food SEEM special" ...

                  Good parmesan and de Cecco pasta are two of mine. And butter, yes, but I don't use much else ...

                  1. re: foiegras

                    This thread is about "cheaper FOOD", not canned filth.

                    ; )

                    Good lord, I was a foodie as a small child. I detested Chef Boyardee. Tasted like paste.

                    1. re: uptown jimmy

                      CB doesn't taste like paste... I used to eat paste secretly, but never touched CB

                      1. re: oryza

                        Hilarious. Pasty consistency, then.

                        I can see you ducking your head down beneath your desk for a quick hit of paste straight out of the jar. Oh, sweet indulgence...made the school day go by faster....

                        I remember so clearly being served Chef Boyardee at a friend's house when I was very young. I took one bite, made the most awful face, and refused to eat any more. Needless to say, budding foodies aren't always loved by friend's parents, but that stuff was vile. Truly vile.

            2. A little piece of edible silver or gold foil on a dessert can make it feel like an exquisite treat.

              2 Replies
              1. re: sarah galvin

                Heavy creme makes everything rich. I like to add it to sauces and soups iced coffee on fruit. It's wonderful. I also really love European butter likePulugria( spelling) it's so rich. I also like to zest citrus it's adds a lot of flavor.

                1. re: Analisas mom

                  Plugra butter is made by Keller's Creamery, based in Kansas City, Missouri.