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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.

              2. Does phyllo dough count? Wrap everyday vegies in it with a little cheese, or cottage cheese, herbs and a beaten egg. Bake and slice and you have a wonderful presentation. I sometimes will mix rice with vegies (and cheese, herbs, egg) too.

                1. Marination (wet or dry) and slow cooking of cheaper cuts of meat. Gussy up the veggies and you're good as gold.

                  1. Simple reductions - buy some mediocre balsamic, reduce it alot, and drizzle it over roasted veggies..

                    Render your own lard - pork fat is cheap.. and it can add some nice flavor.

                    Throw a bone into a soup you are making - bones are easy to buy.. or a fish head to make some stock. Make sure to save your shrimp shells, if you can for stock.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: grant.cook

                      re: the balsamic. add a couple of star anise and some brown sugar, reduce it to a thick syrup.

                      Fab as a marinade for lamb, over strawberries, as a dip with some OO and good bread.. great as a salad dressing, or even drizzled over potato gallettes.

                    2. One of my favorite "fakes". Store bought cooked chicken, quartered. Served at room temperature on lettuce leaves, topped with marinated artichoke hearts and toasted pine nuts tossed over it all.

                      1. My recent improvised budget meal that has been an unqualified success 3 or 4 times in a row I now call "pork felix" . It's a version of veal or steak Oscar, with crab, asparagus, and hollandaise, but I substitute grilled pork tenderloin medallions marinated in Stubbs pork marinade, some nice long scissor-cut strips of snow crab, and fresh steamed asparagus, topped with hollandaise. It can be arranged so pretty on a plate with the asparagus and crab alternating as spokes from a hub of pork medallions, topped by drizzled hollandaise, that I dedicate the dinner plate for the presentation and serve sides and salads on separate plates. Thrifty, attractive, delicious, and fun.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: Veggo

                          That sure does sound like cheaper ingredients, Veggo!

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            You beat me to it, Sam. I was thinking, god, if I leave out the crab asparagus, and hollandaise, I can serve beef tenderloin! '-)

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              Tease me if you will, Sam and C1, but for me it's a good beginning :)

                              1. re: Veggo

                                Can't speak for Sam, but I'm only jealous of your food budget! '-)

                          2. re: Veggo

                            Poor Veggo...no truffle oil.

                            1. re: Gio

                              Here's some math for you whippersnappers, to prove my point:
                              Pork Felix for 4 at Casa Veggo:

                              2 pork tenderloins 12.00
                              1/4 bottle Stubbs pork marinade 1.00
                              1 lb asparagus- on sale 1.99
                              1 lb snow crab 6.99
                              hollandaise ingredients 3.00
                              death-by-garlic caesar salad 5.00
                              drinkable white (18), red (22) 40.00
                              Felix dinner cost for 4 w/wine $69.98

                              beef filet oscar add'l cost 28.00 (2 lbs. beef filet @ 20/lb)
                              Oscar dinner cost for 4 w/wine $97.98 (Oscar 40% higher than Felix)

                              Further, I calculate the cost of filet Oscar for 4 at Bern's restaurant in Tampa, with 2 decent reds @ $70 ea., plus tax, tips, and valet, is $383.80.
                              Pork Felix dinner for 4 at Casa Veggo costs 18% of steak Oscar dinner at Bern's, and saves $313.82. Now how's that for thrift? More than enough to buy some truffle oil from marky's:)

                              1. re: Veggo

                                Well see, you Do have enough for truffle oil. 1.99 is a super price for the asparagus, btw.....they were twice that up here.

                          3. Porcini mushrooms added to any dish with white buttons.

                            1. In part to uptown jimmy:

                              Strain a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli over a bowl. When well drained, rinse/wash the ravioli (still in the strainer over the bowl) with about a quarter cup of white wine.

                              Mix the sauce and white wine in the bowl with a spritz of lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and a bit of minced garlic. Reduce a bit.

                              Using a small syringe, inject each (rinsed) ravioli with a bit of concentrated home-made beef stock and nuke.

                              Place a few of the injected ravs on a heated large flat-ish bowl; pour on a bit of the sauce; sprinkle a bit of finely ground Pec Rom or similar and some finely chopped chives.

                              Of course, I've never done this, but would bet this dish against any others in a fake-out cook off.

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka


                                Is this some sort of Trailer Park Molecular Gastronomy? LOL!

                                1. re: fmed

                                  LOL!!!! You deserve an award, Sam! That is the most creative tweaking of Chef Boyardee I have ever heard!

                                  1. re: Mellicita

                                    That is blasphemy ! Je suis étonné ! Calisse !

                                2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  I would use an eyedropper to place one drop of truffle oil on each ravioli.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    Sam, I thought you were going to say strain the can of Chef Boyardee, save the sauce, toss the ravioli, make your own ravioli using won ton skins whatever filling and you've got a winner. Works for me!

                                    1. re: Caroline1

                                      One could just use the can to concuss one's companion, and then feed them the undoctored contents ;) They will feel so lucky to be alive, they'll never notice the horrid canned pasta taste ...

                                    2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      To quote The Bass Player, as voiced by Bill Murray, from "Mr. Roberts and the Bass Player", a classic National Lampoon skit:

                                      "Das insane, you stupid."

                                    3. parmesan shavings
                                      toasted nuts
                                      fresh herbs
                                      sesame oil
                                      good quality olives
                                      caramelized onions
                                      artichoke hearts

                                      1. Salt Pork/Bacon/Pancetta/any kind of salt cured pork fat - pork fat is magic
                                        Smoke Dried Sausages - it has everything that cured pork has plus smoke
                                        Soy Sauce - a splash in the right context gives certain dishes that bassline that it often needs
                                        Dried Mushrooms (porcini, shiitake...or even mushroom stock cubes) - added to run-of-the-mill stews, sauces, etc. Use the soaking water too.
                                        Asian fermented bean pastes - try just a smidge in western dishes such as a beef stew.
                                        Anchovies - source of umami like many of these other ingredients
                                        Citrus - add a squeeze right at the end of roast chicken. pork, etc. Use the rind.
                                        Coarse salt - especially on roasts
                                        Wine - a splash here and there

                                        1. Infused oils of different types appropriate for the dish served would be my suggestion, e.g., Asian food would get drizzles of Chili oil or Sesame oil.

                                          Toasted Sesame Seeds are great over rice and vegetables.

                                          1. Well, maybe get yourself a classic classic cookbook. The premise of many classic recipes is turning pigs ears into silk purses. In fact, pick up a good Chinese cook book and it will tell you how to do exactly that! Both coq au vin and bouef Burguignon are great economy dishes if you don't try to use a great vintage red wine. There are some excellent wines at reasonable prices. Both are great and economical party fare.

                                            There is no cheaper way to feed an army than with quiches or crepes with savory fillings. Spaghetti carbonarra. Cheap pork butt slow roasted with sourkraut, then with fluffy dumplings added can feed an army for under twenty bucks. Shop well and you'll have enough change to buy dessert. In another thread, we talked a bout vol au vent -- large puff pastry casings filled with chicken a la king or other savory sauced meats. Fritatas (basically a crustless quiche). Make your own baked beans from scratch, not that canned are that expensive, they just never taste as good, then serve them with hot dogs. All those spices and sauces -- ketchup, mustard, shoyu, Worcestershire, Sauce Robert, eighteen different kinds of vinegar, and every dried herb and spice in the cupboard -- are the magic keys to turning super budget foods into fine dining.

                                            Try used book stores for old cook books. I would recommend a copy of LaRousse Gastronomiqe and/or The Escoffier Cook Book (this one's cheap even when new, but a great resource for ideas and recipes) because they have a whole bunch of foods that are really inexpensive, but they do make up in labor what they save in price. But that's why the dishes are classics!

                                            Oh, and besides smoked paprika, try a can of Szeged sweet paprika from Hungary. I wouldn't make a paprikash without it! When you bring it home, take any "regular" American style paprika you may have and put it in the trash! The only thing it's good for is adding a dash of color to devilled eggs without changing their flavor! '-)

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                              Cheap canned baked beans are way better with blended chipotles in adobo added in.

                                              1. re: chocabot

                                                shhhhhh... I didn't want anybody to know! I usually doctor canned baked beans rather than make them from scratch. Did that even before my classic, wonderful brown glazed ancient bean pot ran away from home.

                                            2. Replacing more expensive ingredients with "time" usually brings my cheaper ingredients up to standard.

                                              1. great thread karykat! I would say that serving a budget dish with a great glass of wine certainly ups the feel of the entire meal. I liked Analisa's mom's suggestion of citrus zest. Anything that gives freshness and zip. Personally, I don't think it's possible to redeem chef boyardee. And it doesn't make sense too, since plain pasta is cheaper and better.

                                                1. I like this thread! Here's my two cents worth...

                                                  I second the thoughts of good parm. and real butter. Adding on to that, taking regular old uncooked pasta and toasting it in a hot pan to toast before boiling adds a great nutty flavor. Do that, add a bit of real butter, good parm, and maybe a few fresh herbs, and you've got a great dish!!!

                                                  I also think grilling food adds a lot. I do it so often that I take it for granted, but something as simple as zuchinni (with olive oil) done on the grill is awesome! Even cheapo hotdogs done on the grill can be great.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: scuzzo

                                                    You want something grilled and exciting? Toss on an avocado. GREAT flavor. Fortuitous accidental discoveries by Caroline!

                                                  2. In tribute to the parallel Spam thread: Spam confit!

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                      Wadeaminute...fried garlic, a soupson of ketchup (yup, if Yan can we can too), anything you have in the pantry/fridge....
                                                      stir fry -
                                                      add anything....
                                                      I rest my case.

                                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                        Confit? Only if you can tell us how many spammers it takes to make one can of Spam.