I have spent a huge amount of my lifetime in food stores. Even when I was young I had a fascination with the so-called ‘gourmet’ stores. I am sure that these were popular in big cities, but in our midwest suburb there were only a few, all of which closed down within a few years. I remember wandering the aisles looking at foods that I knew we would never cook at home: expensive pasta sauces, jars of imported oils, little cans of caviar (never in my life, I might add), and exotic herbs, spices, and flours. And now that Whole Foods is everywhere, I am sure most everyone can relate to this wide-eyed wonderment. But, most of us can’t afford these so-called gourmet foods, and so here I offer some simple (and inexpensive) ways to get some gourmet flavors without the fancy gourmet price- aka how to eat like a foodie on the cheap!
I’ve discovered these fantastically diverse ingredients over the past years of cooking for myself and others. These are the ingredients that really take your food to the next level of flavor, adding richness and complexity to your existing dishes. Some are expensive, but they either last a long time, or you only need to use a pinch to make it happen- or both- making it (more) affordable in a long term view. My favorite ‘gourmet’ ingredients are mushrooms, ground vanilla, smoked salt/liquid smoke, sun-dried tomatoes, and lemon zest.
The fungus among us always add an interesting bit of flavor to your foods. Most of us are familiar with the white button mushrooms, but there are many more to be explored: portabellos/crimini, shitake, porcini, bun-meji, and others all add varying amount of richness and earthiness to your foods. Mushrooms can be the star of the show, as in this baked tofu dish, or used as a sauce or gravy. My favorite is this Mushroom gravy from Vegan World Fusion, but I also make another simple version with soymilk, caramelized onions, mushrooms, miso, and smoke flavor. For these recipes fresh mushrooms are best, but dried mushrooms are particularly useful for stocks, soups, and beans; they do need some soak time, but once they are soft and cooking they will release a lovely flavor into your dishes.
This is the most expensive item on the list, by far, but it is also the one most likely to knock your socks off. I imagine most of us are familiar with vanilla extract or vanilla flavoring, but using ground vanilla is completely different- and is a seriously sensuous experience. Often thought of as simple or even boring, vanilla is actually incredibly complex flavor, one that you can really only experience using whole vanilla beans or the stuff inside- this is what becomes the ground vanilla. It is the texture of really fine sand, and just a teaspoon it will quite literally transform your foods. I used it in tea, coffee, scones, sauces, and I loved every second of it.
Smoked salt & Liquid smoke
Frontier makes a wonderful Applewood smoked sea salt: a dark grey, big crystal salt that can be purchased in bulk spice sections or online. Liquid smoke is another version of the same flavor, and is perhaps more accessible. I usually buy mine at Safeway. I like to add the smoked salt to my polenta and pasta sauces that don’t already have salt. But the liquid smoke is great when you don’t want to add extra salt to a recipe. For example, I really love the liquid smoke is my bbq sauce, smokey baked tofu with mushrooms, or in gravies, which already have an adequate amount of salt. I think liquid smoke is particularly delicious in homemade seitan. But be forewarned, a bit of smokiness goes a long way to enriching your dish; add a pinch and go from there!
This is a relatively inexpensive, but flavor-rich ingredient to add to your cooking. I prefer the tomatoes packed in oil, for a richer flavor, but you can also buy dried (probably in bulk sections) and soak in warm water (or reuse the oil from other tomatoes!). Dried tomatoes add a richness to anything already tomato based (think pasta sauce, soups, pizza; one of my favorites is this Veg Times Tomato & Chard soup). But you can also use them in salads, pilafs, dips, and anything else your little heart desires.
By far, this is the cheapest ingredient on the list, and one you probably have at home right now. Zest is simply the grated skin of the lemon (or other citrus fruit). Whether using orange, lemon, grapefruit or lime, zest adds a bright, tart, and rich flavor to your foods, and can be used in anything from sauces, muffins, grains, or dressings. It is quite strong, so use only a bit at a time. You can zest using a microplane grater or a regular box grater with small holes. One medium sized lemon gives you about 3 tsp zest; I usually zest a few and freeze the extra. I have always used zest for baking (like these Seeded Lemon Scones), but recently I have been using it in many more foods, inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Supernatural cookbooks, which I totally fell in love with last year.