You know that moment. You’re standing in front of the fish counter despairing the higher cost of wild salmon over farmed. You want to make the environmentally kinder choice. Or maybe you don’t care, and you just prefer the flavor of salmon to sole, today’s token budget fish. Regardless, the strain on your wallet momentarily paralyzes you. At least, this happens to me. Until I have fully rationalized and then converted to using a particular premium ingredient, I squirm in the market aisle with a tense conscience, volleying a pitiful glance: the salmon, my wallet.
Getting behind good food is easy, until you have to pay for it. I don’t know any smart person who, in theory, would support monoculture or the pharmaceutical abuse of animals, for instance, or choose a cheaper, utility olive oil over something with flavor. But pitting our conscience and palates against our wallets can make either choice feel like a loss.
Many of us buy the argument that the higher price of premium ingredients reflects their “true” cost, including distinctive provenance or artisan skill, and that cheaper items sometimes hide costs to things like the environment or public health. But there is another, less romanticized, less morally fraught way to make choices about what to buy. It all starts with how we cook.
At Purple Kale, I teach an ingredient-driven approach to cooking, which includes learning to cook single items so they taste best on their own. Almost always, when you start with the best ingredients and add little interference, you get the best results. Consider vinaigrette. There are many opinions about how to make a perfectly proportioned one. My thought is, if you start with the very best olive oil you can afford, and pair it with the very best vinegar, exact ratios hardly matter. And because you use great ingredients, they require less help.
Now take salad. The best little August tomatoes require nothing more than lemon, good olive oil, and salt. You can do more with them, of course, and that remains the cook’s perogative, but a delicious salad won’t depend on it. On the other hand, when you start with cheaper commodity tomatoes, picked green and “ripened” by gases, you’ll spend more time, imagination, and effort fixing them.
It’s silly to think that the best ingredients are for chefs or home cooks who “know how to use them.” In fact, if the best ingredients may result in the highest quality meals with less effort, I’d argue that the opposite is true. The less experienced–and no less particular–cooks can recognize that the value of what they buy must include the work required to get it to the table. I don’t know any shopper who would struggle with that idea.