Saturday Throwback: 10 Thrifty, Healthy Ingredients to Improve the Quality of Your Meals

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. Today's article comes from November 2007.

For the first 25 years of my existence, my food stood alone. Meat went unseasoned, starches sought no accompaniment, and vegetables … hermits, all of them. Only recently have I discovered the wonders of spices, sauces, and assorted flavorings. I had heard they made edibles better, but discounted it as a blasphemous rumor. Y’know, like gravity.

In honor of these fine, zestful components, today’s article will expound on joy and wonder of my favorite ten. The following foods generally aren’t the main focus of a dish. Instead, they’re simple, easily attainable additives that will boost the quality of your spread immensely. Some cost a few cents more than generic or mass-produced items, but in most cases, a tiny little pinch goes a super-long way.

1) Freshly ground black pepper
Along with its sister salt, black pepper is one of the most widely-employed spices globally. Alas, according to sources, it starts losing its flavor immediately after grinding, meaning the five-year-old jar on your shelf is little more than grey dust. Investing in a solid mill and Costco-sized package of peppercorns will juice up almost every meal you make, at minimal cost over time.

2) Fresh herbs
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme aren’t just tremendously soothing Simon and Garfunkel lyrics – they’re also a grade-A way to turn a dish from crappy to credible. Though price is contingent on time of year, every spent cent is rewarded. Casual Kitchen makes every other good point there is to make about this, but I’ll add that some herbs last much longer than you might think. I’ve had thyme survive my fridge for more than three weeks.

3) Stock/Better than Bouillon
When heated in stock rather than water, many foods (pasta, rice, veggies, etc.) assume extra flavor. While homemade stock is always preferred, Better than Bouillon is a good alternative to cans and cubes. A dense paste, it makes 38 cups of broth per 8-oz jar. Priced at $5.95 on Amazon (and a rumored $2.99 at Trader Joe’s), it comes out to $0.16 per cup, or about half the cost of on-sale Swanson broth. (EDITED TO ADD: These are 2007 prices. 2010 prices may differ. - Kris) I used it in Thanksgiving prep at house, and the eaters were pleased. (Three cheers to Rachel, the Cheap Healthy Gourmet for the tip.)

4) Wine
Thanks to Trader Joe’s, the internet, and an expanding world of wine appreciation, a passable vino is becoming easier and easier to find. Five bucks will nab you a bottle suitable for braising and/or deglazing, which ups the flavor in meats, sauces, and vegetables.

5) Decent cheese
Whether you’re dusting penne with parmesan or grating sharp cheddar over potato soup, a smattering of frommage can invigorate a dish with mad flava. BUT, the quality of cheese matters, tons. Case in point: last night, I went to a generally reliable Irish bar for dinner and ordered a vegetable melt. Sure, the choice of produce was bizarre (broccoli, carrots, and zucchini) but the dish was totally sunk by the over-processed, barely-warm slices of Grade Z American cheese. Buying less expensive dairy is understandable, especially if it’s used in bulk (a la enchiladas), but if you can swing it, slightly better brands in small doses do wonders. (As god as my witness, this will never touch my pasta again.)

6) Real lemon juice
Frequently a main component of dessert or dinner, the lovely lemon (not to be confused with Liz Lemon) can also brighten the flavor of a sauce, salad, or slab of meat. Still, there is no substitute for having the actual, physical citrus fruit on hand. My Ma’s been a staunch ReaLemon supporter for most of her time on Earth, and I’ve always found it tastes like dishwater. At $0.25 to $0.50 a pop, go with the real thing.

7) Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
I am not a supporter of breadcrumbs on macaroni and cheese. I think they take away from the main event. That said, I ate the beloved dish topped once with panko, and completely flipped my wig. Crunchier, lighter, and only slightly pricier than American-style breadcrumbs, panko ups the ante on everything. Try it with pork chops, chicken, and fish.

8) Anchovies
Discovering a whole dead fish on pizza might be enough to make you swear off anchovies for the rest of your life (and the next one, if you’re into that kind of thing). Yet, the tiny, economical add-on will give dips and dressings a much-needed kick in the pants. This simple, healthy dip by Kathleen Daeleamans is a great example.

9) Garlic straight from the bulb
This one’s a tad personal. Ma and Pa, who are righteous in every other way, cook with pre-minced garlic stored in huge jars of olive oil. Pa believes it saves some time and maybe a dollar, but he always has to use twice the amount called for since the pungency is severely compromised. Fresh garlic is delicious, un-diluted, and according to a new New York Times article, good for you as all get out. Plus, there’s the vampire-repellant factor, and that can’t be overlooked. (BONUS: Special mincing instructions here. )

10) Condiments
Soy sauce, tabasco sauce, teriyaki sauce, mustard, honey, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce – every one of these guys can stand on their own, or be incorporated into a grander concoction. And when employed in moderation, they enhance rather than overwhelm the taste of a meal. You can purchase according to your own taste and/or buy in bulk for savings, but coughing up an extra buck will make a difference in the end product.

Also worth mentioning: capers, bulk nuts, olives, fresh seasonal veggies (as opposed to canned), flavored vinegars, various pastes, fresh hot peppers, chutneys, salsas.

Any other suggestions? I’d love to hear ‘em.