Luxe on a Budget
While we're keeping a close eye on our grocery budget, there are a few items that are still worth a splurge — and are more economical than you might think.
These days many of us are looking to save money wherever possible, even on food. But certain items, though pricey, are worth spending a little extra on — because you’ll use so little that the per-serving cost is reasonable; because they’ll last a long time; because the flavor is so special it can transform a ho-hum dish; or even because you'll use up fewer PointsPlus™ values by using a smaller amount of a tastier version of the ingredient.
Splitting the cost with a friend is a great way of making these luxuries even more affordable. Just be sure to research the best way of storing them once they're out of their original packaging. Here are some of our favorites. (Prices are shown as a guide only, and may vary.)
This is vastly different from powdery Parmesan in a can. Aged for at least 12 months, and with a grainy, crumbly texture, Parmigiano Reggiano costs around $15 a pound, but it’s worth every penny — the intense, nutty flavor means you’ll use less of it. Like true balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano is highly regulated by the Italian authorities. Look for the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” on the rind, and always buy in chunks — pre-grated cheese loses its pungency quickly. Wrapped in parchment or wax paper, then plastic wrap, it will stay good in the fridge for about a year. If mold should grow, cut it off with about an inch of the surrounding cheese; the rest is still good.
Aged balsamic vinegar
Italy’s other prized treat. The dark, thin vinegar for under $10 a bottle isn’t the real thing. The good stuff, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale — which will set you back $75 or more, so put it on your birthday list — is a highly concentrated syrup that resembles molasses. It’s aged for a minimum of 12 years and approved by master tasters in Italy. But oh, the flavor: sweet, sour, fruity, woodsy, and so intense that just a few drops are needed — and a bottle lasts indefinitely. Aged balsamic is not for salad dressing. Drizzle it over a prime cut of beef, tuna steak, or roasted chicken. Try some on sweet ripe strawberries, or over fresh ricotta.
Dried porcini mushrooms
$3.50 an ounce translates to $56 a pound — but a single ounce is enough to liven several batches of soup, stew, and risotto. When buying, examine the mushrooms carefully: stay away from crumbly batches, which are likely old and dull-tasting; pinholes are a sign of worms. Stored in the pantry, dried porcini should keep indefinitely. To reconstitute, soak in hot water for 20 minutes. Drain and chop — and strain and use the liquid to add even more deep, meaty flavor.
Truffle, nut, and olive oils
Truffles are among the most expensive ingredients on the planet. So truffle oil — olive oil infused with truffle flavor — would seem to be an ideal, inexpensive substitute. But most truffle oil is flavored with chemicals, not truffles. Sorry, but here’s one faux-luxe product that’s poor value at any price.
Nut oils, on the other hand, are definitely worth the expense. Depending on the nut, these oils can cost from $15-$30 per half-liter, but the subtle, delicate taste can transform a simple green salad into something spectacular. Nut oils turn rancid quickly, so buy in the smallest quantities you can, refrigerate and use within 2-3 months.
For salads and drizzling, premium extra virgin olive oil is another luxe item we wholeheartedly recommend. Keep two olive oils on hand: one that’s inexpensive (not necessarily extra virgin), to use for cooking, and an extra virgin oil that’s more costly but full of flavors that appeal to you — the variety is practically infinite, so try to sample before you buy. Store olive oil in a cool, dark place (but not the fridge) and it should last about a year; light and heat will destroy it.
The edible seeds of pine trees, these tiny, cream-color morsels are a necessity in pesto; a sprinkling of toasted seeds livens up a salad or pasta dish immensely. At around $15 a pound they’re costly, but a batch of pesto only requires a few tablespoons. Pine nuts turn rancid quickly, so buy in small batches, from a supplier with high turnover, and store in an airtight container in the fridge for one month, or in the freezer for three months.
After saffron, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice available, because the delicate bean is the pod of an orchid that must be hand-pollinated and hand-harvested. Premium extracts are aged longer, have a higher alcohol content (to reap more vanilla essence), and no added sugar. Four ounces of premium vanilla extract starts at about $10, but the complex flavors and aromas in that one bottle will take dozens of baked goods to another level. Stored in a cool, dark place (again, not the fridge), vanilla extract keeps indefinitely.
At about a dollar an ounce, whole nutmeg isn’t exactly expensive, but most of us automatically reach for the ground stuff. Once ground, though, nutmeg’s essential oils evaporate quickly, leaving bland powder — to achieve the maximum punch, grate to order. (Use the finest holes on a hand grater.) Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Whole nuts will last indefinitely, but to test for peak flavor, insert a needle into the nutmeg; if a drop of oil appears, it’s fresh.
We all know the power of chocolate. But why settle for mass-produced bars full of sugar and preservatives, when a single hand-made bonbon might inspire poetry? Chocolatiers all over the country are creating treats from the highest quality ingredients, with flavors that most of us would never even imagine. Sure, they’re pricey, but just one mouthful can change your whole day. Now that’s luxury.