Does healthier eating and higher quality cooking stop with the produce and meats? What about your pantry? When you bake a cake or cook up an Italian pasta dinner, are you using the best ingredients? Even when you indulge in a snack, have you read the ingredient label? Perhaps you have tried and given up when half of the listed ingredients were vaguely reminicent of some formula from your high school chemistry course, a distant forgotten memory which you would prefer not to invoke.
The first thing to always consider when stocking up your pantry is quality. One way to clue yourself in to quality choices is to visit various gourmet and specialty food shops. Generally, in order for a big corporation to achieve high-volume production and yield hefty profits, short cuts have to be taken when manufacturing the product, and thus quality is compromised. Popularity of a product or brand name increases that likelihood. Our mega supermarkets stock these products in high volume because they too are only seeking a profit and thus must cater to the masses. While the trend is improving and many people are in fact turning their interests toward better and more varied foods in their diets, the majority in this country still just doesn't get it. They were raised on the flavors of salt, sugar and artificial flavors. They have no interest in trying new foods or darkening the doorway of a specialty food shop. They stick to the supermarkets which fill their carts and their pantries with all of the big corporate names and their bodies with artificial colors, artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenized fats, monosodium glutamate, polysorbate, and sodium, sodium, sodium! The smaller shops, which cater to cooks and foodies, stock the good stuff. Let's take vanilla extract as an example. Why would anyone use something labeled "Imitation Vanilla Extract"? We have all seen it, we all know the bottle and the brand and even the label colors because until the food revolution, it graced the baking shelves in all of our pantries. Why imitation, why not the real thing? Thankfully, the real thing is now a very real option. I have yet to find it in the supermarket, I have to buy it in a gourmet shop. Vanilla extract should be labeled Madagascar Burbon Pure Vanilla Extract, and the brand of choice is Niesen Massey. For my Long Island friends, you can find it in Le Gourmet Chef in the Tangier Outlets and in the Williams-Sonoma stores. Another example would be balsamic vinegar. The best brands are generally not stocked in the big chain supermarkets. There are several high quality brands whose flavors are exquisite, including Fini, Manicardi and, my personal favorite, Delavignes which I can only purchase on-line. For olive oil, one taste test featured in Bon Appetit magazine several years ago resulted in Colavita Extra Virgin (first cold pressed, words you should look for on the label) being the better one available in just about all supermarkets. I agree, this is what I use for cooking and often even in salad dressings. For a superior experience however, some gourmet shops feature tasting bars where you can sample some of the best olive oils from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, etc. These I would recommend that you keep stashed, for use solely when dressing a salad or dipping bread, as the full flavor experience will be lost in the high temperatures of cooking. To sum up this point, the best quality ingredients tend to be those which are not big name factory brands.
Secondly when filling up your pantry shelves, read the ingredients. The general rule of thumb is this: less is more; the fewer ingredients that are used, the less processing was done to the food and therefore the better the quality. Even when you want to open up a bag of potato chips, buy the best. The biggest names contain the lengthiest ingredient listing of chemically created additives. Terra brand contains potatoes, oil and sea salt. It tastes more pure, more like a lightly salted potato, and even delivers that satisfying crunch that you won't get from the tissue paper-thin, salt-laden broken chips in the popular brand. Buying stock for those quick soups and stews? Kitchen Basics has an ingredient label listing all of the things that you would put into a stock if you were making it yourself, and not a single thing that you would not add. Try to avoid buying "flavored" items. Buy the plain couscous and add your own seasonings. It really doesn't take up that much more of your time and the flavor will be more true to what you want. Usually flavored stocks or rices only amp up the salt, and the so-called roasted garlic flavor does not taste like any garlic that has ever exited from my oven. Sometimes you can actually sense a chemical-like taste in these flavored renditions ... yuck! How lazy can anyone be not to want to add their own herbs or spices into some plain breadcrumbs? Keep a well stocked spice rack filled with good quality spices (I like Spice Islands, McCormick Gourmet line and Spice Hunter) and you can flavor anything you want with as much or as little seasoning as you crave. Buy fresh herbs, as the ones found in the spice section lose their flavors quickly, and who knows how long that jar of parsley flakes has been sitting on the supermarket shelf? Better yet, if you have a sunny window in your kitchen, grow your own herbs which you use the most often, you cannot buy fresher than that and herbs are foolproof to grow.
Stay away from artificial and processed foods wherever possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would insist on buying the day-glow orange plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting and rubbery-textured stuff referred to by one big corporate giant as American "cheese". You know, that stuff will keep in the fridge for six months? Ever wonder about that? By definition, American cheese, even the better deli brands, is not cheese; it's processed scraps of cheese by-products, the refuse, like dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers. Next time you make a grilled cheese, try making it with a good Swiss cheese such as a Gruyere, Ementhaler or Comte from a cheese shop. Alternatively, using a good cheddar with some bacon and tomato will be a revelation when you bite into that sandwich. Another one I get a kick out of is the so-called grated "Parmesan Cheese" in the green can, found on the dry goods shelf of the supermarket. Salted sawdust, I say! No good Italian cook would be caught dead with that in their kitchen. No, it has to be Locatelli or nothing else, found in the cheese section (imagine that!).
There are exceptions to every rule in life. There are some known name brands which have earned reputations of quality. One is Ghirardelli. If I am given the choice for my afternoon chocolate indulgence of either a few Ghirardelli squares or a bag of Hershey's miniature milk chocolate bars, I'll pick the Ghirardelli every time. Having had chocolates from some of the finest chocolatiers in Paris, I can honestly say that Hershey's tastes like ... well, let's just say that it doesn't make the grade when it comes to tasting the way good chocolate should. Therefore, Ghirardelli cocoa powder and baking chocolates and chips are what I bake with, as well as Lindt, another name in chocolate which actually does deliver quality. A few other big name items which I must confess to buying would be Hellmann's mayonnaise, Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, Bumble Bee tuna (the gold can albacore) and Jif peanut butter.
The last piece of advise to eating better: make your own dinner. Once you have stocked up your pantry with quality ingredients, you can feel good about preparing dishes yourself using those carefully selected items. Next time you or your child has a craving for a macaroni and cheese dinner, make it yourself. Leave the suspiciously orange product in the blue box on the supermarket shelf and instead buy some whole milk, some pasta, butter - real butter, please, not the so called healthy-substitute; they may boast being lower in cholesterol, but they are unhealthy in other ways, the proof's in the label - and a block or two of good cheeses from the cheese shop. It's such an easy thing to make and you'll know exactly what you are eating, no PhD in chemistry necessary. Even the simplest of dishes can be so much better tasting when you use the best ingredients. Making a sandwich? Pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread from the bakery, slice it thick and lightly toast the slices in the oven if desired. That will make a winning sandwich every time, so much more satisfying and better for you than that squishy stuff you buy in the supermarket that you can easily squeeze into a ball and throw around for your cat or dog to fetch. Need lettuce for that sandwich? Try using Bibb lettuce instead of iceberg which has very little flavor. Is the sandwich a BLT? Buy thick-cut bacon and vine tomatoes, or better yet, local tomatoes from your neighborhood farm stand. The simplest little improvements like these enhance the quality and dining experience of your finished dish. You will feel so much better in the knowledge that you made good choices when making your food purchases and then created the dish yourself.
Eating better doesn't have to be extreme, nor does it necessarily have to mean eating "organic" all of the time. Just follow the government food pyramid guide when planning your menus, and use common sense when choosing your staple ingredients or snacks. Ask yourself two questions. Are the ingredients listed on the label things I would use myself? Can I find a better version of this at the local (bakery, cheese, gourmet, Italian) shop? It is perfectly okay to allow yourself indulgences, such as a snack of potato chips or a few chocolate truffles; just be selective in which brand you buy. For those who live here on Long Island, some great shops to peruse through and stock up include Fairway Market (Plainview, also in Manhattan), Village Cheese Shop (Mattituck and Southampton), Aiello Brothers Pork Store (Centereach) and Uncle Giuseppe's (Nesconset). For those who are interested in organic pursuits, there is Wild By Nature in East Setauket. Happy shopping!
This concludes your introductory education in quality control at the pantry police academy. Now go out there and eradicate those quality-compromised foods from your kitchen at once ... and the only mace you'll ever need in in this quest is the one found on the spice rack.