A passionate defense of the $6 box of salt, the $8 jar of tuna, the $4 block of butter and other seeming indulgences that are completely worth the cost--with the recipes to prove it.
Imported Jarred Tuna
Why spend more In America, canned tuna is considered kids' food--the more mayonnaise you can mash into it, the better. But in Mediterranean countries, tuna is treated with real culinary respect. That's why the best brands are made with whole, meaty pieces of center-cut fillet packed in luscious virgin olive oil. Unlike American tuna packed with water or vegetable oil in cans (which sometimes impart a slightly metallic aftertaste), the best imported tuna comes in glass jars, which protect the clean, fresh, delightfully complex flavor. Price $7 to $10/jar. Price for domestic canned 99 cents to $1.69/can.
Why spend more There's something about a morel's woodsy-smoky flavor and unique texture--springy to the bite, with tiny honeycomb-like pockets that are perfect for soaking up delicate cream sauces--that make it irresistible. Fresh morels have a maddeningly short season and can be inconsistent in quality; dried morels are more readily available and happen to be even more intensely flavored--especially small ones. Just avoid packages with a lot of broken pieces or powdery residue, a clear sign of age. Price $18 to $20/ounce. Price for white mushrooms 99 cents/pound.
Artisanal Italian Pasta
Why spend more People love pasta for so many reasons, one of which is the low price. But the methods used for mass production--including forcing dough through Teflon-coated dies in the pasta-making machine, then fast-drying it--can rob the pasta of some of its flavor and cause it to be slippery when cooked. Artisanal pasta, on the other hand, has the character to be an equal partner to any sauce it's paired with, thanks in large part to the local mineral-rich water and specially milled flour it's made with. Bronze-coated dies give the pasta a wonderfully coarse texture that helps sauces cling; slow-drying the pasta over several hours or even days also results in a comforting chewiness. price $6/pound. Price for mass-produced pasta 99 cents/pound.
Why spend more This crab from the northern Pacific has regal dimensions, sometimes weighing up to 20 pounds and measuring six feet from one end to the other. But it's most impressive because of its succulent meat, which has a surprising saltiness and tanginess as well as the sweetness you expect from all kinds of crabmeat. Another plus--a big one--is that it's so easy to eat. Since the huge legs hold all the meat, you only have to crack them once and dig in. King crab legs are generally sold frozen. Opt for those that are whole rather than precut; simply separate them at their joints for more manageable pieces. Price $20/pound. Price for blue crab $10/dozen.
Maldon Sea Salt
. Why spend more Harvested by hand from the waters off Essex, England, these flaky, pyramid-shaped crystals have a great crunch and a remarkably subtle, briny flavor. Maldon sea salt doesn't seem so expensive when you consider that it's half the price of its less mellow-tasting French cousin, fleur de sel. Uncomplicated foods, such as baked potatoes, sautéed vegetables and poached fish, show it off to its best advantage. Price $10/pound. Price for table salt 50 cents/pound.
Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese
Why spend more Because farmhouse Cheddars are aged longer than their factory-produced counterparts--over a year versus 90 days--they have a complex flavor and sharp bite that comes through brilliantly when cooked as well as when eaten plain. The textures of Cheddars from different artisans vary from smooth and creamy to crumbly and dry, which makes Cheddar an extremely versatile cheese in the kitchen. Price $8 to $14/pound. Price for factory-made cheddar $5/pound.
Why spend more Most smokehouse bacons are thick-cut and meaty, with just the right amount of buttery fat. But the most intriguing thing about them is just how different one can be from the next--a result of each producer's idiosyncratic curing and smoking process. Sweet, smoky or somewhere in between, each bacon has its own singular personality. Smokehouse bacons are never boring, and almost always absolutely delicious. Price $7 to $12/pound. Price for mass-marketed brands $4/pound.
Why spend more The piquillo pepper is proof that a little smoke can be an extraordinary thing. Produced in the Navarra region of Spain, piquillos are cooked over a wood fire, then hand-peeled; the haunting smokiness deepens the pepper's natural flavor and highlights its subtle heat. Although it's possible to approximate the flavor of piquillo peppers by using roasted red bell peppers and a pinch of hot paprika, nothing really duplicates it. Price $5 to $10/jar. Price for jarred roasted bell peppers $3.89/jar.
Imported And European-Style Butters
Why spend more European and European-style butters are made with more butterfat and less water than mass-produced American butters. But it takes more than fat to create a fabulous butter. Although color, texture, aroma and flavor vary according to their places of origin, premium butters are satiny-smooth and creamy, with a delicate taste that can range from sweet and nutty to tangy. These butters are best when used most simply--spread on crusty bread, mixed into a creamy spread or dip or added to sauces to lend a distinct richness. The foil-wrapped brands tend to stay fresh the longest. Price $8 to $12/pound. Price for mass-marketed brands $4/pound.