Why pay over the odds to eat well? From Grana Padano to frozen raspberries, skirt steak to good cava, there are numerous ingredients you can use as cheaper alternatives to more expensive gourmet items
Like so many of the world's great debates, it all started with a disagreement about cheese. There I was one Sunday, innocently pushing a trolley around the supermarket, when someone (to protect her anonymity, let's call her Mrs N), blithely picked up a wedge of parmesan, when its far cheaper cousin, Grana Padano, was clearly available. Reader, I was shocked. Didn't everyone get that memo, sometime early in the noughties, that made it clear that Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano are basically interchangeable? Mrs N looked at me, pityingly, and not for the first time asked: "Are you sure you're just not being tight?"
But, no, for once, I wasn't. I am aware that despite the close similarities in where and how they produced, these two grana cheeses (that is, hard, granular, grating cheeses), are not exactly the same. Eaten side-by-side, they taste subtly different. Parmesan has a sharpness, a twang to it, which can get your saliva glands pumping like a good sauvignon blanc. It is also more savoury than the milder, nuttier Grana Padano. Nonetheless, those differences are only clear if you eat either cheese on its own (an underrated activity, in my opinion), or if you are using them as a primary ingredient in, for instance, a salad. In general day-to-day cooking, in risottos or pasta dishes, or grated on top of either, the difference in flavour is so negligible that it seems barmy to waste money on pricey parmesan. Buying Grana Padano, you save around £1 on each 200g piece.
There is at precedent, here. To pluck one example from the thousands of recipes which happily suggest you can use either cheese, Giorgio Locatelli is even fine with you using Grana Padano to make his parmesan grissini. Meanwhile, the chef Theo Randall, an expert in Italian food, may have held events to promote Parmigiano-Reggiano but, back when he was creating pizzas for Pizza Express, he saw fit to top two with Grana Padano. Despite it being the more expensive ingredient, there are clearly times when parmesan is not necessarily the most suitable ingredient and/ or Grana Padano is a perfectly sensible compromise.
At Naylor Towers, Grana Padano-gate rumbles on, a simmering, unresolved conflict. But it set me thinking about which other costly, gourmet ingredients you might be able to drop from or replace in your weekly shop, without it in any meaningful way compromising the overall quality of your dishes. Finicky cooks may call it corner-cutting. I would refer them to the cost-saving on their shopping bill.
Unless you are desperate for authentic cubes in your dishes, using bacon over pancetta is another obvious Italian example. The best pancetta can cost up to £4 per 100g, but, in the vast majority of recipes, you can mimic its concentrated flavour pretty accurately with decent streaky. "Obviously, if you can't get your hands on pancetta, it's fine to use bacon," says the eminently sensible Nigella, in the recipe for her Brussels sprouts with chestnuts. "Just scissor it up, and fry it in a little more oil than you need for the pancetta." Staying south of the Dolomites, while Italians might buy fresh versions of stuffed pastas, such as ravioli or tortelloni, they would be flummoxed by Britain's willingness to pay more than double the price for fresh versions of tagliatelli or spaghetti.
Dried pasta is not only far cheaper but far superior; which is a point worth stressing. Spending less need not always mean accepting a lower quality product. Does anybody out there still buy fresh peas? For years now, chefs have been banging-on about how, because the sugars in peas start breaking down into starch immediately after harvesting, the frozen varieties are sweeter and, ironically, taste fresher. You cannot make the same claim for frozen fruit. Defrosted raspberries always look a bit "deflated". But their flavour can certainly match the best fresh berries out there, for less than half price. In desserts, where the look of the berries is less important than how they taste, they are perfect - with the added advantage that, certainly in Waitrose, you can buy British berries all year round, rather than those imported out of season from Spain and North Africa.
So, are you buying hanger steaks over rump? Cava and English sparkling wines which offer better value than "cheap" champagne? Which expensive "foodie" ingredients have you found cheaper, and perhaps better, replacements for?