Being a smart grocery shopper isn't necessarily about getting the lowest price; it's about getting the best value for your dollar. There are plenty of ways to spend less for the same or higher-quality food, such as buying a whole head of lettuce and washing it yourself vs. getting a package of pre-washed greens. But there are many cases where cheaper is decidedly not better. Some more-expensive items add so much flavor and nutrition that they more than justify their price. Here are my top 10 worthy splurges and how to make the most of them.1. Wild riceWhy it's worth it: The epitome of a local food, wild rice is native to North America and was a staple food for many Native Americans. It has more protein than brown rice, is extremely antioxidant-rich and has a delightfully chewy texture, and a little goes a long way to add colorful panache to sides, soups and salads. It will last on the shelf almost indefinitely in an airtight container.How to make the most of it: Mix wild rice, which can cost more than $3 a cup, with less costly grains such as brown rice ($1.50 a cup) to up the ante on the appeal of the overall dish while keeping the total cost low.2. Good dark chocolateWhy it's worth it: High-quality dark chocolate, the kind that not only melts in your mouth and reveals multiple layers of flavor but also has potential health benefits, is at least 60 percent cocoa solids (which are where its antioxidants are found) and has simple ingredients: cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and possibly vanilla, and lecithin (a naturally occurring emulsifier). The taste and health benefits are well worth the cost, which might be twice what you would pay for a chocolate bar that contains corn syrup, vegetable oils, artificial flavors and colors and little in the way of actual chocolate - and therefore scant antioxidant power.
How to make the most of it: When eating chocolate, truly savor it, letting it dissolve slowly in your mouth and experiencing its taste, texture and aroma completely. This way you will eat less and enjoy it more.3. Parmigiano-ReggianoWhy it's worth it: Parmigiano-Reggiano is the gold standard and, according to European law, the only real parmesan cheese. Because of its two-year aging process, it has an intense nutty flavor, and a little goes a long way to enhance the taste of all kinds of foods. On the other hand, you need to shake mounds of the cheaper packaged "parmesan" out of the jar to get much flavor at all. More calories, less flavor - that's not much of a bargain.How to make the most of it: Always grate your parmesan cheese freshly, as you use it, to reap the most flavor. Pre-grated cheese loses its robust taste quickly.4. Smoked paprikaWhy it's worth it: Smoked paprika is a flavor revelation that you will miss out on if you balk at the price, which is about double that of regular paprika. Although both are made of ground peppers and offer a wealth of antioxidants, particularly carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect eye health, plus beta carotene, the antioxidant form of vitamin A), smoked paprika has a distinctive, deep, earthy, smoky taste that is absolutely tantalizing. Simply sprinkle it on eggs, potatoes or seafood to turn these simple foods into swoon-worthy dishes, healthfully.How to make the most of it: Don't be tempted by huge "bargain" containers of smoked paprika - or any spice, for that matter - unless you go through it quickly. Spices lose their potency over time, so you are better off buying smaller quantities more frequently.5. Fresh herbsWhy they're worth it: When fresh herbs are about $2 for a bunch, it's easy to look at a recipe that calls for a tablespoon or two and think you can skip them entirely or use dried instead. But while both fresh and dried herbs have documented health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes thanks to their bounty of antioxidants, fresh herbs also offer vitamins A, C and K. They're also well worth their price tag in their ability to take a meal from black-and-white to Technicolor taste-wise. If you can, grow herbs in your garden or on your windowsill, but don't hesitate to buy them otherwise.How to make the most of them: Store herbs properly so they don't go to waste. Wash and dry them, then wrap them in a paper towel and place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where they will last a week or more. Or puree them with a little water and freeze in ice cube trays so you can pop them into soups and stews for months to come.6. Balsamic vinegarWhy it's worth it: Aged balsamic vinegar made in the traditional style in Modena, Italy, is like liquid gold. A three-ounce bottle can run you $200. Although I am completely enamored of it, I am not talking about that kind of spurge here. Rather, I am talking about the value of paying a little extra for your everyday balsamic salad vinegar. A well-made balsamic vinegar will have just one or two ingredients, vinegar and/or grape must, and a complex, layered, sweet-tart flavor. The cheapest kinds tend to have either a cloyingly sweet or very acidic taste and often have added sugars and caramel flavor and color. The price of a good balsamic can range from about $8 to more than $20 for an eight-ounce bottle, and the quality tends to parallel the price, so buy the best one your budget will allow.How to make the most of it: A little good balsamic goes such a long way to elevate and enliven a dish; it's a bargain considering how much flavor a mere tablespoon provides. Besides using it in salad dressing, drizzle a little over roasted meats, poultry or vegetables for their last 10 to 15 minutes in the oven.7. Real vanillaWhy it's worth it: The flavor of vanilla can help bring out the sweetness in foods, so it is a great way to cut back on added sugars and still appease your sweet tooth. Pure vanilla, whether it is in the whole bean form at about $5 per bean, or as an extract ranging from $1 to $3 per ounce, costs a lot more than imitation vanilla, which will run you about 20 cents an ounce. But the real thing imparts a smooth, deep flavor and gentle, homey aroma, while the artificial substitute tastes and smells overpowering and slightly chemical, and can have a bitter after taste.How to make the most of it: Heat will dissipate vanilla extract's aroma and flavor, so add it to cooked foods after they have cooled.8. Pure maple syrupWhy it's worth it: Sure, pure maple syrup is about five times the price of "maple-flavored syrup," but when you buy the real thing, you get a rich and nuanced sweetener with the bonus of some trace minerals and antioxidants. With the cheap stuff you are buying a sticky sweet concoction of corn syrup, caramel color and artificial flavors and preservatives. No contest.How to make the most of it: Use a tablespoon to drizzle it over your food so you don't glug too much on your plate. And the best-kept secret is that Grade B or "extra-dark" syrup has a deeper maple flavor, so save some money by getting that if you can find it.9. Specialty saltWhy it's worth it: Most of us get far more sodium than the currently recommended cap of 2,300 milligrams daily, so to meet that goal it's best to use modest amounts of salt for maximum impact. The coarse-ground or flaked specialty salts that have burst on the scene, from smoked to Himalayan pink, don't have any proven health benefits (don't believe the claims you read online), but a small amount can have an impressive visual and taste impact. Use a specialty salt as a finishing element for texture and a salty punch on top of foods where you can see and experience it on the front end. This way you can cut back on the salt in the dish without compromising taste. Exotic salts can be expensive, but a small amount lasts a long time if you are using it sparingly.How to make the most of it: Stick with regular salt for cooking, and just finish foods with the specialty salt.10. Extra-virgin olive oilWhy it's worth it: Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first press of the olives and retains most of the olive's flavors and health benefits. A good-quality one not only provides rich, nuanced flavor that can make the difference between a good dish and a fantastic one, it also has a wealth of protective antioxidants (in addition to the healthful monounsaturated fats that are in all olive oils). Plus there is evidence that it helps you absorb the nutrients in your food better than other oils do.Those assets more than justify the price, which can range from $10 to $30 a liter. Look for one that is cold-pressed, since that process will yield the most flavor and protective compounds. Like wines, different extra-virgin olive oils have very different taste profiles, so it is worth it to choose one from a place that allows you to taste samples.How to make the most of it: Use extra-virgin olive oil for raw dishes such as salads or as a finishing drizzle on dips, cooked vegetables, soups and stews. Heat destroys its delicate flavors and antioxidant power, so for cooking use cheaper "pure" or "light" olive oil, which can be found for about $8 per liter. Also, because it will go rancid over time, and with exposure to heat and light, buy only as much as you will use in a two-month period and store it in a cool, dark place.© 2015 The Washington Post
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