I'd be really interested to know if you have something food-related that you like to splurge on occasionally, and what is it? If a particular brand of a thing is important, what is it?
1. Chocolate. For eating, always 70% dark chocolate. Green & Black's. Dagoba. Chocolove (how can one resist a delicious chocolate bar with a love poem inside the wrapper?!). Scharffenberger. Valrhona. El Rey.
2. Good cheeses. I was never a cheese lover. I never liked gooey, cheesy things all that much, so I didn't care much about the quality of my cheese. Over time, I gradually began to appreciate the huge difference a good cheese makes in cooking (and eating). And my grocery budget grew, so I began to splurge (because it can cost a lot). I use very, very little cheese, so it lasts a long time. If I could afford just one cheese splurge, it would definitely be Parmigiano-Reggiano (the real parmesan). And if I couldn't afford it, then so be it. We have to live within our budgets! A tiny bit of good cheese goes a long way, though. I also buy Oregonzola or Crater Lake Blue from Rogue Creamery-- the small-town Oregon artisanal cheese company that beat all of the European blue cheeses in the world cheese competition two or three years ago. I also have their raw cheddar in my fridge right now. And I keep a smoked gouda made by another small artisanal company in Oregon. I don't know how authentic it is, but it sure tastes great as a snack with apple slices.
3. Decent oils and vinegars. I'm not even going to begin to go into brands and all the ins and outs of this, mostly because I don't know what I'm talking about! But also because pretty much every cook-writer out there has a different favorite and a different opinion on this. And there is a huge range of tastes in olive oils, kind of like wine. I get this a little bit, but it's mostly beyond my knowledge (and currently, my desire to know) to have a clue about always picking out the right olive oil for the job. It makes my head spin, and this can get outlandishly expensive. Look at the price of real basalmic vinegar (way over $100 for a little bit). I'm not about to do that, so I use Lucini, which is still expensive enough for the regular, everyday cook. Basalmic vinegar is way overused, I think. Deborah Madison, for one, writes about this, and suggests using just a bit of basalmic vinegar and finishing the recipe with red wine vinegar. That's what I do, so my basalmic lasts a long time. My cupboards are not filled with fine oils and vinegars, but they are also not filled with the cheapest supermarket store shelf stuff. I just read occasionally about oils and vinegars, and I do the best I can, within reason, because there really is a taste difference, especially for someone like me who likes clean, bright, pure tastes (the oils and vinegars are not hidden in lots of ingredients).
4. European butter. High fat and very yellow.
5. Salt. I've splurged on Fleur de Sel and have used it very sparingly. I buy routinely buy Celtic sea salt, kosher salt, and regular sea salt.
6. Raw goat and cow's milk and eggs from a friend's farm. Real milk. The eggs are not a "splurge" because they're free range, organic, and cost $2 a dozen. Not bad. The milk costs more than store milk, but it's fresh and raw with cream on top. I use the cream quite happily. I make fresh cheese with the goat milk. I make kefir and other things with the cow's milk.
7. Organic produce from the store, the farmers' market, or my CSA. It costs more, yes. But maybe it's an investment that will be repaid many times over in good health. It certainly tastes better! Paying for this is a priority, I can currently afford it, and it's worth the cost.
8. Coffee beans. I used to buy an organic fresh-roasted bean locally, but that's no longer available. I buy my beans at Starbucks because their particular Sumatra blend is my all-time favorite. But I'm looking into other roasters-- smaller, organic, fair trade...
9. Organic, free-range chickens for broth. This is expensive broth! But it's sooooo good. I made broth all winter. Melissa had some health issues (strange and strong allergic reactions), and while she was recovering, she didn't want to eat much. She craved chicken broth, so I made it constantly, using the really good method from Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Sometimes Melissa drank straight broth, and sometimes I made light vegetable soups with it. Later, she was craving soup, and we had no broth left in the house, so we picked up a can of Progresso in the store. Ewww. It tastes so salty and murky and scary. So I will continue to splurge on good chickens to make good broth.
10. Cookbooks. I have way over 100 of them, which stymies some people. This is an investment I have loved making. I read the books over and over, and I refer to them every single day. It's my culinary education. :-) When I have an ingredient I want to use in a new way, I might consult 20 of my cookbooks, looking at how each one uses this ingredient. I may follow an exact recipe, or based on what I've just read, come up with my own. For instance, what to do with the mache that came in this week's CSA? I know a basic thing to do, but what have others done? I have a look. Not much there! But there are a few ideas to get me going.
Since it's food and list-making week, maybe tomorrow I'll post a list of my Top 10 cookbooks for finding things to do with vegetables. :-)