Believe me, destitute college epicures: you don’t need pricey ingredients to cook like you give a damn. Tossing these six items into your cart every now and then—to the tune of, oh, three bucks a week—will elevate whatever comes out of your kitchen.
About once a year, I buy a big box of kosher salt for five dollars. I’m willing to bet that you too can fork over a Lincoln once every 365 days to drastically improve your cooking. Coarse salt adheres to food better than table salt does, it has a superior texture, it’s easier to control the amount you’re using, and nobody will give you the side-eye if you put a pinch atop chocolate chip cookies or a caramel sundae. I like to keep a dish of it next to the stove so it’s easily accessible and I never forget to salt my pasta water (a cardinal sin, as far as I’m concerned).
Weekly investment: 10 cents
Payoff: Incalculable. Just buy the damned salt, okay?
Half the time, mediocre food needs one of two things: salt or acid. Tossing a lemon or two into your grocery cart will take care of the latter problem quite nicely. A squeeze of lemon juice brightens up just about anything, whether it’s a tray of roasted vegetables, a bowl of pasta, or a plain old glass of water. No, the cloudy, tannic pre-bottled junk is not an acceptable substitute. Suck it up and get some lemons. After you cut open a lemon for the first time, store the two halves in a Ziploc bag in the fridge. You should be able to get quite a bit of use out of a single fruit.
Weekly investment: $1
Payoff: Cheerful dinners.
I just Googled it, and a McCormick black peppercorn grinder costs $2. What a time to be alive. That’s a pretty low price to pay for being short of that grayish pre-ground dust that tastes like approximately nothing.
Weekly investment: 15 cents, tops.
Payoff: Google ‘cacio e pepe,’ then come back here and try to tell me it’s not worth it.
My favorite piece of advice about parsley comes from writer and chef Tamar Adler: “I recommend buying a bunch of parsley whenever you can. Then, once you have it, act as children do when handed hammers and suddenly everything needs pounding.” A handful of chopped parsley improves just about everything. I store parsley as I would fresh-cut flowers, in a jar of water on my kitchen counter. It also makes the place smell nice, which is a plus.
Weekly investment: $1
Payoff: Feeling like you’re in a French bistro whenever you make scrambled eggs.
Hear me out: there is a good chance that you actually love anchovies and you just don’t know it. Do you like Caesar dressing? There you go, you like anchovies. A dab of anchovy paste adds an incredible umami note to salad dressings, sandwiches, pasta sauces, you name it. A single tube will go a long way.
Weekly investment: Depends on how hard the anchovy bug bites you, but we’re talking pennies to quarters here.
Payoff: Joining the ranks of the enlightened, who know that cured fish are to be revered, not feared.
Liberate yourself from garlic powder, I beg of you. Fresh garlic is cheap, it improves pretty much all savory dishes, and if you buy a whole bulb you have the option of roasting it. Roasted garlic is ambrosial.
Weekly investment: 50 cents
Payoff: Food that tastes like you actually want it to.