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When cheaper is better


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I thought it might be interesting to discuss three themes that we've been discussing in the Shaw/Shapiro (aka “Shawpiro”) household lately:

When cheaper is better

When less is more

When none is enough

I'll start a separate discussion on each and edit in the links after they're up. (done)

“When cheaper is better” is something that came up recently when we went on a pancake kick courtesy of a friend who makes really good pancakes. The context in which it came up involves maple syrup. Steven, and I reveal this little known secret but you can't tell anyone, has family in the maple syrup business. Specifically his uncle married a woman whose family produces maple syrup in Vermont. Every year at holiday time we get quarts of maple syrup and they vary from year to year depending on the trees and whatever else affects maple syrup's quality, “terroir” and things like that.

Anyhow, for those of you not familiar with the grades of high-quality Vermont maple syrup, they are as follows:

Fancy Grade: this is a very pure maple syrup that is highly refined and almost clear in color, the most expensive

Grade A Medium Amber: this is slightly darker than Fancy Grade with slightly stronger flavors

Grade A Dark Amber: this tends towards a brownish color like most syrup products you see on store shelves

Grade B: darker still, with the strongest flavors, but still pure maple syrup with no flaws

We have tasted these grades of maple syrup for years under the best of circumstances, expert production from a small family farm and hand schlepped to us from Vermont by relatives, and the conclusion is inescapable that Grade B is the best. That's right, the lower, cheaper grades of maple syrup have more and better flavor. There is no advantage we can see to the higher grades. They do not trade robustness for subtlety. They just don't taste as good. As further evidence, we have been told anecdotally that those in the maple syrup business prefer the lower grades.

Another example:

One of my favorite foods is smoked salmon, and one of the ideal food combinations to me is a bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, onions and tomato slices. That reminds me of the old joke, which was just used in the introduction of the new book Jewish Food: The World at Table, by Matthew Goodman. A Martian crashes his spaceship on Earth, blowing out the tires on his landing gear. He goes in search of a substitute for his tires and passes by a bagel shop. He goes up to the counter and requests four tires. The counterman explains, “These aren't tires, these are bagels, you eat them,” and hands him a bagel. So the Martian takes a bite of the bagel and exclaims, “Hey, these things would be great with lox and cream cheese!”

To get back to the point, we have recently been purchasing a lox-and-cream-cheese spread at Fairway. It is made from the unusable pieces of lox down towards the tail end of the salmon, the pieces that can't be nicely sliced and sold for $30 a pound. Those little pieces are chopped up and mixed with cream cheese to form a spread.

The amazing thing is that this spread is in some ways better than the real thing. The little bits and pieces, when combined with the cream cheese, spread their flavor throughout the cream cheese and everywhere it is spread. It's more lox flavor for $3.95 per 8 ounce tub.

Do you have any examples of when cheaper is better?

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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To get back to the point, we have recently been purchasing a lox-and-cream-cheese spread at Fairway. It is made from the unusable pieces of lox down towards the tail end of the salmon, the pieces that can't be nicely sliced and sold for $30 a pound. Those little pieces are chopped up and mixed with cream cheese to form a spread.

The amazing thing is that this spread is in some ways better than the real thing.

Do you have any examples of when cheaper is better?

Funny you should mention that. Fairway also sells those bits without the cream cheese, and I always stock up on them. Actually, Zabars and Russ and Daughters also both sell smoked-salmon "trimmings", or "ends" cheaply as well. I kind of prefer them, because they usually contain a lot of the fattier sections, which I prefer. The Fairway ones usually contain more of the dry "skin" that forms in smoking that must be trimmed off as they prep each new side for sale, but it's still a mix I love for the same reasons you give. In fact, sometimes the only time I go for an order of full-priced "sliced" salmon is when I can see that they're down to the really fatty part of the salmon. But compared to the disappointment of an order of dry, thin smoked salmon slices, I'm usually happiest with a nice container of "trimmings", and as you say, the price is right!

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Goya EVOO is a good example when compared to pricier Italian brands that are common in supermarkets (most of those "Italian" brands are actually made from non-Italian olives). The Goya has to be one of if not the very best of the inexpensive olive oils.

I also buy "store brand" cream cheese when using it for spreading on bagels. I have yet to detect a difference between that and Philadelphia brand although some insist there's a difference.

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I certainly agree about the Grade B maple syrup. I buy the B grade at Trader Joe's and use it all the time, in cooking, in condiments, in ice cream, on anything that "needs" maple syrup (fried grits, for example.)

It has much more flavor and I want a distinct, hearty flavor, not a delicate hint of maple.

Some of the regular olive oils that are found at the middle eastern stores, or the Italian markets are much cheaper than found in grocery stores. I buy them in the gallon cans for making oven-roasted-in-oil garlic cloves. EVOO is not needed for this, and in fact the "green or vegetal and peppery" flavor of EVOO is not what I want in this product.

They have a much faster turnover in these stores and the product is fresher than at regular markets.

I prefer to buy these oils in the metal cans as I firmly believe that light is one of the prime things that degrades oil rapidly.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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I prefer both Osetra and Sevruga caviars to Beluga.

I'll take a New York strip over a filet mignon any day.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Chef's tongs. Spend too much and they'll be heavier and also incorporate a heavier spring that tires the hand. The $1.99 Chinatown versions are best and although they don't last forever, they ensure that your hands will.

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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Is grade B syrup actually cheaper? I agree that the maple flavor is more pronounced than with grade A, and for that reason I prefer it for pancakes, etc. But I seem to remember that (at TJ's, at least) the two are the same price.

I'll take a New York strip over a filet mignon any day.

And I'll take osso buco over either one. Or a really good brisket, or pot roast. In fact, that's another category: cheap cuts of meat are better for braising.

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Some maple syrup prices from PiecesofVermont.com:

Vermont Fancy Grade $43.98/gal

Grade A Medium $39.98/gal

Grade A Dark $37.98/gal

Grade B $34.98/gal

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I prefer both Osetra and Sevruga caviars to Beluga.

I'll take a New York strip over a filet mignon any day.

Same preference for caviar here. Also, I'll take a fatty, charred piece of cow flesh over a more delicate cut anytime.

EDIT: Over the years, I've had ample, unmitigated access to the "best" French restaurant ingredients mostly through my husband. There is a point when one gets tired of "luxury" flavors in favor of the more "common" stuff.

Edited by touaregsand (log)
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I love Beluga, what it lacks in pop it makes up for in flavor. but I wouldn't consider the other stuff "cheap".

I buy these nasty stewing hens from my farmer lady, free range but cheap. These things must be old laying hens, what little meat they have is so stringy as to be practically inedible. But damn if it doesn't make the most fantastic broth. (I have yet to try a coq au vin with one of these, but given the quality of the meat I've been a little hesitant to risk the time and other ingredients.)

In general my tastes are pretty simple though. Sauteed mustard greens with flatbread over foie gras any day of the week.

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I'll take a New York strip over a filet mignon any day.

That makes two of us. Now, would you go for the USDA Choice over the USDA Prime?

I like rib eye for flavor, choice ditto.

However the home raised stuff I have in my freezer right now is comparable to super prime.

If you live anywhere near a rural area you can buy a calf and arrange for kids in 4-H to raise it for you, you pay the expenses and they get credit for it and you get the meat.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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I think Prime versus Choice is a situation where more expensive is better. Allowing for some variation from specimen to specimen, and all other things being equal, on the whole a Prime New York strip is going to be better than a Choice New York strip. Some things are priced according to quality by the market, and to me the grades of beef are one of those things. Other things, however, are assigned high prices for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with flavor. A filet mignon is one of the most insipid steaks imaginable. I can only assume it commands a high price on account of some combination of 1) tenderness misinterpreted as quality, especially by the subculture of rich people with uninspired tastes; 2) limited supply, because all other things being equal you'd have to charge more for filet mignon than New York strip because there's less tenderloin than striploin in a carcass; and 3) some sort of historical mistake and undeserved reputation perpetuated by marketing and ill-informed conventional wisdom.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Other things, however, are assigned high prices for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with flavor. A filet mignon is one of the most insipid steaks imaginable. I can only assume it commands a high price on account of some combination of 1) tenderness misinterpreted as quality, especially by the subculture of rich people with uninspired tastes; 2) limited supply, because all other things being equal you'd have to charge more for filet mignon than New York strip because there's less tenderloin than striploin in a carcass; and 3) some sort of historical mistake and undeserved reputation perpetuated by marketing and ill-informed conventional wisdom.

People order filet mignon simply because it has an effete-sounding French name. This gives an air of elegance to a flavorless and otherwise unattractive cut of steak.

There are two sides to every story and one side to a Möbius band.

borschtbelt.blogspot.com

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Other things, however, are assigned high prices for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with flavor. A filet mignon is one of the most insipid steaks imaginable. I can only assume it commands a high price on account of some combination of 1) tenderness misinterpreted as quality, especially by the subculture of rich people with uninspired tastes; 2) limited supply, because all other things being equal you'd have to charge more for filet mignon than New York strip because there's less tenderloin than striploin in a carcass; and 3) some sort of historical mistake and undeserved reputation perpetuated by marketing and ill-informed conventional wisdom.

People order filet mignon simply because it has an effete-sounding French name. This gives an air of elegance to a flavorless and otherwise unattractive cut of steak.

Fresser, I think that most people like Filet Mignon because it's very soft/easy to chew, and because of its relative lack of "beefy" flavor. Those are the very reasons that I prefer the cheaper, more "manly" cuts. Also, I'd often, but certainly not always, chose a cheap Bangladeshi take-out meal to a fancy sit-down; a street hot dog to a silly $8 panino; haimisch country-style chinese food to Shun Lee and its ilk; hearty duck thigh stew to magret de canard, etc.

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Also, I'd often, but certainly not always, chose a cheap Bangladeshi take-out meal to a fancy sit-down;  a street hot dog to a silly $8 panino;  haimisch country-style chinese food to Shun Lee and its ilk;  hearty duck thigh stew to magret de canard, etc.

sometimes all you really want is the sunday morning 4.99$ all-you-can-eat, drowning-in-grease chinese buffet. much more satisfying than a more 'proper', and more expensive, breakfast

Cutting the lemon/the knife/leaves a little cathedral:/alcoves unguessed by the eye/that open acidulous glass/to the light; topazes/riding the droplets,/altars,/aromatic facades. - Ode to a Lemon, Pablo Neruda

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Cheap, young cheddar makes a creamier mac and cheese than long-aged cheddar (usually more crumbly and definitely more expensive).

Chicken thighs are tastier and cheaper than chicken breast.

Ditto: pork belly and shoulder over pork loin.

Canned tuna and salmon are cheaper than fresh but there's no substitute for the canned stuff in tuna salads and salmon salads.

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I buy these nasty stewing hens from my farmer lady, free range but cheap. These things must be old laying hens, what little meat they have is so stringy as to be practically inedible. But damn if it doesn't make the most fantastic broth. (I have yet to try a coq au vin with one of these, but given the quality of the meat I've been a little hesitant to risk the time and other ingredients.)

Jeffrey Steingarten says and old bird (he specifies rooster, but I can't see why an old hen would be much different) is the only way to go with coq au vin.

"Last week Uncle Vinnie came over from Sicily and we took him to the Olive Garden. The next day the family car exploded."

--Nick DePaolo

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I don't know about that. I'm a thigh man, myself. :wink:

Thighs are usually available at pretty unbelievable prices in big "club"packs and they are the best for stewing and soup type projects. I also like them grilled. Much more flavorful meat, IMO.

The reason for the cheap price is that North Americans don't like them. I have a friend, my brother's roomate in college, who is now a big cheese with Tyson's in overseas sales and he told me that a very large percentage of the business that they do overseas, particularly in the Pacific Rim, is in legs and thighs. They just have too many left over in NA so they sell them cheap overseas.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I have a friend, my brother's roomate in college, who is now a big cheese with Tyson's in overseas sales and he told me that a very large percentage of the business that they do overseas, particularly in the Pacific Rim, is in legs and thighs. They just have too many left over in NA so they sell them cheap overseas.

This phenomenon goes by the wonderful name of "Carcass Imbalance". Incidentally, I think this would be a good name for a heavy metal band.

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The dark meat versus light meat situation pops up with respect to chicken, turkey and most other birds. There are reasonable people who prefer one or the other for various reasons, but it's a good example of a place where having a contrarian palate presents an opportunity. And in this instance, I'd hazard a guess that while the Western population at large favors light meat, the majority of those in the gourmet subculture prefer dark.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The dark meat versus light meat situation pops up with respect to chicken, turkey and most other birds. There are reasonable people who prefer one or the other for various reasons, but it's a good example of a place where having a contrarian palate presents an opportunity. And in this instance, I'd hazard a guess that while the Western population at large favors light meat, the majority of those in the gourmet subculture prefer dark.

So does this mean Im not a member of the gourmet subculture? I grew up prefering dark meat, but my tastes changed as I got older. And quite frankly, legs just gross me out. All that sinew and whatever else its called on the leg. Ick. I dont eat red meat either, so maybe that has something to do with it.

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I'm a great fan of chicken livers, which are really cheap. They make excellent pates and spreads when sauteed in a bit of duck fat, simply seasoned and pureed with a little bit of leftover wine. This is the basis for all kinds of great terrines that you can mix together and press into ramekins, serving them at aperetif. Chicken livers are wonderful simply seared and served on a mound of braised celery root. They are great in rice (aka dirty rice).

Another cheap favorite is root vegetables of any kind. Carrots, celery root, black turnips, rutabagas, potatoes. These are the basis of a fabulous winter soup. Sometimes a rutabaga bacon soup is the only thing that will hit the spot. :rolleyes:

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