Do better ingredients make a difference?

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I make Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannellini Beans on a very regular basis. (Click here for the recipe). It’s a great pasta dish because the sun-dried tomatoes make it taste bright and summery and the beans make it hardy (hearty? how do you spell that?) and substantial. Everyone loves it and plus you get to dump a ton of cheese on top, which makes everyone love it even more.

Recently, I was at Dean & Deluca in SoHo browsing around when I decided I was going to make my Cavatappi for dinner. I’d just grab the standard ingredients–the garlic, the cavatappi, the sun-dried tomatoes and the beans–shoot home on the subway and make it. But this being Dean & Deluca, it wasn’t quite that simple: the sun-dried tomatoes were behind the glass case, they were imported, and a man had to scoop them into a container for me. The beans, too, were imported as you can see in the above photo. And the pasta itself wasn’t DeCecco, it was real dried Italian cavatappi that I’d actually purchased at the Italian store in the Chelsea market a few days earlier.

So this version of Cavatappi undoubtedly had superior ingredients. Did that yield a superior result?

The answer is pretty much: yes. It’s almost taken for granted in the chef community that better ingredients make better food, but I hadn’t really put that to the test at home. Yet these sun-dried tomatoes were electric, they were so tangy and sweet. The beans had more depth and tasted more convincingly Italian (ok, that’s a stretch–but they were certainly more noticeable than my normal canned beans). And the pasta was very good though, I guess, not mind-blowingly different.

So, basically, the good sun-dried tomatoes made my Cavatappi a better Cavatappi. Are they essential? Absolutely not. It’s just good to confirm that better ingredients can make for better food.

17 comments

  1. It’s very true: while lower-quality ingredients usually “will do,” the higher-quality (but not necessarily more expensive) ingredients inevitably make a difference. I think this is particularly true about sun-dried tomatoes, which at worst can be tough, sour, and almost bitter. A travesty, in my book, since I absolutely love good sun-dried ‘matoes.

  2. Hm, I think I need to check out this recipe. We can always use good pasta dishes at our house.

    For what it’s worth, “hearty” is more applicable to a meal or a handshake, whereas “hardy” is describes a tough explorer or a soldier.

  3. Now the question is, will you want to go back to the canned ingredients for this dish?

    And yea, like the other commenter said, it’s hearty.

  4. I concur with kian. Besides, it’s a matter of personal preference when deciding what’s “better” or not.

    There are quite a few people who get upset when Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) suggests using “quality” or “good” ingredients. I suppose they are equating Ina’s use of “good” or “quality” with “more expensive.” The key here is to find and use ingredients you think are best, according to your tastes, whether those ingredients are the most expensive or not!

  5. Actually it can be either hardy or hearty, it just depends on what you mean. Plants can be “hardy” if they stand up really well to whatever weather heads their way, for instance; they can also be part of a “hearty” lasagna. Lasagna might be hardy too if it stands up well to traveling, though that’s kind of an awkward description.

    This is one of those “no duh” posts that everyone should read: the crap is NOT the same as the creme, but too often we forget that the creme even exists and/or make excuses never to buy it. Some nights, you *should* pay a little extra: the taste will be worth it. It’s like wine. There’s table wine (normal every day ingredients) and there’s fine wine (Dean & Deluca sundried tomatoes).

  6. Not to dispute your finding, which I know were not done in a rigorous lab setting, but it’s also the case that if you expect a dish to be good, your mind helps make it so. This is a well-studied phenomenon, and it’s why restaurants plate their food nicely and write out long lists of sources and qualifiers (“dry aged, beer soaked, Fulton Farms beet greens”): Those things make a dish taste better than when you just say “beet salad.” Mindless Eating is a good book about these various tricks the brain plays.

    And while Katelyn’s right that hardy and hearty are both valid words, I think most would say hearty is the correct choice this time.

  7. You will find that ingredients that have been produced on a small scale taste infinitely better than produce and food products that have been generated in a large scale commercial manner.

    This is one of the premises from which the Slow Food Movement sprang. Not only do they taste better, they are often better for you, utilising heritage plants and ‘rare breed livestock’ which are becoming extinct because they do not grow fast enough for corporations and supermarkets to turn a fast buck.

    These ingredients are also usually more filling and better for your health because the base produce being slow grown is actually more concentrated with flavour and vitamins than what people buy generically. As a consequence you can actually eat a smaller volume to be satisfied and because the food is more flavoursome, you can reduce the number of spices or condiments used – letting the natural flavours that we are increasingly becoming unaccustomed to shine through.

    When you pay more, you are paying for this and artisanal skills which are more laborious than large scale factory production. However, you are also sustaining traditions and keeping people employed rather than being superceded by machines.

    The difference between restaurant cooking and that of the accomplished home cook can be a fine line that is drawn over the provenance of the ingredients used. With global trends moving gradually to SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) Foods, many more people will become aware of what a difference it makes to seek out quality ingredients.

    For many this starts with a visit to a local farmers market and tasting the difference first hand, rather than buying the imported haute gourmet products in the city. You may in fact find someone who is making equally tasty sundried tomatoes locally for example and worldwide there are an increasing number of local specialty Cheesemakers too.

    I hope you go on to explore this further.

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  9. Katelyn,

    Ha, I haven’t tried it myself. I just started coming up with meat descriptions and then tacked on a vegetable (Kobe beef is purported to be fed beer, though I think this has been debunked :) )

    But do let me know if you try it. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea :)

  10. Hi Adam, thanks for the recipe! I had just been searching the ‘net for a good pasta recipe involving sun-dried tomatoes to make last night, when your entry popped up on my reader-radar! I made it with orecchietti, added some broccoli, and used some lovely borlotti beans instead of the cannellini, and it still was fabulous (and easy).

  11. Not to dump on your parade, it just strikes me as ironic that this post follows your post regarding “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” An important argument in the book concerns our eating behavior and its impact on the environment. Beans, Tomatoes, and Pasta imported from Italy might taste better, but is the difference worth all of the carbon emissions to bring those ingredients to your local Dean & Deluca?

  12. I never buy canned beans any more. Dried are so much better in everything; the only trick is to remember to soak them in the morning or the night before. (I also try to dry my own tomatoes, but that requires a garden.)

    And I would go with wine- or port-soaked beets, myself, although you could make a mutant bloody Mary with vodka and beet juice (a borscht turbo?)

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