Extra-Virgin Olive OilIt is, of course, essential to a great vinaigrette, but you can also use it as a sauce (as the Italians do) or drizzle it over simply prepared foods, such as raw or roasted vegetables, grilled fish and meats, cooked beans, pasta and polenta, and even soups.
The term "extra virgin" means the oil is pressed from premium-quality olives and has a very low acidity, a key to fine flavor. These oils can vary in taste and intensity, from buttery to fruity to nutty, and in color, from golden yellow to deep green, depending on the olives. Color is not an indicator of flavor or quality.
Labels on the best extra-virgin olive oils tell you exactly where the olives were grown. Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, and California all offer high-quality varieties. Another rule of thumb: The more information on the label (how the oil was made, the kind of olives used, the date of harvest), the more likely the oil is to be superior.
Parmigiano-ReggianoThis sweetly pungent and piquant cheese that's handmade in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region is the cheese no cook should be without. Its flavor magically complements just about everything savory―pasta, risotto, soups, polenta, vegetables, seafood―as well as many fruits. (It's also a fine eating cheese in its own right.) Long, thin, irregular shavings of Parmigiano are dramatic embellishments that turn any number of simple foods, from salads to focaccia, into perfect fast hors d'oeuvres.
It's usually sold in chunks cut from a huge wheel. Look for firm, moist cheese―it shouldn't be cracked or dry―with the name "Parmigiano-Reggiano" stamped on the rind. To store, keep it refrigerated, wrapped in parchment paper and foil. (Never use plastic―it doesn't allow the cheese to "breathe," inviting spoilage.)
RS pick: Available at Zingerman's, $26 a pound, zingermans.com or 888-636-8162.
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Creme Fraiche, Sea Salt, and European-Style Butter
Crème FraîcheCrème fraîche is a thick, cultured cream that has a tangy, nutty flavor and a luxurious consistency. It goes way beyond heavy cream, lending an inimitable silky richness to dishes such as soups, sauces, and purees. A tablespoon or two is often all that is needed. Crème fraîche is the ultimate accompaniment to almost any dessert, and because it lasts weeks in the refrigerator, it's easy to keep on hand.
RS pick: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Crème Fraîche, $4 at igourmet.com. D'Isigny Crème Fraîche from France is no longer available from igourmet.com due to inspection and importing regulations.
Sea SaltSea salt, harvested from evaporated seawater, can be used as a "finishing salt." A few snowflakelike grains added just before serving amplify a food's flavor. Different salts have subtly different flavors, textures, and colors, depending on their origin. Maldon Sea Salt, from England, has a lovely flaky texture and a clean sea flavor. Fleur de Sel, from Brittany, France, is considered the caviar of sea salts, and some say that it has a faint aroma of violets.
RS pick: Maldon Sea Salt, $12 for 8.5 ounces, at most major supermarkets or chefshop.com.
European-Style ButterEuropean-style butter contains more butterfat, and hence less water, than the typical American butter, so it's wonderfully rich. It is often made with cultured cream as opposed to plain, unfermented cream, which has a less complex flavor. It transforms bread into a marvelous hors d'oeuvre, and its richness comes through in baked goods and sauces.
RS pick: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Cultured Butter, $8 for 8 ounces, butterandcheese.net.
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Roasted-Nut Oils and Fresh Herbs
Roasted-Nut OilsNut oils pressed from roasted hazelnuts or walnuts have a sweet, vivid flavor and aroma. They are best used for flavoring, not cooking, and make surprising instant dressings for many vegetables. Try walnut oil with pureed potatoes or root vegetables; use hazelnut oil with artichokes, leeks, or asparagus. Nut oils are more perishable than other oils and must be stored in the refrigerator.
RS pick: J. Leblanc Huile de Noisettes (hazelnut oil), $22.99 for 500 milliliters, kalustyans.com or at specialty food stores.
Fresh HerbsFresh herbs, to many people, seem like an extravagance when compared with dried. But fresh herbs have vibrant flavors and perfumes that can transform a simple dish into something special. Fresh herbs will keep for up to 7 days when wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Woody herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, and sage, tend to keep a little longer when stored with this method. To release more flavor, tear the leaves before adding them to your dishes.
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Vanilla Beans and Dark Chocolate
Vanilla BeansVanilla beans, the shriveled brown pods from an orchid, differ in flavor depending on their origin. Bourbon vanilla beans, from Madagascar, have a rich, sweet, deep flavor. Mexican beans have a hint of spiciness. Those from Tahiti have an over-the-top floral-fruity scent. Look for pods 6 to 8 inches long that are moist and pliable and sealed in an airtight jar. To use one in cooking, split the bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, then add both seeds and pod to the dish as indicated. You can also add a used, dry pod to cocoa powder, confectioners' sugar, or regular sugar to impart a subtle vanilla flavor.
Dark ChocolateDark chocolate that is labeled "mass 70% cocoa" transforms desserts, even ordinary brownies, into extraordinary confections. Look on the label for the word "bittersweet" or "semisweet" or for a high percentage of chocolate liquor―at least 70 percent―since the liquor contains all the aroma and flavor of the chocolate.
RS pick: Lindt Excellence, $3.30 for a 3.5-ounce bar, lindtusa.com. Or Scharffen Berger, $10 for a 9.7-ounce bar, Whole Foods Market or scharffenberger.com