Notes on some frequently-used ingredients and where to find them.
A sun-dried, flavorful, somewhat spicy crushed red pepper from Turkey and Syria. In New York, I used to buy it at Kalustyans or the spice shop under one of our favorite restaurants. In the Bay Area, I've found it at a Middle Eastern specialty shop, and of course, there's always Amazon. The best thing about Aleppo is that unlike a chile, it doesn't need to be cooked, so you can add it right before serving if something you're making ever needs a last-minute hotness adjustment. And, it keeps (in the fridge) for up to about a year without losing much flavor.
Try Eden Organic if you're looking for low sodium or BPA-free cans or just particularly good beans. Certainly pricier than the supermarket variety, but if you soak your own dried beans every now and then, the cost balances out and your overall deliciousness quotient doubles.
I often have a carton of chicken or veggie broth on hand for risottos, sauces, or just adding a splash of liquid to create a little steam for sauteed veggies. Most supermarket brands (as well as a surprising number of organic brands touting themselves as uber-natural) have a mile long ingredient list that include things like MSG (and/or autolyzed yeast or maltodextrin, which are basically the same thing), added sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and a ton of salt. I read a depressing number of cans and cartons before finding Imagine, which has low sodium versions of both chicken and veggie broth, a set of ingredients that actually sound like food, and a good flavor that adds some depth to whatever you cook with it.
Our milk, cream, butter, and often cheese now come from local, pastured cows. (As Pollan notes, "you are what what you eat eats too," which takes a moment to parse but ultimately makes quite a bit of sense.) Worth seeking out, both for health reasons and for taste.
Eschew the supermarket brands and anything plastered with health claims (Farmer-Dan-the-Family-Man's omega 3 cage free all vegetarian feed super duper ecstatically happy chickens are probably stuffed in a dark overcrowded box eating things they didn't evolve to eat just like any other chicken from an industrial farming operation), and just look for the word "pastured." See this post for more, but the long and short of it is that local, pastured chicken eggs actually tend to be more healthy (e.g., they have less cholesterol than industrial chicken eggs, because of what the chickens are eating) and less unhealthy (e.g., they're less likely to get you sick). Yes, they're more expensive, but after learning more than I wanted to on this topic, I've just adjusted my sense of what an egg costs, because I'm not sure a real egg and an industrial egg even belong in the same food group.
Forbidden Rice (Black Rice)
A Chinese rice with a black hull and wonderful nutty flavor that shades anything cooked with it a deep purple hue. Forbidden rice is inevitably moister and nuttier than brown rice and cooks in far less time (15-20 minutes), yet it's unpolished and has all the nutritional heft and whole foodiness of brown rice.
A sweet red crushed pepper from Spain, available at Spanish food stores, like The Spanish Table, or online. This site is a lovely reference for different varieties of peppers.
I use Extra Virgin olive oil for just about everything. But, it turns out that out a ridiculous number of major brand olive oils are not actually extra-virgin as claimed...you can look up your favorite on p. 10 of this report from UC Davis to see whether to stick with it or switch brands. California Olive Ranch was one that made the cut, or try going local if you live near olive growers and want to take the opportunity to support small farms.
Most of the produce I get is local and organic and comes from the Sacramento Co-op. I first started buying local and organic produce because it's healthier, but now I'm just obsessed with the taste.
Whole wheat pasta
Different brands and shapes of whole wheat pasta taste completely different, so it's worth experimenting with a variety of different types. Some taste like cardboard. Resist the urge to conclude that all whole wheat pasta is like this. Say goodbye to the offending brand, and look elsewhere. My favorites by far are Eden Organic's Kamut Spirals and Delallo whole wheat orzo.