I have always been puzzled by the huge differences in the quality of ingredients that, at first glance, seem to be similar. Tomatoes are an obvious example. Who hasn’t been fooled by spectacular looking tomatoes that are utterly tasteless, horribly textured, and devoid of aroma? Even stuff like potatoes and carrots can vary. But most people are more aware of things like beef, mostly because it’s comparatively expensive. If I buy a bag of potatoes that are a bit below par I can survive the blow to my bank account. And doctoring a potato to make it palatable is a simple affair. But making a tough, tasteless porterhouse taste great is an undertaking that, at least in my experience, is akin to Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It may be a good idea, but it probably won’t work.
So choosing ingredients is best done very, very carefully. But there is one problem with this plan; who the hell can tell the difference between a great rutabaga and one that has being cryogenically preserved by ConAgra for 16 years? I know to avoid food with large spots of mold on them, and it’s pretty obvious that if you can sink your thumb into a potato it’s probably past its prime. But I have absolutely no idea what to look for in radishes or brie or pork butt. I am not talking about freshness. I am talking about the difference between a good looking steak that tastes just so-so, and a good looking steak that knocks your socks off.
I think I have a pretty good handle on beef, but trying to articulate my reasons for choosing one package of skirt steak over its neighbor is an exercise in futility — I have the sneaking suspicion that were I subjected to a rigorous test I might fail. And I can’t tell at all whether those cute little lamb loin chops will be great or just good. Luckily I have found a source for lamb that is very reliable. But also expensive, so I am constantly looking for an alternative source, and constantly being disappointed. It’s not that most lamb stinks, it’s that a few places get lamb that is simply better. Lest you think I am a snob, it is not always a function of cost. My go-to store for pork butt is the A&P, and they don’t make anyone’s list of “Best Butcher.”
I’m not sure of my point in all of this; I just find it interesting that quality varies so much. Maybe that is the biggest difference between my dinner table and a table at Per Se. That and about 300 other things.