Develop Favorite Brands. By using the same product or manufacturers products repeatedly, you can introduce consistency and control into your cooking, so that other parts of the dish are what vary (think rice, pasta or other staples here). Even if there might be a better, more expensive, more exotic, more perfect ingredient out there, in each category of ingredients determine you favorites instead of being random.
My real life example: bread flour. King Arthur Bread flour is my favorite. However HEB's Bakers Pride (granted a regional brand) is almost identical at a significantly lower price). Yet, HEB's Hill Country Fare brand of bread flour is not recommended at all. I've done side-by-side taste tests, more than once to determine this.
Experiment and Don't Just Stick to Your Favorites. Boy I love doing this food writing deal. OF COURSE the opposite of almost any advice is also true. Experiment, try new brands, try new products. You just never know. Also, some ingredients change over time. They might be a great value, then get more expensive. Or quality could wane. Or a strong competitor could come along. Or your priorities could change.
Just keep your experimentation and favorite brand development efforts separate for a while. Use both approaches. Experiment. Find favorite. Use favorite. Use more of favorite. Experiment again.
My real life example: I used to use Filipo Berio olive oil exclusively, even for routine browning and so on. But over time I found it to be middle of the road. It's still a good value, workhorse product. But I use a number of different higher end oils for more flavor. In fact, lately I've been using so many different brands I don't want to recommend one......however....consider 'unfiltered' olive oils and also look for olive oil from Spain - good values, great flavors. I also don't use olive oil for routine browning / sauteeing (unless it's something subtle like spinach). Rather, I use peanut oil, sometimes canola oil. There is no taste difference added by browning meats in olive oil.
OK - one last idea for now.
Buy Some Of Those Strange Vegetables in the Produce Section. You might even have to look for recipes to use some of these things (and my site and www.whattomcooked.com are good places to look). But you should be sure to know the subtleties and impressive qualities of ingredients that are easily obtainable, but are probably not the vegetables we grew up with:
- Celery Root
- Broccoli Rabe
- Turnips, Parsnips, Rutabagas
BTW - those leeks were pulled from my garden this morning, but I'm just bragging to say that. Not important, and it took a year for them to grow that big. Not much of a future for me in leek farming.