Whether it’s a better table at a restaurant, a nicer room at a hotel, or a seat in first class rather than economy, it’s always nice to get an upgrade. Unfortunately, most of the time we aren’t the masters of our own upgrade universe. It’s usually up to someone else to make that happen.
Fortunately, that rule does not apply to the kitchen. Here, you can usually give yourself — and your meals — an upgrade if you keep a few things in mind, starting with good ingredients.
That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune every time you go to the grocery store. Get to know the person behind the meat or seafood counter and ask them what’s good today. They’ll usually be able to clue you into the best quality for the best value. Buy produce in season, when it’s cheaper and better. Look for sales on pricier items and stock up. Make substitutions, if necessary. For example, if you can’t afford an expensive cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano, don’t reach for the fake stuff in the green cardboard tube. Try a less expensive cheese like Asiago. It’s not exactly the same, but still good stuff. You get the idea.
Sometimes you can give your dish an upgrade by starting with something basic and adding a little bit of something special to it. A dollop of good mustard (the kind you don’t find at a ballpark), or a drizzle of high-quality vinegar or olive oil to a sauce or vinaigrette can make all the difference.
Keep small portions of caramelized onions in the freezer and add them to soups, stews, sandwiches or even sour cream for a quick dip. It seems like such a simple thing to do, but that one step can make a meal that took you a few minutes to prepare taste like you’ve been at work in the kitchen all day.
Shrimp and Corn Summer Chowder is a good example of an ordinary soup getting a big upgrade. I went to the store with the intention of making corn chowder. When I got there, I noticed there was a good price on some beautiful zucchini and heirloom tomatoes. They’re in season, so it makes sense.
As I was strolling past the seafood counter, I noticed shrimp was on sale. They were deveined, but still had their shells on, which was even better.
When I got home, I shelled the shrimp and shucked the corn. I tossed the shells and cobs in the stock to simmer before adding it to my chowder, along with the sweet corn, shrimp, juicy tomatoes and flavorful summer squash.
Instant upgrade. I love nothing more than an inexpensive meal that tastes like a million bucks.
Shrimp and Corn Summer Chowder
Note: Briefly simmering chicken stock with shrimp shells and corn cobs gives a big flavor boost. From Meredith Deeds.
• 3/4 lb. medium shrimp, shells on, deveined
• 2 tsp. olive oil
• 2 c. corn kernels (from 3 ears), plus cobs cut into 3-in. sections and reserved
• 5 c. low-sodium chicken stock
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1 large onion, minced
• 3 tbsp. flour
• 2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice
• 3/4 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 2 medium zucchini, diced
• 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
• 1/2 c. half-and-half
• 1/4 c. chopped fresh basil
• 2 tbsp. minced chives, plus more for garnish
Remove the shells from the deveined shrimp, and save the shells. Cut each shrimp crosswise into 3 pieces. Keep chilled until ready to use. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the shrimp shells. Sauté for 3 minutes or until shells turn pink. Add the corn cobs (set aside the kernels) and chicken stock to the pan, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain the stock through a sieve and set aside.
Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Purée 1 cup of corn with 1 cup of the prepared stock in a blender. Pour the mixture into the pan and add the stock along with the potatoes, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook 10 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the shrimp, corn, tomatoes, half-and-half, basil and chives. Cook for another 5 minutes. Ladle the chowder into bowls, garnish with more chives and serve hot.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 270 Fat 10 g Sodium 410 mg
Carbohydrates 33 g Saturated fat 5 g Total sugars 7 g
Protein 17 g Cholesterol 80 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 1 ½ lean protein, 1 ½ fat.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at