Week 3: Substitutions to make meals fun!

This original post was written in August of 2012, but it still describes my cooking style today.  Part of what makes cooking fun for my family is using ingredients we have on hand, and sometimes finding some new, and fun, combinations!  Here are tips for making cooking substitutions part of your normal meal-making routine.

One of my favorite things about cooking is the way it pushes me to be creative.  I can sometime be a “by the book” person, and I certainly was when I started cooking and would only do exactly what the recipe said.  However, the more I cooked, the more I learned to be creative, not only to make things taste better, but also to save time and money!  One of the ways I keep our food budget low is by using substitutions when I can.  This is different than making vegan substitutions (which may or may not be cheaper).  Instead, these tips are about ways to substitute ingredients, seasonings, etc. in order to maximize what you already have in your kitchen.

Use what you have: The number one way we save money is by using food that we have on hand to substitute for things we don’t have.  Stir fry calls for bean sprouts, but we have extra cabbage?  Substitute!  No scallions?  Throw in some extra sauteed onions.  I’ve made squash soup with 1/2 squash 1/2 corn, lasagna with extra mushrooms and less spinach, and spicy basil and eggplant with chili paste instead of chilies.  The substitutions are not always perfect, and some dishes will definitely have a different taste or texture with some substitutions.  But that difference isn’t necessarily negative – sometimes our “substitutions” turn into a better version of the dish!  And even if the substitution results in a dish that isn’t quite as good (as is sometimes the case when I substitute plain diced tomatoes and crushed red pepper for fire roasted tomatoes) it is still a lot cheaper and usually it is good enough.

Produce on hand and produce in season: We love getting our CSA box every week with fresh local produce that not only tastes great but is a great deal.  This also means we often have produce on hand that we can use.  Before I go out and buy more produce I always try and think about how I can substitute what we have for what a recipe calls for (as mentioned above, this works especially well for things like stir-fries and soups).  Greens are especially good for this – we can substitute almost any greens for the kale that I normally use in Garlic and Greens Pasta, or even throw collard greens into curries where I would normally use bell pepper, or even in my green smoothie!  Using in-season produce (even if you don’t get a CSA box) is also a good cheap way to go to!  When you are buying produce for a recipe, always consider what you could use instead – that way if you can see what is in-season, or even just on sale, and get a good deal with only minor changes to your dish!

Use the internet: I seriously don’t know what I would do without the internet in general, but especially for cooking!  I’ve learned how to cook unfamiliar vegetables, what the purpose of eggs in recipes are and how to substitute lots of things with Google searches.  When I find a recipe I want to try, but there are one or two things in it that I don’t have on hand, I google those ingredients with the word “substitutions” and get all kinds of ideas for what else I can use.  These types of searches have taught me how to make brown sugar (something we don’t always have) with plain sugar and molasses.  It has also helped me substitute for herbs and spices.  Occasionally a recipe will call for an interesting and exotic spice or spice mix that I don’t have.  A quick Google search usually tells me how to make it with my own stock of spices (or at least a quick approximation of it) without having to go to a store to buy it.  After doing many of these searches I have also learned more about what spices add to dishes, which allows me to make my own substitutions.  When we are out of ground coriander I usually add a bit more cumin to my dish.  When I didn’t want to use cayenne pepper because of my son (which was a short-lived phase – he now loves spicy food!) I simply topped my food with crushed red pepper.  The more you play and experiment with cooking, the more you learn about how each of the components of a dish work, which makes it easier to substitute and play around with ingredients and flavors.  Which leads to my last tip:

Recipes as “guides”: In my early days of cooking for myself I saw recipes as concrete instructions that could not be messed with, even to the point that I ran to the store to buy white pepper for a soup recipe!. Over time, I have learned that recipes are guides, not gospel.  Now I browse my cookbooks not only for instructions on how to make dinner, but also for inspiration.  I recently saw a recipe for a bean and veggie salad that used chickpeas, green cabbage, carrots, mint and a vinaigrette.  I immediately thought of ways I could use our red cabbage with the white beans we had in the freezer, the green peppers from our CSA share and some adjustments on the vinaigrette to make our own minted bean and veggie salad.  Here the point wasn’t to follow the recipe completely, but instead to use it as a launching pad for ideas.  As always, with these ideas I’m also trying to think of ways to use what we have and save some money and some time as well!

Cooking is one of my favorite things to do, especially when I can be creative (and even more especially when my husband has cleaned up the kitchen first!).  What has made cooking more of a joy than a chore for me has been the opportunity to be creative and play around with food.  Sometimes this results in some not-so-great dishes, but more often then not we get fun and interesting meals out of it, and usually they are a good deal financially as well!  So, have fun in the kitchen, and see substitutions not as second-rate, but instead a chance to let your creativity flourish!

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