Learn to swap ingredients and you'll never feel stuck again
Have you ever been stuck for a missing ingredient? Or annoyed at a recipe using something you (or your kids) simply don't like? Or frantically searching for a 'vegan' recipe because of a house guest with such needs?
Then you have probably wondered whether to substitute or not to substitute? And if so, how? This is one of the most frequent conversations I have in the shop about ingredients. And one of the easiest to answer: Everything is substitutable!
But to be able to do this with ease and without fear or overthinking, you need to first understand what your ingredient is doing. Is it adding a specific flavour? Base notes? Top notes? Is it adding bulk? Liquid? Texture? Balance? Complexity? It's not really difficult to answer these questions if you think about it - but you do need to stop for a moment and pay attention rather than follow instructions without thinking. Once you understand what it does, it's actually easy to think of an alternative.
Let's look at some examples to make this easier to understand:
Say... you are making a simple tomato sauce:
The usual onions as a starting point provide depth and sweetness to the flavour. Some recipes use extra base ingredients like garlic, celery, carrots or fennel. They play the same role. Use one or several. Skipping this step will sacrifice flavour.
The tomato is the 'signature' ingredient here: it provides the main flavour, but also bulk and liquid. You can use different kind of tomato (fresh, tinned, sun-dried, etc etc) but you can't make tomato sauce without tomato.
There may be extra ingredients, like, other veggies, meat or fish. They will all add a different twist to the flavour and the texture. Lots to play with here. And an opportunity to use up leftover bits in your fridge!
And there may be (should be!) flavourings like herbs, spices, and toppings. These can be swapped quite freely, but be mindful of what each is doing: Adding contrast? Adding texture? Adding acidity, sweetness or spice? The possibilities are endless but if you keep an eye on the purpose you won't go off track.
Again, chopping & softening onions is the first step. It always is the first step. (And I always keep some onions in my kitchen. I recommend you do too!) Other members of the onion family work here too: spring onions, leeks, garlic. Yes, you could leave this step out. But you would be losing a lot of flavour from your finished dish. Not worth it (except in an emergency).
THE MAIN INGREDIENTS: greens & rice
You can easily substitute any greens: spinach, chard, leeks, cabbage, etc. Or use a mix. Depends on what you like and what you got. If you encounter great big bunches of vibrant rainbow chard at the farmers' market, use that. If you are in a rush and just grabbing a few things at the shop use a pack of frozen spinach.
You can use different types of rice, but, obviously, as this is part of the 'signature' you can't make 'green rice' without rice. (But it's thinkable to make, for example, 'green quinoa' or 'green bulgur'. Just saying!...)
THE FLAVOURINGS: herbs, spices and toppings
Black pepper goes nicely here. I also like grating in some nutmeg (Because my dad always does. But you don't have to.) But maybe you fancy trying something else?
Herbs go really well here, adding complexity and fresh flavour. Dill is traditional. But don't get stuck on that - you can use any other herbs. Ideally several. Whatever you have and like. Fresh, frozen, or dried.
Adding zing and brightness at the end really lifts the dish! (Taste it without, and then with - notice the difference! See what I mean?) A squeeze of lemon juice and a crumble of feta cheese would be classic. But another hit of acidity will work too: A dash of balsamic vinegar. Some Japanese ume seasoning. A dab of sauerkraut. A spoonful of pickled onions. Or any pickle, for that matter. Or even a drizzle of pickling juice!
Will the 'adjusted' dish be the same as the original recipe? Of course not. Does it really matter? No, it doesn't. It will be tasty all the same!
You can declare your substitutions a new recipe. Or you can call yourself a creative (and intuitive!) cook and just get on with cooking.
NOTE: This applies to cooking but not necessarily to baking. Baking is a bit more complicated and I'm not a big baker. There is certainly margin for playing around and substituting in baking too, but you have to be a bit more careful not to disrupt the correct proportions. Think ratios rather than weights.