One pointed e-mail from a reader, a baking question from a colleague and a new cookbook from Bon Appetit magazine have me thinking a lot about the expense of cooking at home.
No doubt about it, food prices are up and many people are hurting.
The reader tells me to "get with it" and provide more economical recipes. A good idea for sure, but many recipes can be made more budget-friendly by substituting less expensive ingredients.
A yellow onion is an adequate understudy for the upper-crust shallot.
And a sweet quick bread is just as tasty with 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, as it is with 1/4 teaspoon of cloves. That answered my colleague's question. She did go the extra mile to a whole-foods store and bought a tiny bag of bulk ground cloves for less than 40 cents. Afterward she admitted it probably didn't make much difference. (The whole-foods store was near her house so she didn't spend her savings on gas.)
The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh by editor Barbara Fairchild (Wiley, $34.95) is door-stop thick with 1,100 recipes. Most sound fabulous, but in a shaky economy, they are rife with what I call "deal breakers." A deal breaker is the ingredient that makes you turn the page because you don't know what it is, don't have it in your pantry or don't want to spend the money on it.
Those ingredients may include mascarpone, portobello mushrooms, panko and balsamic vinegar. In many American kitchens these are not staples, though they are widely available in grocery stores and often called for in contemporary recipes. You can still make the dishes that include these items if you use cream cheese mixed with a bit of sour cream, button mushrooms, dried unflavored bread crumbs and red wine vinegar.
The substitution guide on the front of this section should carry a disclaimer. Recipes will not taste exactly the same using substitutes, but unless you are a super-taster, you probably won't notice much difference.
Other substitution tips:
• Study the recipe. The more ingredients, the less the substitutions will be noticeable. For instance, leeks are necessary in leek soup. In a stew or soup with other vegetables, they are not. Fresh strawberries are a must for strawberry shortcake; frozen will do in a smoothie, sauces and some baked goods. A portobello mushroom is mandatory in a grilled sandwich of the same name, but not so much in a soup, stew or stir-fry.
• Cooking with herbs. Fresh and dried herbs are often interchangeable but dried are more potent, so use less. Also, dried herbs need to be refreshed with wet ingredients (broth, sour cream, beaten eggs). Add them at the beginning of the preparation process to give flavors time to blossom. Fresh herbs are typically added at the end of cooking because heat and time diminish their flavor. Warning: Don't use dried herbs to make pestos.
• Say cheese. The cheese counters are overflowing with choices these days. Buy one good grating cheese (Parmesan, asiago or Romano) and it can be used in lots of dishes. Melting cheeses, such as Swiss, fontina, cheddar and Monterey Jack, can be used interchangeably. The taste will be different, but they will react similarly in the dish. A flavorful cheese used sparingly adds lots of flavor.
• Baking is the exception. Baking is a science, and recipes reflect a specific formula. You can substitute ingredients, but be careful not to throw off the balance. A quarter cup of orange juice concentrate can stand in for the same amount of Grand Marnier, but a teaspoon of orange flavoring cannot. Your finished product may be dry. Baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable. Baking soda needs an acidic accompaniment (such as citrus, buttermilk or vinegar) to activate its leavening powers. Baking powder includes the activating agent (cream of tartar).
• Savory experimentation. Let's say you've got a recipe for lasagna. It calls for ricotta cheese and you have small-curd cottage cheese in the fridge. Use it, but drain first. It calls for 1 teaspoon of Italian seasoning and you only have dried basil. Use it. It calls for ground beef but you don't want to spring for it. Use a couple boxes of thawed chopped spinach squeezed dry and layer it in clumps with the cottage cheese. Okay, so it's not Mama Leone's Authentic Italian Lasagna, but that doesn't mean it doesn't taste good.
• At the beginning, start simply. Novice cooks who don't want to fuss with substitutions should have good luck with tried-and-true, three-ring binder cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker. Both are full of traditional recipes developed before the Food Network turned us into culinary know-it-alls. Taste of Home is another good source for solid, simple recipes that come from the kitchens of the magazine's readers.
The following are two recipes that I've adapted to show versatility. Your own substitutions allowed.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.