I’m fascinated by Japanese recipes. Anything ending in -yaki immediately catches my attention. I adore the daintiness and the precision of Japanese chefs. I once watched one make negimaki on YouTube and it was a masterclass of meticulous meat handling, slicing and flattening. Also excruciatingly long.
But whenever I come across a recipe that I want to replicate, the first thought is: what can I substitute? Nagaimo, dashi, ponzu, aonori, and they have dozens of different kinds of soy sauce alone! Because even I, a food blogger, don’t stock half of those things, let alone an average home cook.
Even if I wanted to, it would lead to tremendous waste as I don’t cook Japanese food all the time. The same goes for any other specialist ethnic cuisines: I love diving into exotic recipes and adopting ones I love, but more often than not on my own terms. And no number of cultural warriors is going to stop me from loving what I was not born into!
That, however, involves swapping ingredients, sometimes utensils, often amounts. And always, naturally, it involves adjusting the recipe. Most times, the result is good, and not only because I might be an experienced cook. I don’t know more about Filipino cooking than the next person, and I’ve never cooked in a tandoori oven.
That’s what I want to share this week: don’t be afraid to tinker with recipes! A recipe is guidance rather than a prescription.
One vegetable can usually be swapped with another of the same type. Where pork is used, chicken will work. If you don’t have pancetta, use bacon. And Google the seasonings you don’t have to find out what flavour it’s going to impart to the dish.
If you think about it, vegetarians do it all the time: skipping the meat, replacing it with tofu, beans or mushrooms. If they are not scared, why should you be? You don’t learn without taking risks though I’m aware that it’s the risk of your family going hungry. In which case make sure there’s bread and cheese in the house, as plan B.
Looking at specific dishes that can serve as a template, let’s start with rice. Both baked rice and fried rice can be adapted to whatever you have in the fridge and cupboard. In the recipe for baked rice with mushrooms you can replace the mushrooms with any vegetable you have, or chicken, or prawns. Prawn fried rice on the other hand – why, only the rice and spices from the ingredients list are relevant and the rest can be swapped as required. Even paella is not prescriptive in terms of ingredients: keep the method and the rice-stock proportions and vary the additional ingredients and flavours. Okay, the resulting dish might not be paella Valenciana but it will be a satisfying dinner.
The same goes for other grains. Bulgur and couscous are just a canvas for anything you’d like to add to them. My bulgur wheat pilaf has red peppers and raisins in it; you can choose to add mushrooms or asparagus. Chicken couscous salad will work just as well with leftovers of any roast, with any salads you like of have in the fridge.
Gratin is another type of dish that can serve as a template. What is a gratin? It’s a dish of thinly sliced ingredients, often vegetables, baked in a creamy sauce, with or without cheese. So my beetroot gratin can be made with carrots, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms or potatoes. Easy? Of course it is.
Even fish recipes can be versatile. If you look at my whole roasted sea bass recipe, it is just as good for a sea bream, plaice, mackerel, snapper or any individual or medium sized fish. Large fish fillets on the other hand like haddock, cod, salmon or hake can be likewise swapped for halibut with braised leeks or slow roast haddock.
Any recipe for stuffed vegetables can be altered both in the filling and the vegetable aspect. Instead of courgettes stuffed with lamb, use peppers and minced turkey. Just have faith in your abilities.
The only recipes that I don’t dare tinker with much are the baking ones. There is too much chemistry involved there and the balance of individual ingredients, flour, eggs, fat and sugar is too important to play too hard and fast. But swapping cake toppings and frostings around? By all means.