Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tips for Improvising: cooking when you don't have every ingredient

We've all encountered this problem: you want to cook a dish and you're fired up and ready to go. But, after searching high and low for all the ingredients, you're missing something and don't have the time or energy to run back to the store. What to do?

The answer: time to improvise. Don't worry, it's possible and can be done well if you follow these rules. So, channel your favorite Top Chef competitor, fire up the stove, and let's do this!

1. Look through your fridge and pantry to see what you have

The first step for any good improvisation is finding out what you have available in your house. You'll often be surprised by what you find. Also, this is a great way to make use of things that have been languishing at the back of a shelf or in the fridge for far too long.

2. Categorize the ingredients you find

Spices and other flavorings: categorize them into major taste categories: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.

Vegetables: categorize them based on whether they are "wet" or "dry." Vegetables that release water when cooking are wet, including tomatoes, eggplant and cabbage. Vegetables that do not are dry, including carrots, asparagus and lettuce.

Meats: categorize based on whether they cook quickly or slowly. Fish, shrimp and other seafood items tend to cook quickly whereas beef, chicken, lamb and other land animals tend to take more time to cook properly.

3. Look back at the recipe you plan to use and categorize the missing ingredients in the same way

4. Note the purpose for each missing ingredient in the dish and the cooking method the recipe requires

At this point, you should consider whether the missing ingredient was used for flavoring (herbs and spices), color or texture. Also think about the method of cooking to find out if you can or need to replace the ingredient. For instance, for a sautee or stir-fry you're, you'll need some kind of oil and nearly any will do, but if you use butter, make sure to pay attention for burning because it has a lower smoke point than most oils.

Categories of flavor are key: when replacing spices and flavoring, replace with things from the same category. If you need something spicy, find another spicy ingredient in your pantry (even hot sauce will do).

You can adjust for different types of vegetables: you can replace wet vegetables with dry ones, but then make sure to add water to the dish. When replacing dry vegetables with wet ones, stir fry the wet vegetables first to cook off some of the water.

When substituting meats, the key is cooking time: if the recipe calls for beef and you're replacing it with shrimp, add the shrimp later in the process because it cooks much more quickly. Or if you're using beef when a recipe demands shrimp, cut the beef into smaller pieces, add it earlier and cook it longer than the recipe for shrimp suggests.

OK, let's do this, and remember to have fun with it! Let us know your thoughts or other tips in the comments section below.