How to have no reservations about making substitutions, trying new ingredients

Staff Writer
Stephenville Empire-Tribune
These Indian-spiced chicken drumsticks are from "Slow Cooked Paleo" by Bailey Fischer.

By Addie Broyles

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What's a quarantine cook to do when a recipe calls for ingredients that aren't already in the pantry?

It's a question I've heard a few times from readers in the past few months, especially when I publish a recipe outside the Standard American Diet. The SAD, as it is sometimes called by dietitians, often refers to high-sodium, processed, refined foods coming from fast-food restaurants or the frozen section of a grocery store, but I think it also refers to the canon of foods that many white Americans grew up eating. Braised, roasted and grilled meats. Steamed or sauteed vegetables. Any number of variations on potatoes. Casseroles.

There's also the wide array of Americanized international foods, from pasta to stir-fries, that were among the first "ethnic" foods adopted by white families, particularly after immigrants moved from coastal cities inland and soldiers returned home from the various wars that took place during the 20th century.

But now that we're firmly in the 21st century, when global travel (in pre-pandemic times, at least) is more common and you can order rice noodles, miso paste, Thai basil and fresh turmeric for delivery or curbside pickup, home cooks of all backgrounds are cooking far beyond what they might have cooked (or been served) years ago.

Even though we're still (mostly) staying at home, it's an exciting time to try new flavors, and it's an excellent time to practice adapting recipes to what you have on hand.

If a recipe calls for grass-fed butter, because it's targeted toward a keto cook for whom this distinction is important, it's an easy swap to use regular butter or maybe even oil. If a dish calls for rice wine vinegar and you only have white wine vinegar, make a note to pick up rice wine vinegar the next time you're at the store (or put it on your virtual shopping list) and either proceed with the recipe using what you have or wait until you can get the real thing.

Don't have coconut aminos? Use soy sauce. No coconut milk? Thin out unsweetened yogurt. Sure, there's a difference between shallots, red onions and leeks, but they are all aromatics and will function in a similar way. Have Tabasco but not Sriracha? Throw caution to the wind and see what happens. Not sure if the paprika you have in the cupboard is the sweet paprika called for in this tandoori chicken recipe? Use your nose or taste a few specks to see if it's hot or smoked, but don't fret too much about it.

If you're looking for a guide to help you grow in this area, I recommend Samin Nosrat's book "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is an excellent tutorial in how to think about the elements of a dish so you can adapt each one according to what you have on hand or to your own tastes. So many of us are trying new proteins and produce, cookware and cuisines that it's important to get a handle on things such as dry heat versus wet heat, the different types of flours and dried pantry staples and why acid and salt are critical, no matter where in the world the dish comes from.

Her book also includes a spice and ingredient substitution guide, but the internet is an excellent resource if you're not sure, say, if you can use zucchini instead of cucumber. (For cooked dishes, don't substitute cucumber for zucchini, but in raw dishes, like this salad from "Slow Cooked Paleo," you could use thinly sliced zucchini instead.)

I've found that there's real freedom to be found in the kitchen when I manage my expectations that my dish will look exactly like the photo in the cookbook or taste exactly like it would at a restaurant. I'm a cook-in-training, and each time I conquer one of these ingredient substitutions or new technique hurdles, my culinary muscles get stronger. This doesn't happen when I stick to the same dishes I've always made and buy the same shopping list for years on end.

For as much as things have closed in the past year, so many other aspects of our lives have opened up. This is a wonderful time to add new dishes, ingredients and techniques to our cooking repertoire.

Cooking with an open mind and an open heart (and a lot of creativity) will go a long way, even when all this is over.

Tandoori Drumsticks with Vinegar Cucumber Salad

Tandoori chicken is an Indian dish that is traditionally marinated in yogurt and then roasted in a clay oven called a tandoor. We're using coconut milk to keep it dairy-free and paleo-friendly. Garam masala is a blend of spices unique to Indian cooking that can be found in most grocers. For spicier chicken, add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper for more heat. If you want to make a creamy cucumber salad, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise to the dressing. A note: If you want to freeze the drumsticks to cook later, after combining the chicken with the marinade, place in a freezer-safe bag and freeze for up to 4 months. Thaw before cooking, per the recipe.

- Bailey Fischer

For the chicken:

1/2 cup canned full-fat coconut milk

3 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 medium lemon), plus optional 2 teaspoons lemon zest

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons coriander

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

12 chicken drumsticks

For the vinegar-lime cucumber salad:

2 cucumbers, halved lengthwise, seeds removed and thinly sliced

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

1/4 cup chopped mint or cilantro

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons avocado oil (or another neutral oil)

1/2 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1/2 lime

To make the chicken, combine the coconut milk, lemon juice and zest (if using), garam masala, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, coriander, salt, turmeric and chili powder in medium bowl and stir until well blended.

Score each drumstick by using a sharp knife and making parallel cuts about 1/2 inch apart to allow the marinade to get into more of the meat. Add the drumsticks to a large zip-top bag or a bowl. Pour in the marinade, seal and toss until the drumsticks are all evenly coated. Or stir the drumsticks in the bowl with the marinade, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. The longer, the better.

To make the cucumber salad, add the cucumbers, onion, mint, vinegar, oil, salt and lime juice to a medium bowl and stir to combine. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour to marinate.

Pour the chicken drumsticks into the slow cooker with any excess marinade. Cover and cook on high for 3 to 3 1/2 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours. For crispier drumstick skins, place under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately with the salad. Serves 6.

- From "Slow Cooked Paleo: 75 Real Food Recipes for Effortless, Wholesome Meals in Your Slow Cooker" by Bailey Fischer (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)

Addie Broyles writes about food for the Austin American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at>, or follow her on Twitter at