Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Making frugal substitutions

Tonight, I made a dish I hadn't made before, and I had no idea how it would turn out. Even so, I took some chances on the recipe to save money, and it all worked out fine. It usually does.

The recipe I used was Southeast Asian Squash Curry (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Southeast-Asian-Squash-Curry-350259). I chose this recipe in part because I had some leftover coconut milk in the fridge that I wanted to use up. So, that's where I started. It also happens to be a seasonal recipe, featuring late fall veggies, so that also jives with my food philosophy.

The changes I made, mostly to save money, are these:

- I used 2/3 the coconut milk because that's what I had, and opening a new can would defeat the purpose of making this recipe. To make up for the lacking liquid, I added 1/2 cup more water. The dish still had a nice strong coconut flavor. Incidentally, I bought this can of coconut milk on sale several months ago, so it was already waiting for me in the pantry.

- I used kale instead of baby spinach. I try to avoid baby spinach, and packaged veggies in general. They are pricier than loose veggies, and they are treated in ways that loose veggies are not. Namely, to reduce microbes, which are more common in bagged salads and other packaged fresh veggies, they are processed with chlorine. I don't know about you, but I'm not into ingesting volatile chemicals. I'll pass and buy the loose stuff, which tastes better anyway. I could have bought loose spinach, but kale is what they had at my health food store, and I say, one leafy green is as good as another. Perhaps the kale was a bit coarser than spinach, but the texture doesn't bother me or my family. Incidentally, the baby spinach was $3.59, and the kale was $2.19. What a bargain!

- I used considerably less Thai curry paste (1 tsp., instead of 1 1/2 to 2 Tbsps!). I did this partly because my daughter would probably not tolerate that much heat. Turns out, I wouldn't have tolerated that much heat either, and I love hot food! 1 tsp. was quite nice. Of course, reducing anything in a recipe saves you money, too, especially when you're reducing pricey condiments.

- I used raw cashews, which I toasted in a dry pan on the stove. I buy my nuts in bulk (partly because I have to order them online from a peanut-free site - my daughter is allergic to peanuts), which does save some money. If I bought roasted cashews just for this purpose, I would certainly not use the whole container, but I would have had to buy a whole container, and that would have been a waste. Nuts are expensive! The toasted cashews were delicious.

- I used ground spices instead of whole. If you are in the habit of using whole spices in your cooking, by all means, continue to do so. If not, you will spend a fortune buying spices that you may never use again if you follow recipe instructions to a T. I always substitute ground spices for whole, because those are the spices I keep in my pantry. I've never been disappointed by the results.

- I skipped the lime wedges, because I felt they were unnecessary, and they were. Nice touches like that are great when you're entertaining, but for a Tuesday night dinner, I don't need to spend more on fancy.

The bottom line for cooking from recipes is that a recipe is always a starting point. Almost all recipes need to be customized, whether to please your palate, your purse, or the season. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily the case for baked goods. Anything that requires baking is more exact, and then customization requires a little know-how.

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