Substituting ingredients is a fun way to try new things — and make tasty recipes healthier. | Eat + Drink – Monterey County Weekly NOW
Swapping ingredients in a recipe is a common practice in the kitchen. You may be missing an ingredient – and therefore use oregano instead of basil – or it might be an addition, like making mashed potatoes incorporating sweet potatoes as well. Replacing an ingredient with something else can also turn your beloved recipes into a healthier version of themselves. It can be done to change flavors or textures, to reduce calorie count or to bump the recipe’s nutritional value.
“Food is comfort. Food is joy,” says Maggie Evans, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Evans says there is more than the nutritional value in what we eat: culture, emotion and memories all influence our food choices. After all, eating is one of the most enjoyable experiences we can savor every day. Because of this, switching ingredients for health reasons is not black and white.
Jordan Champagne, owner of Happy Girl Kitchen Co., a Pacific Grove cafe and shop that produces its own jams and pickles and also offers cooking workshops, has seen growth in plant-based meals and cooking from scratch among workshop participants. Champagne has often noticed that people don’t feel confident in the kitchen, but they are interested in diversifying the recipes they cook every day. Both Champagne and Evans have a wealth of suggestions for how to swap out ingredients and make meals healthier.
When a recipe calls for cornstarch, which is normally used as a thickening agent in soups and sauces, Champagne instead uses agar-agar, a flavorless jelly substitute made from red algae. “Cornstarch is usually an ingredient that is made from genetically modified corn and I like to do everything totally organic,” she explains.
Another easy way to modify a recipe is to cut back on sugar or sodium. Instead of getting a pint of vegetable broth from the store, which will be high in sodium, try saving veggie scraps such as skins, tops, bottoms and stems every time you cook (but avoid leafy veggies such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage or broccoli because it can add a bitter taste), place them in a bag and freeze them. You can save the scraps for months before putting them all into a slow cooker with water to make your own low-sodium veggie broth.
Champagne says a slow cooker or rice cooker can be a lifesaver because you add your veggies or legumes and it will cook it for you. Cooking certain things in bulk – rice, beans, chickpeas – is another easy way to start a healthier cooking lifestyle. “You could toss those in salad throughout the week,” she adds.
If you love recipes that call for sour cream or mayo, fat-free yogurt is a great substitute. Some brands provide the same creamy texture and sour flavor to top your nachos, casserole dishes or baked potatoes. Evans says this will help cut down on saturated fat.
When baking, you may find that many recipes call for large amounts of sugar or oil. Champagne suggests using alternative sweeteners such as maple syrup or agave nectar. Or, just try cutting back. In many recipes, “you can cut half of the sugar and it’s still definitely sweet enough,” she says. At Happy Girl Kitchen, instead of making their jams with a 1-to-1 fruit-sugar ratio, they prepare them with a 4-to-1 ratio. Champagne says cutting back on sugar allows other flavors to come forward.
To cut back oil, try replacing half with bananas or applesauce. Evans says both provide moisture and add sweetness to recipes for baked goods.
If you don’t have (or don’t want to use) eggs, you can use “flax or chia eggs” – one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds and two-and-a-half tablespoons of water, or a tablespoon of ground chia seeds and three tablespoons of water per recommended egg. For either, let it sit for five minutes until it thickens, behaving like an egg, minus the cholesterol.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by advice at this point, don’t worry about incorporating all of it at once. Evans says baby steps are the best way to move into a healthier lifestyle – small adjustments such as adding more fiber or veggies, or committing to a Meatless Monday and eating beans or lentils instead of meat that day.
And who knows – your newly modified recipes could provide the basis for new food memories.