This situation happened to me just this last weekend-I promised to make a carrot cake for a get-together with friends. When I prepared my shopping list I methodically checked each and every ingredient in the recipe, or at least I thought I did. Spices? Check. Enough flour and sugar? Check! Cream cheese and powdered sugar for the frosting? On the shopping list.
The ONE thing I didn’t check (because I assumed I had them) was CARROTS! I always have carrots in my veggie crisper. Except for today. And as much as I wanted to be a French farmwife and find a way to make the cake work with the ingredients I had at hand, I realized that no improvisation was possible for carrot cake without carrots.
What could I do but throw my had back and laugh at my own stupidity. And swear loudly, of course. And then sheepishly go get carrots.
So, what do ‘French farmwives’ have to do with this? When I was in cooking school the cuisine and techniques that were taught were classically French. Some of the oldest innovations in food preservation and preparation have come from French country cooks who lived off the beaten path. When they started a cooking project they saw it through. There was no running to the corner market to pick up an ingredient, or calling a Chinese restaurant to order take-out when all else failed. When these bygone cooks didn’t have an ingredient they improvised – thought of some other herb to season their dish, or used a different vegetable that was available rather than the one called for in the recipe. Some startling new flavor combinations are created this way.
Some substitutions are easy. If no lime juice use lemon juice. Or a splash of vinegar. No cider vinegar? Use distilled, or sherry, or balsamic, or red or white wine, or rice vinegar. No blue cheese? Use feta, or some other sharp cheese. No garlic? Ratchet up the flavor with shallots, herbs, mushrooms, stock, wine, etc.
So I’ll say it again – check each and every ingredient especially the ones you are sure you have. Because maybe you do. But then again, maybe you don’t.