When an ingredient is missing, how some substitutions work and others cause recipe disasters | Food column by Mary Lee Vance (Fall 2020 issue)
I have lived my life in various locations usually two or more hours from the closest Korean grocery store. To cope with that reality, I learned how to make do with ingredients I had on hand, and substitute ingredients as needed.
My situation was no different than any other immigrant trying to make home cooked, comfort food with less than ideal ingredient choices. Fortunately, I am a foodie, so unless I was cooking for people who grew up eating Korean food in Korea, I got brave out of necessity in experimenting with possibilities.
That is not to say all my R and D experiments have been successful. Case in point, a couple weeks ago, I finally acted on a food concept I had been wanting to try – making kimbap with cauliflower instead of rice. Why, you might ask? That is a very good question and one I struggled to answer after I did my R and D.
I had eaten a cauliflower crust pizza once, and was pleasantly surprised, so I was curious about whether cauliflower could be substituted for rice in other recipes. I posted my reaction to the R and D experiment to my Facebook page, with a very firm thumbs down. My Facebook friends surprisingly were very opinionated on this topic and most agreed with my assessment.
I then tried to make cauliflower fried rice. I sauteed the cauliflower, added the other veggies and tasted. It was a disaster. The cauliflower was mushy and watery. I then tried again and tried to not overcook the cauliflower but this time the result was stir fried cauliflower salad. I have now concluded that there is no way I can be fooled into thinking cauliflower can be substituted for rice.
Cauliflower is a go-to vegetable for a keto diet, but it is not like rice, in that it does not taste the same, behave the same when cooked, or fill you up. In brief, I can tell you that rice is rice – there is no substitute for it. Cauliflower, in my view, should not be a rice substitute in kimbap or fried rice. Never. And, don’t get me started on whether cauliflower can be deep fried to imitate chicken wings – that is a huge no for me.
On the other hand, I do love the vegetable, particularly in its raw form and when it’s not pretending it is something it is not. It is also excellent roasted with nutritional yeast, smoked paprika, garlic powder and herbs.
As a cook and baker who rarely follows recipes, I have made many dishes with substitutions. Sometimes it was planned and at other times the substitutions were born of necessity – in other words, I was missing an ingredient and decided to plow through with the dish anyway. Most of the time the substitutions turned out OK but at other times, the dish resulted in a disaster. However, disasters are also opportunities to learn, and that is the life of a foodie cook.
One disaster had a baffling result. One time, I purchased a mochi machine, mainly because I was envious of a Japanese friend who had one. On the instructions, it said the machine would also be handy in making breads, pizza dough and other things in addition to mochi. I was curious, and decided to try a mochi pizza crust. I made the dough, shaped it into a pizza crust shape, covered it with pizza toppings and baked it. The end product was lovely in appearance, delicious in taste, but very, very chewy. After chewing our way through about three bites, my husband and I decided to never again do a mochi pizza. Regular pizza dough is the best. I never tried to make the mochi bread.
Abalone, the delicious shellfish available all over Korea, and plentiful on the southern coast, is very expensive in the U.S. Last time I bought a can, it cost $20, and that was almost 20 years ago. I have never found fresh abalone. However, for the Korean dish jeonbukjuk, an abalone rice porridge, the abalone would be key. I didn’t have any abalone when the craving hit, so I decided to use my dehydrated shiitake (black) mushrooms instead. It was surprisingly delicious, and since then, there has been no turning back. This made the traditional porridge vegan-friendly too.
I think we can all agree that no Korean kitchen is complete without a stash of kochujang, the smooth sweet-spicy pepper paste at the base of so many Korean sauces. What if you are gluten intolerant? Today one can purchase or make gluten-free kochujang but several years ago, it was not easy to find the gluten-free item or even locate a recipe. Substituting rice flour for wheat flour is such an easy fix. So is exchanging processed sugar for maple or date syrup for a healthier sweetness. So, in these cases, the exchanges work.
Chapchae, a kind of noodle salad, requires the clear sweet potato noodles to be authentic. One time, I didn’t have the right noodles and had to prepare something for a potluck. I gambled on the guests’ lack of familiarity with Korean cuisine and decided to try to make it without sweet potato noodles. I used regular spaghetti and used the usual vegetables and sauce. My dish got rave reviews. It was not chapchae in the authentic sense, but it was edible, and something different.
Some dishes call for fish sauce. It is pungent stuff, and a little goes a very long way. I am not a big fan of fish sauce, and if I do add it, I use the smallest amount possible. But one time when I did not have any, I used a mushroom sauce to get the color and a bit of the flavor. It’s not the same as fish sauce, but it also has that deep umami flavor. My fish sauce aversion is a weird dislike since I love dried and canned anchovies.
And, while it is not the same, if you don’t have thinly sliced rib eye that is ideal for bulgogi, the Korean marinated, grilled beef dish, ground beef may be flavored for a bulgogi-like concoction for bibimbap or other variation of a rice bowl. Also, a vegetarian version can be subbed in using a preparation made with textured vegetable protein (TVP) or any of many types of frozen veggie burger crumbles now available. Here is a recipe for a tasty and fast rice bowl.
Korean Ground Beef/TVP Rice Bowl
Ingredients for sauce:
1/4 C. regular soy sauce
2 T. brown sugar
1 ½ T. rice wine
½ T. minced garlic
1 t. minced ginger
A few sprinkles ground black pepper
½ T. toasted sesame oil
Ingredients for rice bowl:
Some cooking oil
1 lb ground beef or ½ C. TVP rehydrated
½ T. toasted sesame seeds , garnish
2 stalks green onions, thinly sliced
2 C. cooked rice of your choice
Side Dish ideas:
Avocado, thinly sliced Cucumber, thinly sliced Pink radish, thinly sliced Broccoli, steamed or pan fried.
Asparagus, pan fried Bell peppers, pan fried Fried egg, sunny side up Kimchi, chopped Roasted seasoned sea weed.
2 T. gochujang (Korean chili paste)
1 T. toasted sesame oil
1 T. sugar
1 T. water
1 T. toasted sesame seeds
1 t. rice vinegar
1 t. minced garlic
Combine ground beef/TVP sauce in a medium size bowl and whisk well. Set aside. If using bibimbap sauce, combine all the sauce in a separate bowl and set aside.
In a well-heated skillet, cook the ground beef/TVP over medium-high heat until browned (about three or four minutes). Stir often. Pour the sauce over the meat/TVP and simmer for two to three more minutes, while stirring occasionally. Add sesame seeds and green onions. Stir briefly, and remove from heat.
Serve the cooked beef/TVP over a bed of cooked rice. Top up with your choice of sides and drizzle bibimbap sauce over the top, or use a separate serving bowl.