I've been thinking a lot recently about substitutes. Not the football kind, the food kind.
It's all come from a couple of conversations I've had over the last few months which I've realised have two themes:
1. Zero waste
Fab Giovanetti recently asked me to write a tiny piece for HBC Magazine on the topic of zero waste and I feel like it lit a fire inside me.
Doing the research and seeing what people are doing, step-by-step, to move more towards a zero-waste lifestyle was incredibly inspiring. Read my piece here.
I'm lucky that I have grown up in households that were pretty good about using food. After a Sunday roast we always made stock with the meat bones (bone broth to the new generation) and my Dad makes a mean banana bread when he has a bunch that are past their best. My mum's mantra with us as children was "if you don't eat it now you'll have it for tea" - and we did!
I was shocked going to university to meet people that threw away food the day after it's 'best before' date - even when it was still looked perfectly fine and edible or had been sat in the fridge to preserve it. My boyfriend jokes with me now we have moved in together: "I've stopped asking "is this okay to eat?" because you always say yes unless it's actually growing mould!"
[Update: you might like to read my latest thoughts offering a perspective on the dark side of worrying about food waste in this blog post]
2. Recipe sticklers and being afraid to try
Someone I'm in a Facebook group with recently asked for a recipe for snack balls and I shared something from my blog. "Thanks but I'd have to substitute virtually everything on the list" came the response. I was surprised.
My attitude is usually to substitute everything if I don't have it! Or at least most things, and I don't even see that as a bad thing. I like to experiment and use recipes often as a basis and then improvise with what I have in the cupboards or what I see fresh in the shops.
Talking to Caroline from Suppers in Season as she prepares for the patter of tiny feet added to this. We discussed how she was going to need to rely on her husband to cook a bit more for her in the early days of having a newborn.
"He's got a few basic staples he can do but he doesn't really experiment" she mused. Why can't he be more confident? It comes with more practice we agreed - we know having cooked thousands of meals over years that you can swap in cacao for cocoa, strawberries for raspberries, coriander for parsley, savoy cabbage for cavolo nero. So we open the fridge and can see a meal coming together where we know others can't.
How many people read a recipe and think "I can't make that, I haven't got X." Or think they have to go to the supermarket to buy 5-6 new ingredients to stick to the letter of the recipe? And then those ingredients get stuck at the back of the cupboard or worse, sit and rot because they're not needed in the next recipe.
I think that's a crying shame. Food is such a joy and I realise I am lucky to be confident now to be able to create a tasty meal with what I have using my experience and a lot of trial and error.
So this recipe is a homage to zero waste and people who are afraid to try experimenting. Want some delicious Asian style noodles but don't think you have exactly the right ingredients? Let me show you how to achieve it with what's in the cupboards already.
SERVES: As many as you want
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 20-30 minutes
No measurements - shock horror! Go on, be brave. If you make too much you can always have some for lunch tomorrow, I take a tupperware of this in to have at the desk all the time.
What do you fancy? Thick or thin? Gluten free or not? Try any of these:
- Vermicelli rice noodles
- Glass noodles
- Soba noodles
- Sweet potato noodles (make them with a spiralizer!)
- Rice noodles
- Egg noodles
- Whole wheat noodles
- Udon noodles
I'd recommend at least 4-5 from the following list, but don't let me stop you throwing anything you have in you think would work!
- Pepper (green, red, yellow)
- Bean sprouts
- Baby corn
- Bok choi / pak choi
- White or red onions
- Spring onions
- Red cabbage
- Mange tout
- Sauce / broth
You can make this as thick or thin as you want to suit your taste. Sometimes it's great to have a broth and slurp through your noodles, other times you want a sticky thick sauce to coat them instead. Try using these to mix your own:
- Oil to cook with (olive, coconut, rapeseed - whatever you've got)
- Fresh ginger root, minced or sliced finely
- Garlic cloves, crushed
- Curry paste* - Jamie Oliver has a lot of lovely recipes for homemade ones but if you want to make your own. Or just buy one; I used Geo Organics Red Thai Paste
Use anything from one to all of them
- Nut butter - almond works really well, but whatever you have
- Sesame oil
- Chillies (fresh chopped small or those preserved pre-chopped ones in a jar you have languishing in the fridge)
- Fish sauce
- Soy sauce
- Tamari (gluten free soy sauce)
- Coconut aminos
- Chilli jam (or other chutney lurking in the fridge from Christmas!)
- Lime juice
- Lemongrass stick (pop in the broth to infuse the flavour then remove before serving)
One or two of these will be fine:
- Coconut milk
- Miso (made to packet instructions)
- Stock of any sort (chicken, veg, fish etc.)
- Water !
Add on top to add texture, colour and flavour. Try any of these:
- Sesame seeds (white or black)
- Cashew nuts
- Crushed peanuts
- Radishes, sliced
- Left-over chicken from Sunday's roast
- Boiled egg sliced in half
- Nori (seaweed sheets) cut into small strips
- Fresh coriander
- Fresh parsley
- Basil or Thai basil
- Wedge of lime
- Dried chilli flakes
- Fresh sliced chillies
1. Cook your noodles to packet instructions, drain and set aside. OR if you're doing a broth you could cook them in the broth later.
2. Chop your veggies. I would get them sliced as thin as you can so they cook quickly and evenly. But hey, if you prefer your veggies chunky then go for it. I use a julienne knife on carrots but you can just slice them into match-sticks. I spiralize courgettes but absolutely not essential. This step is the most time consuming, if you are going to do a broth you could always do the chopping later once your broth is simmering (during Step 6).
3. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a wok or deep pan and add your garlic and ginger and cook until softened (usually no more than 5 minutes).
4. Stir in your curry paste and cook for a further 2 minutes.
5. Decide what type of sauce you're going for and start throwing into your pan the things you've got from your 'Additions' list.
This really is a free-for-all so add what you think is right and keep adjusting to taste. This mixture is going to be a really rich, intensely flavoured mixture so it should be like a gloopy paste.
The only things to be careful with adding too liberally are the soy and fish sauces - add them slowly, you can always put more in later.
Cook these off for 4-5 minutes until they're all combined.
6. If you want a thicker sauce, skip now to step 7. If you want a broth this is the point to add your liquid of choice. One or two from the list will be fine and coconut milk is the obvious choice for the most authentic Asian dish. Water really will be okay if you have nothing else - your base will bring the flavours. Stir through your paste into the liquid and leave to simmer for 10 minutes until it reduces a little.
7. Add your noodles and stir to cover with sauce. If you're doing a broth and want to cook the noodles in it, now's the time to add those too, making sure they're fully immersed in liquid. Cook for the required time according to packet instructions, just as if you were doing in plain water.
8. Throw your chopped vegetables into your pan and coat them fully in your sauce, stirring well. Fry or simmer until the vegetables are cooked to your liking - I try not to do longer than about 5-6 minutes so that all the vegetables keep their vivid colour and crunchy texture.
9. Serve in a bowl and top with whatever toppings you have.
This recipe is featured in my e-book - How To Create Your Own Flourishing Pantry. Packed with ingredients, top tips, recipes and shopping lists, the book is designed to help you stock your kitchen for healthier eating. Want a copy? Sign up and I'll send it straight to your inbox.