An easy route to wasting food (and money) is to follow recipes exactly and use or buy only the ingredients called for by those recipes; this almost guarantees odd quantities of leftover ingredients that have a tendency to be forgotten and go bad. Learning to adapt recipes to use whatever is on hand tends to improve overall efficiency of food use. Many recipes can be made successfully with substitutions and/or omissions; vegetables are especially suited to this approach. This is a key way to make use of CSA produce and save money on shopping, rather than hunting for unusual recipes that call for the exact mix of items you have on hand or buying extra produce to meet needs. Learning to judge when substitutions and omissions are or aren’t a good idea is a skill that comes with time. Here are a few pointers that we go by.
Starring role vs. minor role of ingredients: One obvious factor to consider is how big a role a given ingredient plays in a dish. French onion soup really does require onions. Sweet pepper salad is pretty dependent on fresh, colorful, sweet peppers. On the other hand, recipes that list ten vegetable ingredients will likely come out quite nicely if a few vegetables in minor roles are omitted or replaced with something else in season.
Preparation technique (sometimes) matters: Sweet potatoes and potatoes can often be substituted for each other. Either can work well for baking, roasting, grating into potato pancakes, or cubing into vegetable stews. Preparations involving mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are best achieved with regular potatoes, in our opinion, as sweet potatoes can easily turn kind of gummy when mashed. They’re not actively bad, but in our opinion a less ideal substitution. So, when deciding whether a substitute would be appropriate, think about how it will behave when prepared according to the cooking techniques of the recipe.
Think about the flavor: Of course, the flavor of the resulting dish will vary with substitutions, as well. In the potato/sweet potato example, the resulting flavor will differ in ways that are reasonably predictable if you’re familiar with the flavor of both. Sweet potato pie is a wonderful Thanksgiving dessert, but potato pie? No thanks. In that case, go for cooked & mashed/pureed winter squash or pumpkin, instead.
Consider texture: Sometimes the texture that a vegetable contributes to a dish is important. For example, carrots can add a nice crunch to a stir fry. Kohlrabi could fill in quite nicely in place of (or in addition to) carrots, because it has a similar nice crunch (and a bit of sweetness, as well).
Pay attention to what the recipe wants, not what it says: We had a friend in grad school who would often admonish others to “Listen to what I meant, not what I said.” Sometimes this is good advice for recipes, because they’re written assuming that everyone has access only to items generically available at a grocery store, but a bit of interpretation is required to identify the important attributes of a called-for ingredient. We’ve seen recipes that call for “1 large red bell pepper, chopped,” even though the recipe does not at all rely on the redness nor bell shape nor the singularity of one pepper. The color, size, and the bell shape are less important than the fact that the recipe is calling for the flavor & texture of ripe (colorful, not green) sweet peppers. Have several small yellow sweet peppers on hand? By all means, use them instead.
Think about (plant) family relationships: Sometimes looking to an alternate that has a close botanical relationship is a good way to achieve the desired flavor in a dish. For example, many main courses call for at least one member of the onion family (scallion, onion, garlic, leek, chive, etc.), generically known as alliums. In many cases, alliums can be substituted for each other with excellent results. Members of the very diverse brassica (broccoli) family can often stand in for each other, as well, depending on context. Kohlrabi, for example, could fill in for broccoli in a variety of situations, because the flavor is reminiscent and the crunchy texture is similar to that of a quality broccoli stem. The versatile kohlrabi could also stand in for another very different brassica, this time a leafy cabbage, particularly if grated for a slaw-type of preparation.
Substitute vegetable-appropriate cooking methods along with the vegetable substitution: For example, a recipe that calls for a sautéed onion may be delicious with, say, scallions substituted instead. However, don’t try cooking the scallions the way you would have the onion. If the white part of the scallion is strongly flavored, it may benefit from a brief cooking, but the greens are often best uncooked and added to the dish at the end. Likewise, garlic would require a shorter cooking time than the onion would have. In many cases, if you’re substituting an ingredient, you’ll want to bring the generic cooking techniques of that ingredient along with it as part of the substitution process.
Substituting fresh for preserved or preserved for fresh: Depending on the nature of the recipe, it might be possible to substitute the same item in a different state of freshness or preservation. A recipe that calls for canned tomato sauce can certainly be made with fresh tomatoes, though if they are especially juicy the cooking time may be longer. Have a recipe with fresh peppers, but only dried ones on hand? Dried ones will work in many contexts: great on pizza, maybe less ideal on salad. Fresh greens (such as spinach) can certainly be used where frozen ones are called for, and a very brief blanching can help to achieve the desired effect.
When almost-the-same is quite different: Sometimes produce that is “almost” the same can produce fairly notable differences in the resulting dish; this may be due to degree of ripeness or other factors. Fully ripe, colored peppers and green peppers can often be substituted for each other, though with a notably different flavor outcome. Sometimes green tomatoes can be substituted for ripe, but expect a totally different result. Depending on preferences of the diners, substituting a hot pepper for the sweet pepper might result in a pleasant zing.
Not sure? Consult the internet: Occasionally we’ll come across a recipe that intrigues us but we’re not entirely confident about the substitutions and/or omissions we want to make. This can be a good time to make use of recipe resources on the internet. There tend to be so many variants of recipes out there that they can provide a sense of the range of possibilities that are likely to yield something tasty. Sometimes the results will give us confidence in a variation we want to make, and occasionally we’ll find a recipe with good reviews that beautifully matches what we have on hand. CSA members can always ask us as well; we’re certainly familiar with preparing our own produce in diverse ways.
Good stuff in, good stuff out: We’ve found that when we put good ingredients into a recipe, the results tend to be pretty good, even if they are not always exactly what we had in mind. In our opinion, it’s much better to use good ingredients in something slightly experimental than to follow a recipe precisely with lousy ingredients. Garbage in, garbage out is certainly true when it comes to cooking. After growing most of our own food for a few years, we realized that it had been a very long time since we had made a meal that was truly bad, something that had formerly happened to us on occasion. Sure our cooking skills have matured somewhat, but we mainly credit this to the good ingredients; it is much harder to mess up a meal when everything that goes into it is high quality in the first place.
In the end, though, sometimes trial and error is the only way to find out what works well and what doesn’t. We thought grated sweet potatoes would work well in place of grated winter squash in a squash and leek lasagna recipe, but we were a bit disappointed in the results. The lasagna was still tasty, but not quite at the same level as the squash version, in part because the sweet potatoes were a bit dry. In other cases, substitutions have yielded results that were even better than the original. The diversity that results from substitutions can be a wonderful thing, and is worth exploring to get the most out of your CSA membership.