by Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer
When we think about the foods that make up our everyday lives, we usually have a set conception of what the raw material is that constitutes those most familiar dishes. What could be more essential and simple for an enjoyable picnic than a crispy, crunchy and salty bag of potato chips? Sitting in the darkness of the movie theatre is always the perfect occasion to reach for hefty handful of buttery popcorn. What party food could be easier to order than a pizza atop a wheat flour crust? While these classic snacks are at the forefront on our minds when we think about time and place, the building blocks of these meals have the flexibility to allow for some creative and experimental approaches. For example, instead of the always-familiar crunch of a cheese puff, many may find they enjoy the flavor when they chomp into a kale chip or chickpea crisp.
Starches like wheat, corn and potatoes make up an integral part of our diet. The opportunity to sink your fork into a plate piled high with spaghetti or fettuccine, and as a result storing up energy from those grains within your system is not merely a means to ensure continued survival but a comforting and enjoyable experience. Loading up on carbohydrates in a tried-and-true manner may not appeal to everyone, but it could provide an adventurous experience for those who might want a new take on the old stand by. You may find that a broccoli floret or carrot noodles add a new dimension to a dish that has conventionally been served atop white rice.
Pure culinary innovation is not the only motivation that many eaters have for replacing their favorite potato au gratin with a cauliflower twist. Many food swappers are looking to incorporate more vegetables into their diet, utilizing their similar textures or cooking properties to starches while getting more of the vitamins and minerals they need for better metabolic health. For some, this might be a major strategy for following a particular dieting plan, many of which are intended to reduce the consumption of carbohydrates and perhaps to add in more proteins with the desired result of realizing weight loss.
Many low-carb weight loss plans such as Paleo, South Beach, or Atkins diet resonate with the keto or ketogenic diet (health.harvard.edu). The major difference between these plans and and the true keto diet is that while other diets exclude grains and starches in favor of meat and other protein rich items, ketogenic diets depend on fat as the central source of daily calories. By removing carb-rich foods in favor of healthy fats present in foods like almonds, olive oil or avocados, ketogenic dieters force their bodies to manufacture and consume energy in a different way. Instead of relying on the glucose or sugar drawn from carbohydrates in fruit, pasta, breads, or vegetables, the body relies on its fat stores which the liver will convert into ketone bodies to fuel the body. While this reduction of fat stores can make ketogenic or similar strategies very attractive to dieters, the emphasis on fats and proteins at the exclusion of other foods can carry a number of risks, such as a deficiency in necessary nutrients, the exacerbation of liver conditions through the increased reliance on it to metabolize fat, overstressing the kidneys by consuming additional protein, digestive issues from a lack of fiber, and the denial of sugar to the brain which can lead to mood swings and poor brain function. With these downsides in mind, those looking to lose weight should think twice about throwing out their rice and pasta. Instead, they should consult with their doctor and nutritionist before engaging in ketogenics or any other dieting plan.
While experimenting with your nutritional balance can carry some risks and should not be taken on lightly, experimentation with food swaps to build a new variety into your dinner planning can be fun and delicious! One common ingredient in many of these dishes is the surprisingly versatile cauliflower. Who knew that this seemingly innocuous, and dare I say bland, pasty vegetable had hidden depths of incredible versatility? Shoppers in the Willy Street Co-op frozen section can now experience this veggie’s beautiful bloom when they are craving an easy-to-make slice. Caulipower Pizza Crusts are made from cauliflower and brown rice flour, making them gluten-free but just as tasty as their wheat-flour counterpart. But that isn’t all it can do. Imagine your favorite casserole, steeped in a rich creamy sauce or thick layers of cheese, but once you dive beneath the surface your fork returns not with the simple spud but soft, tantalizing crunch of the cauliflower. This alternative texture can bring a new experience to many dishes. Consider, instead of the usual hashbrown, roasting cauliflower in the oven with oil, salt, and your favorite seasonings. The effect of the heat not only tenderizes this crunchy vegetable, but also releases its latent sweetness.
Probably no other method of preparation quite transforms this veggie into a multifaceted ingredient so much as cauliflower rice. This rising star of food trends (see Megan Minnick’s article for more information) is available as a local item from your nearest Co-op and can be readily prepared and added to your favorite dish. If you have the time, tenacity and a food processor, you can even make this starch substitute at home. To prepare, just cut the florets from a small head of cauliflower and gradually pulse in your processor until only small, rice-size grains remain. If you are in a pinch, a box grater is a viable substitute. Add these cauliflower kernels to a skillet with a tablespoon of oil and cook over low heat until they are just tender. Once they are cooled, your “rice” is ready for use, or can be stored in refrigeration until it is called for. Serve it hot with your favorite stir-fry in order to skip the filling sensation of rice while enjoying the added vegetable fiber.
If you enjoy egg and cheese as a part of your diet but are looking to use veggies as a gluten-free alternative, you might be curious to experiment with cauliflower rice to create a sort of cauliflower “bread.” One example is a cheesy cauliflower breadstick made by converting your “rice” into dough. To do so, instead of sautéing your cauliflower rice, bake it for 20 minutes and once cooled, use a towel to squeeze out and remove as much moisture as possible. By combining with eggs, cheese and seasoning, you will have a dough like substance, which you can press out flat and bake to make bread. Melt some cheese on top, and you have a tasty gluten-free snack.
Cauliflower isn’t the only vegetable that can be morphed into a new bread type. Grated zucchini can be employed to make something like a rustic pizza—a great way to put all that summer squash to good use. By combining the strained shreddings of a zucchini with eggs and flour, you’ll find your hands on a pizza dough. Sprinkle with corn meal and then spread out over a baking sheet before adding your favorite toppings. After baking, you’ll be ready to take a bite of something a bit like pizza, and a bit like frittata.
If you have some picky eaters on your hands, finding creative ways to incorporate vegetables into more palatable forms like pizza might be the only way to get them to eat their greens. In addition to sadly underrated zucchini, probably no vegetable is more unfairly despised than that ever-downtrodden broccoli. While its close cousin the cauliflower has seen many an opportunity to shine in new venues, broccoli has just as much potential, and for some, might be preferable when it comes to flavor. If a simple steam just isn’t winning anyone over, you can recruit some converts by crossing over into potato territory. Just start by blanching the broccoli for a minute in boiling water, and then chop it down to a fine size. Once mixed with diced onion, breadcrumbs, cheese, and eggs, without forgetting whatever salt and seasonings you like best, you will have dough ready to shape into that familiar tot form. Bake these bite-size morsels until crispy, and you’re ready to dunk broccoli tots in ketchup or aioli.
With so many breads and other starch swaps to be considered, vegetable pastas should not be forgotten. While the doughs of other vegetable substitute recipes require grinding, cutting, processing and straining of vegetables, there is one piece of produce clearly born to rival any gluten-rich noodle—the aptly named spaghetti squash. When baked, the innards of this yellow gourd transform, and with the scrape of a fork, take on the shape and consistency of baked spaghetti noodles. Top these squash shreds with your favorite marinara and you’re in for an easy-to-make dish packed with vegetables that will rival the run of-the-mill spaghetti dinner. For added fun, halve your squash before you bake it to make a boat and add some sauce, cheese and maybe a few pepperoni for a self contained spaghetti bake.
Looking for a little more color or variety for your vegetable pasta? Ask your friendly Willy Street Co-op Produce clerks about spiralized vegetables. Made from zucchini, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and red beets, these vegetables are cut into long strands, and can be prepared in a sauté pan, baked in the oven, or boiled for any of the oodles of pasta recipes you could think to prep. A nice plate of zucchini “zoodles” make a perfect bed for that chicken or eggplant parmesan. If you happen to pick up a spiralizer of your own, be sure to give carrot noodles a go. These orange strands are perfect to sop up a nice peanut sauce or to tag in for cauliflower rice for a new twist.
Many of the current food substitution trends focus on replacing carbohydrates with vegetables, but if you are just looking to expand your flavor horizons, you won’t want to leave fruit out in the cold. Switch out those tomatoes in your homemade pico de gallo for some small chunks of mango or roasted, diced apples to create a fruity chutney or salsa. Pears and pineapples can also be rotated in according to the season to keep this simple sauce fresh. If you have some spare pie dough sitting around, it can be cut into the perfect chip to complement this fruity substitute. Just sprinkle on cinnamon and sugar to strips of dough and then bake until crisp. This makes for a fast and easy treat while you’re waiting on a homemade pie.
Sweet Potato Hash
While many food substitutions add a flare to the more run-of-the-mill dish, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used to bring something familiar into a new light, and no piece of produce better illustrates this than that superfood sweet potato. When ordinary hashbrowns have become played out, a hearty sweet potato hash is just the thing to pack in more vitamins and flavor to a midwinter meal. To prepare, just cut your sweet potatoes down to size, add oil, and broil until crisp. Combine your browns with sautéed onion, and maybe some chopped celery as well for a sweet fragrant flavor similar to mirepoix. If you have a Dutch oven handy, this vegan-friendly meal is perfect for slow roasting in cast iron or over the stove top. This versatile dish can be made with spicier flavors as well and is just as cheese-friendly as potato hash (a smoky gouda from our Cheese department juxtaposes with the sweeter flavors for a beautiful complexity.
Food substitutions continue to be a popular trend and provide a practical but delectable way to eat more vegetables or avoid an excess of starch. The strategies for swapping above merely scratch the surface of all your produce can do. While you may never look at a cauliflower the same way, there are many more recipes to discover and experiment with, and a wide variety of products to experiment with in your kitchen laboratory.