Sunday, November 11, 2007

How to get good food in the middle of nowhere?

Make it yourself. As much as I love going to restaurants, I've found that the best quality food is the food you make at home.

No matter how isolated a place is, there's still some great food. Jane and Michel Stern's Road Food column and Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt have pretty much proved that.

But you may not have access to classic French cuisine, American Fusion, decent Tex Mex, or mad scientist foam emulsions.

Sometimes, the only way you can get a good fancy meal is to make it at home.

As much as I complained about not finding Halibut in my last post, I can actually get most ingredients, or reasonable equivalents, within a 20-mile radius.

Now, I still can't get many specialty things, for there is no Whole Foods or Nino Salvaggio within my horizon. But 95% of the time, I can be flexible with the ingredients, find an appropriate substitute, and produce the dish I want to make, no matter how complicated or classy.

(Cooking in season also helps, but that's a topic to leave until Spring.)

Going back to my ceviche example from my last post: No halibut, but plenty of tilapia, and salmon, and tuna. Any of those could have stood in for the halibut. I went with the tuna because it is more similar in muscle structure to the halibut, and I know that it works great raw or near-raw. I'm not very familiar with raw salmon, and I know nothing about tilapia.

I have to substitute a lot. I do it so much it's almost automatic for me. For the pepper-encrused steak I made last night, I didn't even try to find the pickled green peppercorns. I knew it was a quixotic task--not even Williams-Sonoma would have them. But I knew I could find capers at the grocery store within walking distance. And capers are very similar in size, taste and texture to capers--salty, briny and green.

Substituting is pretty simple if you think about it--

Good Idea: capers instead of pickled green peppercorns.
Bad Idea: eggs instead of cheese.

Good Idea: oil instead of butter for a pancake batter.
Bad Idea: oil instead of butter for a pie crust.

Good Idea: applesauce instead of eggs in a browine batter.
Bad Idea: applesauce instead of eggs in a quiche.

Good Idea: semi-sweet chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
Bad Idea?: cocoa powder plus butter instead of milk chocolate.

That last one--using cocoa powder in place of chocolate--might not be a bad idea. If you are cooking something that needs just a little bit of chocolate, or doesn't rely on the cocoa butter for texture, like a mole sauce, this trick is fine. If you are cooking something that is chocolate heavy and relies on the cocoa butter for a smooth texture, like chocolate-coated berries or mousse, it will be a disaster.

It may seem difficult to swap out ingredients, but the more you cook, the easier it will get. The key is to cook and have fun. You'll have pride in your dish, will get many dishes you won't find or can't afford, and it'll be a whole lot cheaper. And don't be afraid to make mistakes. I know what doesn't work in large part because I've tried it, and it failed.

(p.s. I have to mention one thing about seasonal produce. Please, I emplore you, do NOT get fresh berries out of season, especially in the winter months. Please. Just get frozen, or forsake the berry dish. They will taste like wet cardboard. No amount of sugar, vanilla, or vodka in the world will help. The same goes with tomatoes, though if you have to, get vine-ripened or roast them.)


Computer King said...

Eggs instead of cheese? Definitely a bad idea. Especially in dishes that don't require high temperatures. Salmonella City...

The musishian said...

There was a Dilbert comic where he was trying to make soup, and didn't have all the ingredients. His line: "Eggs are like cheese from chickens."

I could not find a link to that comic, unfortunately.