Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Improvising in the kitchen (with NYC black and whites)

I decided it was time. I had managed to secure the required lemon and orange zest, and I was finally going to make New York City Black and White cookies, Vegan-style, with the help of that awesome cookbook-find, "Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar." As I assembled my ingredients, I realized the horrible truth.

I was out of soy milk.

No worries though. I'm not a vegan (or a strick vegetarian, considering my fish-eating and love of Jell-O... don't judge). What I did have was skim cow's milk. I'm not a big fan of milk (it just tastes bad), though I am in love with such diary products as ice cream, cheese, and yogurt. However, I don't live alone and my boys, they love milk, so we usually have some on hand. No big deal. I just made the substitution, and my vegan black and whites became not-vegan, just like that.

Did the world end? Hardly. I admit to feeling a bit guilty for changing the recipe, but then I had the thought: why? One of the things I love about this particular cookie cookbook is it doesn't have that pretense set up that their way is the only way (or even the best way.). The recipes don't even start until page 32. Before that, Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero take great care to explain how one might want to substitute one ingredient for another in their recipes and how one could go about doing just that. Need gluten-free? They explain the conversion process between wheat-flour and gluten-free flours. They even offer their own "perfect" gluten-free flour combo. Diabetic? They explain cane sugar alternatives. 

The truth is substitutions in cooking are not only okay, sometimes they are downright necessary. 

I have a cousin who recently found out her kids are allergic to wheat. One is also allergic to soy. I can't imagine what it's like to have to suddenly learn to cook with that strict of a restriction. There are a lot of people out there who do know, because they've done it. Those of us who can eat soy, wheat, nuts, shellfish, etc, we can't know what's it's like to cook without it. Or to be the kid who has to avoid the birthday cake at your best friend's birthday or avoid the kid who ate peanut butter for lunch because his breath alone might kill you.

However, if you are or know someone who does have these problems with certain foods, it's not as difficult to do as you might think it is (though it does require more effort and perhaps, a slightly larger allotted food budget. Sun butter ain't cheap, folks.). It's all about substitutions. By some twist of fate, I was out of soy milk. Look at it another way and I just made my cookies one step closer to safe for my cousin's kids. These babies are soy free.

Like it or not, food allergies, for whatever the reason, are on the rise. Dietary restrictions are common. I saw an article a few months back, featuring Sandra Beasley's allergy girl as an example, that discussed this topic in regards to children's birthday parties. That article suggested that the host should make sure to ask about any dietary restrictions right in the invitation for the allergic guest's parent to fill out when RSVPing. I admire the spirit of this suggestion, particularly in light of the recent parent picket in Florida in which the parents demanded a young girl with a severe peanut allergy be home-schooled. However, asking for dietary restrictions from every guest means a parent hosting a party will have to cater to every potentially expensive dietary whim of the parents of the party guests (little Suzy can only eat organic), not no mention if these whims clash (Ed is vegetarian and Bobby doesn't eat carbs). I've noticed that parents have a way of making sure you know if their children have serious restrictions. My son's best friend is Muslim and his mom was sure to mention that he could not have pork (I assured her that, as I'm vegetarian, there is always a nonpork option. Always.).

If you know, though, that someone does have an allergy, I encourage you to take that step without provocation, and just make food that child can eat with everyone else. It seems like a lot. In the article on children's birthday parties I mentioned before, they included only one gluten free cupcake recipe and one of the ingredients in it was coffee (because that's a wise move at a children's birthday party...). It doesn't seem like there are a lot of options out there, but if you know how to substitute ingredients, you can make these adjustments in any recipe you have. I can relate to being the only one in the room who can't eat anything on the food table. Meat-eating is still the dominant mode, and there are several restaurants I can't eat at because even the salads come with meat on them (I know, you can hold the meat, but I'm not paying the price of meat when all I'm getting is a salad). 

It's not hard to learn substitutions, and I encourage you to pick up a copy of "Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar" if you are interested in non-egg binding agents, sugar alternatives, or gluten-free options. If that's not for you, keep in mind that the internet can be a great resource for recipes, as well as suggestions for substitutions. If you are a reader of mine and you have allergies that make some of my recipes useless to you (or so you thought), keep in mind, that you can always substitute. Can't eat soy but you are okay eating meat? I'll bet chicken would work fine. Can't have wheat flour? Try oat flour, rice flour, or millet flour (I really love the texture of a baked good made from millet flour). I also hear spelt has some gluten, but significantly less than wheat. You could experiment with spelt flour. There is an endless list. Can't have diary? There are a growing number of diary alternatives: soy milk, hemp millk, even almond yogurt.

You might feel guilty at first, but don't. You might worry about the outcome of your cooking. Maybe it won't turn out right because of the substitution. I'm here to tell you that, yes, some adjustments may need to be made (chicken usually takes longer to cook than soy, for example), but I'm big with substitutions. Everybody, whether they have an allergy or not, has a dietary restriction in some way or another. Some people only like food that is white in color (an admittedly extreme example). Some people value local foods. Some value organic. Some people don't eat carbs. Some people don't like red meat. Some don't eat meat at all. I don't like onions, so I either go without when a recipe calls for them or I substitute with celery (similar texture, different taste). I don't eat meat, so when a recipe calls for meat, I have to get creative. It doesn't stop me from using the recipe. That's really what it means to Kate-ify. It means substituting out what the recipe requires of me for what I like or have on hand.

I love my cookie recipe book for making it okay to substitute. There are many books that make it practically a crime. (I recently got "Babycakes Covers The Classics," (it's a gluten-free vegan baking cookbook) which uses high-priced ingredients and expressly states that you should make no substitutions. Like it would kill the recipe to use corn starch instead of arrowroot.) I can tell you that I always make substitutions and whether or not the recipe I've Kate-ified says it's okay to substitute, the result has turned out fine. Gwyneth Paltrow's new cookbook ( "My Father's Daughter") is another that uses fancy ingredients, but unlike "Babycakes," she understands that not everyone has her food budget. Not everyone, after all, can be Gwyneth Paltrow, so she offers suggestions of substitutions for the more expensive items in her pantry right on page 44.

What I'm trying to say is: experiment. Try things out. What's on the recipe page isn't set in stone. It's on a piece of paper. If it makes you feel better, you can white out the original ingredient and write in the one you used. The world will not end. The food will taste good, and sure, you might end up with a few flops. Every flop, though, is a learning experience, a mistake you won't make next time. Who knows when your kid will come home and announce that his new best friend is allergic to eggs or when that woman you just met who can't eat wheat grows to become your maid of honor. Wouldn't you want her to be able to eat the cake at your bridal shower? Substitutions. They work.

So I didn't have soy milk. My non-vegan cookies tasted so good. Just as good as they would have with soy milk. It's not a big deal unless you make it into one.