Missing an ingredient for dinner? Rather than dash out to the shops, be brave and substitute in something you already have on hand. You may make a fantastic discovery, like I did with these Cilantro and Turmeric Fish BBQ Skewers. Serve them with steamed rice for a simple mid-week dinner.
Total Time Investment: 18 minutes + 1 Hour Marinating
When I first learnt to cook, I would slavishly follow the recipe, and wouldn’t even tackle a dish unless I had all the correct ingredients. Any measurements listed were to be arduously adhered to. To do otherwise was to guarantee that the meal would be a complete flop. Or so I thought.
Over time I have learnt that it is not necessary to strictly follow a recipe in order to put a meal on the table. And this realisation has been very freeing indeed. I can now weave whatever is in my fridge or pantry into a meal, rather than make that last minute dash to the shops. A willingness to improvise also means an end to all those ingredients that were only required for that one dish you didn’t like anyway, and will never cook again.
These days I am an ardent meal planner, which means I usually have all the ingredients I need for a meal on hand already. But I’m not infallible, and there are times I forget to buy key ingredients, or I don’t want to cook the meal on my plan, or everything has gone truly pear shaped and I just need to put something on the table. These are the days when substitutions make life so much easier.
BBQ Skewers – A Case Study In Ingredient Substitution
My Cilantro and Turmeric Fish BBQ Skewers are a great example of how substituting the ingredients in a recipe can still produce a delicious result. These BBQ skewers started life as a recipe by Luke Nguyen. I originally intended to stick quite closely to the recipe. However, on the day I came to cook the skewers the cosmos intervened.
Luke’s original recipe calls for red curry powder. I didn’t have red curry powder in the pantry, wouldn’t use it in any other recipe, and didn’t want to buy it for just one dish. I always have red curry paste on hand however, so used that instead. I substituted the earthy, dried turmeric in the original with the lighter, fresh turmeric I had lurking in the fridge. And lacking any yoghurt, I went with coconut milk from my store cupboard staples. Somewhere along the line I also forgot to buy a crucial ingredient listed in the recipe; dill. Not being a fan of dill anyway (and probably why I subconsciously forgot to buy it, truth be told), I used coriander/cilantro instead, saving me from an emergency dash to the shops.
The resulting fish BBQ skewers were good. Really good … if I do say so myself. Whilst my recipe bears little resemblance to Luke’s original, it is just as delicious. The substitutions worked because I stuck with Asian flavours I knew would work together.
People tell me one of the biggest challenges they face when it comes to putting dinner on the table is lack of ingredients, or should I say lack of the right ingredients. Sometimes it seems like none of the recipes you want to cook contain any of the ingredients you have on hand. There are two ways around this; you can go to the shops, which most of us really don’t want to do after a long day, or you can substitute ingredients.
If you are nervous about making substitutions in your cooking, start somewhere small. Swap out dried herbs for fresh herbs. Change up the vegetables listed in a stir fry for whatever you have in the fridge already. Use chicken in place of fish in a recipe. Think of the type of cuisine you are intending to cook, which can help you think of other ingredients that might work in the recipe. Stick to the flavour groupings usually found in whatever cuisine you are cooking and things will generally turn out fine.
A quick caveat though – savoury dishes are much easier to play with, and the chances of producing something edible if you tweak a dish remain high. The same cannot be said for baking. Baking is a science, and there are rules. And baking rules are not made to be broken, unless you really know what you are doing.
If you truly want to start playing with ingredient substitutions, then I highly recommend you invest in The Flavor Bible. I consider this to be one of the most valuable resources in my kitchen, and I use it almost every day. If I don’t have something listed in a recipe, I will look up the missing ingredient in the Flavor Bible to work out what could be used in its place. The book also lists the main flavour profiles for specialty cuisines, which helps me identify alternative ingredients I could use in a recipe. Seriously, if you have only one book in your kitchen, make it this one.
I really encourage you to start playing with your food. Be brave! You might just discover a new family favourite. And if it all goes horribly wrong, there is always take away.
Ingredient Substitutions for Cilantro & Turmeric Fish BBQ Skewers
Even though this recipe is already full of substitutions (see above) don’t be afraid to play with it further to make it your own.
Don’t like fish? I think this recipe would work very well with chicken.
Fresh turmeric can usually be found in Asian or Indian grocers. It freezes well, so if you find a supply stock up. And if you have difficulty sourcing fresh turmeric, use 1 – 2 teaspoons of dried turmeric instead.
Replace the red curry paste with any other Thai curry paste: green curry paste, panang curry paste or even yellow curry paste would all work.
Use coconut cream in place of the coconut milk. You could also use the yoghurt that was in the original recipe.
Try any neutral cooking oil in place of the peanut oil, although I wouldn’t use olive oil in this recipe. Sesame oil would work well. Likewise replace the coconut sugar with any other sugar you have on hand.
The coriander/cilantro is tricky to replace. You could try Thai basil or even normal basil. If you can’t source fresh coriander/cilantro then just leave it out. The bbq skewers will still have loads of flavour, and make a delicious meal.
Get Ahead With Cilantro & Turmeric Fish BBQ Skewers
The marinade for the fish can be made in advance, and kept in the fridge for 2 days, or frozen until required. Don’t refreeze the marinade once defrosted.
Whilst I specify a short marinade time in the recipe below, I have often marinated the fish overnight, then threaded it onto the skewers just before cooking.
Turmeric & Coriander Fish BBQ Skewers
- 1 kg (2.2 lbs) firm white fish
- 8 spring (green) onions white part only*
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 4cm piece fresh turmeric roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons red curry paste
- 60 ml (3 Tablespoons) coconut milk
- 60 ml (3 Tablespoons) fish sauce
- 40 ml (2 Tablespoons) peanut oil
- 3 Tablespoons coconut sugar
- 100 g (2/3 cup) coriander/cilantro roughly chopped
Blitz the spring onions garlic, turmeric, red curry paste, coconut milk, fish sauce, oil, and sugar together in a food processor or blender.
Add the cilantro/coriander and pulse until incorporated into the marinade. Set aside.
Cut the fish into 4cm pieces, and place into a large bowl.
Pour the marinade over the fish, and stir well to ensure the fish is thoroughly coated.
Marinate the fish for a minimum of 1 - 2 hours, or overnight.
Thread the fish pieces onto bamboo skewers^.
Cook on the BBQ, or on a grill plate, for about 5 - 7 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and cooked through. The actual cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fish.
Serve immediately with steamed rice.
Choose a firm fish that will not flake when cooked.
* The green parts of the spring onion can be sliced and frozen. Use them in omelettes, stir fries, fried rice, or anywhere you need spring onions.
^ If using bamboo skewers, soak them in cold water for at least 30 minutes to prevent them burning on the grill.