Friday, September 21, 2012

Foodie Faves: The Cook's Thesaurus

Spend enough time cruising the internet, and you’ll invariably come across a source you hadn’t known existed. And so it is with today’s favorite. I found The Cook’s Thesaurus when I was making that delicious Fish Chowder I posted about recently. The recipe called for “strong fish stock, traditional fish stock, chicken stock or water (as a last resort).” Well, I didn’t have fish stock, strong or otherwise, and those of you who know me – and don’t you all know me by now? – know that I don’t do much “as a last resort.” I’m more likely to make a run to the grocery store at 11 o’clock at night because the right ingredient is...well, the right ingredient and I need it NOW.

So I had chicken stock; I also had bottled clam broth, which I thought would be good with the chicken stock. But I wanted at least one more vote in favor. I hunted around on the web, and up popped The Cook’s Thesaurus. There, in black and white, was the entry:

fish stock  Substitutes: fish broth (less salty) OR equal parts chicken broth and water OR clam juice (saltier)”

Then as I poked around the site, I found a wealth of information on substitutes for almost anything you could mention. As well as tidbits about herbs and spices, condiments (listed by culinary culture), dairy products, and on and on. Clearly written, easy to understand, and with great photos.

It’s just chockablock with tidbits of culinary knowledge that I’ve “known” but never really gotten the specifics of – like the amount of garlic powder (⅛ teaspoon) that’s the equivalent of one garlic clove.

It tells you which herbs (like rosemary or sage or oregano) are equally good in the dried form as fresh, and which really need to be fresh (like chives or basil or dill). And here’s one I didn’t know (amazing, yes?): dill loses flavor when it’s heated, so wait till the last minute to add it to hot dishes.

Here’s a tasting of what you’ll learn on a visit:

■Freshly cut fruits or vegetables won’t darken if you put them in acidulated water – that’s water with a small amount of vinegar or lemon juice. The proportions are 1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice/vinegar to one quart of water. I knew the first part but not the proportions.

■Store cheese near the bottom of the refrigerator, where the temperature is relatively more stable. But don’t freeze it, as freezing ruins the flavor. [The Kitchen Goddess’s favorite cheese guy says to always remove cheese from the fridge a half hour before serving. Except for goat cheese, which needs only 5-10 minutes.]

■Does your recipe call for buttermilk? Make your own by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk and let it stand for 10 minutes. Or you can use plain, low-fat yogurt. Or sour cream. Or a cup of milk mixed with 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar, and let stand 10 minutes.

■For breading meat or fish, if you’re out of breadcrumbs, try crushed cornflakes (or other cereal) or crushed crackers, or even crushed corn chips or pretzels.

■The recipe calls for striped bass, but you can’t find any. Try any of these: grouper, sea bass, tilefish, halibut, salmon (!) or blackfish.

■Elephant garlic – those giant heads that look like garlic but come in a mesh bag – are more closely related to leeks than garlic, and therefore milder than regular garlic. Use it to get the flavor of garlic but a less potent taste.

■Out of fresh parsley? Try substituting chervil or celery tops or cilantro. Frozen parsley is acceptable, and all are preferable to dried parsley, which has about the same flavor as yesterday’s newspaper. And FYI, Italian parsley is much more flavorful than curly parsley. [Needless to say, the Kitchen Goddess knew that, but I throw it into this piece to demonstrate the breadth of information available at the Cook’s Thesaurus.]

And here’s a real kicker which I plan to try soon: If you are sauteing food, you can substitute flat beer for the butter. (Three tablespoon of flat beer for every tablespoon of butter called for in the recipe.) Go figure.


  1. So, here I was...afraid that I would learn nothing new today...and here comes Lee with Spoon and Ink...
    flat beer for butter. I mean, wow! These little bits of new info tickle me...can't wait to try.

    Eileen in Atlanta

  2. Thanks, Eileen. I'll be traveling for a couple of weeks, so if you try that flat-beer-for-butter thing, I'd love to hear how it went.