Some staples that once were plentiful on grocery store shelves have become harder to find as people stocked up on items such as rice, black beans and potatoes to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak. Though these ingredients might be key to your favorite casserole, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a dish work without them.
Now is the time to try something new and play around with substitutions when you’re between grocery trips. Here are seven pantry items that Denver shoppers have reported difficulty finding in stores. Keep in mind that grocery stores are restocked frequently, so what’s out of stock today may be plentiful tomorrow.
One way to get around the shortage of potatoes (and beans) is to use lentils.
“I’m always amazed how people love recipes with lentils, and really there’s no trick to them,” said Paul C. Reilly, executive chef and co-owner of Beast + Bottle, Coperta and Pizzeria Coperta. “Lentils just don’t come into common kitchen use very often, but they’re gluten-free and cheap. And, seriously, we need comfort food right now, and there’s not really much more comfort than a bacon and lentil soup with crusty bread.”
Chef Sheamus Feeley of Denver’s Pony Up finds sweet potatoes work well if you can’t find russets. He roasts the sweet potatoes in their skins, then scoops out the soft flesh and whips it with butter, salt and any type of dairy or non-dairy cream or milk on hand. He also suggested mashing a vegetable like cauliflower.
“What’s also great about cooking cauliflower or vegetable purees is they don’t thicken up,” he said, noting that they also make great leftovers. “Someone can reheat it quickly when you don’t have time to do a lot of stuff.”
Black beans (even dried) have been the obvious legume choice around Denver. But there are other ways to get a similar hearty, starchy bite into your favorite recipe. Feeley suggested looking toward lentils, especially the black variety.
He blames his mom’s hippy sensibilities and his dad’s restaurant experience for why he still loves them so much.
“Black beans have strong fiber and hold together well, so black lentils or other types of lentils will also hold together,” he said. “If you’re making a three-bean chili and already have the pinto and kidney, instead of black bean you can add lentil, or even squash or zucchini, sweet potato or anything else like that in there to give it a starchy base and mouthfeel.”
If you need eggs for baking, Reilly suggests substituting applesauce, a quarter cup for each egg. It’s a trick that bakers use to make recipes vegan, he says. Applesauce is easy to make, too, so if you can’t find the jarred stuff in the supermarket, get some fresh apples, peel, cut, simmer and mash to make your own.
Another fruit that can take the place of eggs in baking is the banana, especially when used in sweet recipes. And the more ripe, the better.
“A banana works so well because of its high moisture content and its creaminess,” said Boulder’s Kate Lacroix, founder of the pantry organizing company Stocked. “A good rule of thumb is one banana equals one egg.”
Of all the ingredients that might be missing from grocery stores, rice may be one of the easiest to mimic.
“Cauliflower works as well as rice for its ability to be broken down without breaking down,” said Lacroix. “There is still integrity in the smallest piece of cauliflower, provided you don’t overcook it, and it’s fairly neutral-tasting so it absorbs whatever sauce or spice you may add to it.”
Chef Roy Benningfield from Salt in Boulder also suggests using items from the pasta section. Orzo, which looks like fat rice, is a good option, as is broken angel hair or spaghetti. There may even be gluten-free pastas available at the supermarket that you can cut up for a rice-like dish.
Other grains can work, too. James Doxon, executive chef for Vibe Concepts (Tstreet, Reivers, Boulder Depot and Spanky’s) suggests looking for farro, quinoa, amaranth and wheat berries.
“Other ancient grains might still be around, probably because people are scared of cooking them,” said Doxon, adding it’s likely easiest to find these at a health food store. “Fear not: There are generally good instructions either on the package or with a quick Google search.”
We aren’t sure why chicken is the protein most people have flocked to, but birds of a feather have stripped the item from many meat counters. When you must forgo chicken, Reilly suggests using tofu.
“Many chicken recipes can easily substitute tofu, which is delicious. It’s just inherently bland and needs very aggressive seasoning,” Reilly said. “I like to remove it from the packaging and place it between two paper towels and weigh it down with a jar in my fridge to remove excess water and get it ready for cooking.”
Don’t forget the seasoning, about twice the marinade or spice rub as you would use on chicken. Then grill it, saute it or fry, almost as you would poultry. And, speaking of poultry, there’s always turkey, which is larger and cooks practically the same.
Garlic goes so well in many dishes and cuisines, like a rich tomato sauce for pasta, chopped into a stir-fry or mixed with sauteed greens to give produce a savory bite. Because of its versatility, the one staple that Feeley keeps around is granulated garlic, which many groceries still have in stock. If using it to substitute for raw garlic, use a half-teaspoon per large garlic clove.
“Shallots also work, but it’s not going to be a ‘wow-it’s-perfect-and-I-don’t-miss-the-garlic’ sort of deal,” he said. “But it’s good if you’re doing simple pan work, like for roasted chicken.”
Feeley also has used green onion bottoms or leeks, sliced thin, to sweat out in butter or olive oil in lieu of garlic.
This might be the hardest ingredient to substitute since it’s necessary for most baking projects. After all, how can we make comforting chocolate chip cookies or pancakes without flour? Turns out, there are ways to work around it.
“If I found myself out of flour, I would look for some other grains in my house to grind up,” said Liliana Myers, the pastry chef at Safta. “Blenders make fantastic grain grinders in small batches; you just have to watch how hot you get them.”
She suggested using oats first, “as they have a fairly neutral flavor and work really well in most recipes.”
However, she added, since oats and some other grains and nuts don’t have gluten, you might want to throw a little cornstarch or potato starch into the mix to help bind it together. “You could do the same thing with rice, or popcorn that you have around the house. Just sift out the course bits.”
Also, check grocery shelves for other types of flour, like almond, chickpea, oat or whole wheat.
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