Have you ever seen a recipe you’d love to try, except there’s one ingredient that you really hate? “No substitutions” may be a good rule in a greasy spoon, but it doesn’t apply in the kitchen. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you might surmise that I don’t go out of my way to conform my behavior to society’s standards. I’m not a sociopath. Really. I’m not. I just can’t see doing what I don’t enjoy in order to be considered correct. When you take a recipe and make a few changes, you are not committing sacrilege; you are inventing another dish.
I don’t consider myself a picky eater because I’m the one who does the grocery shopping. That means that I don’t buy things I won’t eat, like zucchini, green beans, or lamb. I don’t cook foods that I don’t like and I don’t include ingredients that a recipe calls for just so that I’ll make an exact duplicate of whatever. Sometimes that means I leave something out; sometimes it means I substitute. My favorite meatloaf is the Quaker Oats Classic Meatloaf recipe, but I don’t always have oatmeal in the house. I’ve substituted cracker crumbs, pretzel crumbs, crushed cereal, and packets of honey-nut instant oatmeal for the Old-Fashioned or Quick Oats in the recipe. Nobody died; nobody got sick; nobody even complained. If I’m going to make meatloaf, it’s not going to be the same each time because I might have something sitting around that I’d like to add. Raisins, for instance. Don’t groan; if you make an Italian meatloaf, add some raisins and pignoli nuts. I like a variety of textures and flavors, and the fruit and nuts do the trick.
Meatloaf is no longer a regular menu item at our house because I don’t actually like ground beef all that much. I think it’s kind of gross, which is why I’ll eat a kid’s burger and not a half-pounder. If I’m craving a burger, it’s more that I’m craving the burger experience than the meat. It doesn’t happen very often, anyway, and when it does I give half the burger to Charity. Charity is my dog (Charity Marie Doggie-Dog, to be exact).
Chili is one of my favorite dishes; it’s regularly featured at my table. Unfortunately, if you are going to make chili, you are going to use ground beef (or ground — ugh — turkey) and kidney beans. I don’t like kidney beans. You already know I don’t like ground beef. So how is it that I make a lot of chili? Easy! My chili has neither ingredient. Shoot! I’m not afraid to substitute main ingredients; if you’re willing to substitute sea salt for table salt, then you’re ready to go whole hog. Um… excuse the hog reference. Ground pork is the meat in my chili. Chip likes to repeat something a very wise man once told him: “If there’s beans in your chili, you don’t know beans about chili.” My agreement is totally self-serving.
Ground meat and gravy don’t make much of a main course either. I know some people like it, but it won’t fly here. Corn is my number-one favorite vegetable. Corn on the cob, creamed corn, corn chowder, corn bread, corn muffins, roast corn, sautéed corn — bring it on. Corn is what goes into my chili instead of kidney beans. I also used to make this with chili powder and Tabasco, but found that prepared seasoning mix took the guesswork out of the equation. This is not a chili that will appeal to everyone; it’s a don’t-knock-it-til-you’ve-tried-it suggestion.
Here’s the recipe for Bob’s Non-Conformist Chili. Feel free to change it to your own tastes.
1 pound ground pork
15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 medium onion
1 packet Mild Chili seasoning mix
1 can corn
While browning the pork in a frypan, chop ¾ of the onion and add to pork. Stir occasionally to break up the meat. Once the pork is browned, add tomato sauce, undrained corn, and seasoning mix. Stir. Cover. Let simmer over a very low heat a while. Use your judgment: if it seems too thick, thin with water, adding a tablespoon or so at a time.
When my daughters were little and not vegetarians, I served chili over white rice. I was surprised when I moved south that no one serves rice with chili. Heck, everyone in Louisiana has a rice cooker; I thought they served rice with everything. (For my vegetarian granddaughter, I substitute Boca crumbles for the pork. She’s not much of chili eater, but it still gets devoured, especially by the chief omnivore in our house.)
When you serve pork chili, many people won’t even realize they are not eating beef chili, but I don’t suggest serving this to your Orthodox Jewish friends, who also would not appreciate the toppings.
How to top this fabulous chili? Sour cream, grated Monterey Jack cheese, chopped onion (that ¼ onion you reserved), and tortilla chips. Each of these should be on the side so diners can build the chili “their way.” If you want to serve it authentic Bob-style, use those small round tortilla chips. If you want to eat it authentic Bob-style, you’ll forgo the fork or spoon and pick it up with the chips. Yum.
Most non-OCD cooks substitute ingredients all the time. Often it’s because someone won’t eat something (e.g., garlic, black pepper) or because there are dietary restrictions or allergies. It’s not a great act of bravery to substitute spices or liquids, and once you’ve experienced either an unchanged or improved dish, you’re ready to switch out on a grander scale.