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Vegetarian Delights and Other Recipes

Ingredients and Substitutions

So, there you are, elbow deep in whole wheat flour, a pile of organic apples and eggplants at the ready, and suddenly you realize "oh my gosh!  I don't have any mirin!"  What do you do? Where do you go?  And just what the heck IS mirin anyway? 
Well never fear.  Help is at hand.  Here is some info on these odd ingredients, and some suggestions for substitutes.

Tofu is coagulated soy-bean curd.  It is also a chef's delight, since it can metamorphisize into any shape, flavour, colour or texture you can imagine.  It can take centre stage in a meal, or it can don a cloak of invisibility and disappear into the background.  It is my secret weapon, and like any secret weapon, I chose when to weild it openly and when to keep it hidden.  Being as versitile as it is, tofu comes in a variety of shapes and forms.  Read on for more information.

Soft Tofu:  Soft tofu is ideal for turning invisible.  It is available in the produce section of any well-stocked supermarket or health food store, and has the consistency of poorly-set jello.  Soft tofu begs to be mashed with a fork or potato masher and mixed into tomato sauce to add some secret bulk and protein to a lasagne or other casserole, or to whip in a blender, along with a couple of bananas, some juice, and whatever fruit is just past perfect in the fridge to make a yummy and healthy fruit drink.
Firm Tofu: Firm tofu, also available in supermarkets, is what you need when the tofu takes the starring role in a creation.  Varying from slightly wobbly to as firm as a block of cheese, this form of tofu can be cut, sliced, chopped, diced, and otherwise manipulated into the shape of your dreams.  It is perfect for barbecuing, frying, baking, sautéing, etc., for when you want the finished product to look like what it is.
Frozen Tofu:  Frozen tofu is exactly what it sounds like, and while you have to make it yourself, it's really easy.  Here is a recipe:  1. Take a block of tofu. 2. Put it in the freezer.  Frozen tofu has a very different texture to regular tofu, being more bready or grainy.  It also soaks up other flavours, especially from marinades, like a sponge, and it well worth playing around with.  When you want to use it, take the frozen tofu from the freezer, soak it in hot water until it is thawed through, and squeeze out as much liquid as you can.
Silken Tofu:  This variety of tofu can be bought in the supermarket, but it also magically comes in tetra-paks (available from heath food stores), which can be stored almost indefinitely until that dessert craving hits!  And that is mainly when I use silken tofu - for desserts.  It has a very smooth, soft texture, and is perfect for whipping up with chocolate and other delectables to create rich and creamy treats.  If you cannot find this variety, soft tofu works almost as well, and is a perfectly acceptable substitute (and vice versa).

Other Soy Products

Soy Milk:  This is becoming more and more readily available.  In the last few years, I have seen soy milk move from being a specialty item available only at great cost in health food stores to sitting there, along with the dairy, in nice big 2 litre containers, in any supermarket in the city.  Soy milk comes in a variety of flavours - plain, vanilla, chocolate, cappucino, etc, and from an ever-increasing number of producers.  They are all different, so experiment until you find the one you like.  You can substitute rice and other grain milks for soy milk, although they are not as rich, and in a pinch, you can always use regular cow's  milk!
Soy Sauce:  This brown, salty and flavourful liquid is available in any supermarket.  This is one of those "must-haves" for anyone interested in vegetarian cooking.  Luckily, it's also cheap! 
Tamari:  Tamari is a higher quailty soy sauce, without the grains often found in regular soy sauce.  It is also less salty.  I substitute one for the other quite freely.
Tempeh:  Tempeh is to tofu what cheese is to milk.  It is generally only availabe in specialty or health food shops, and comes in several forms and flavours.  It has a much more present flavour than tofu, and is not the thing to use when cooking for the tofu-phobic.  When accepted on its own terms, however, it adds an interesting and unusual flavour and texture to a meal.

Spices and Flavourings

Amchoor (AHM-choor): An East Indian seasoning made from powdered green (unripe) mangos, amchoor has a tart, acidic, fruity flavor that adds character to many dishes.  Amchoor is also called simply mango powder.  If you cannot find amchoor, you can use an equal quantity of sugar dissolved in vinegar (preferably a fruit vinegar) in its place.

Mirin: Mirin is a sweet rice wine that adds a sweet flavour to oriental dishes.  Well stocked healthfood stores tend to keep a variety of brands of mirin on the shelves, as should upper-end supermarkets, especially ones appealing to the gourmet market.  Cooking sherry does the trick quite nicely if you need to substitute. 

Et Cetera

Tahini: Tahini (or tachina, or various other spellings) is a paste made from sesame seeds, somewhat akin to peanut butter.  It is quite readily available, especially in healthfood or specialty grocery stores.  If you can't find it, or want to cut down on the amount of fat in the dish, you can substitute a slightly lesser quantity of ground roasted sesame seeds.  Ground roasted sesame seeds have the added bonus of being a fairly high source of calcium, as well as being amazingly yummy, but it does change the flavour of the final product somewhat.