No flour? No sweat! 

Keep it casual in the kitchen: The fine art of substitution

click to enlarge PHOTO: COURTESY, NEAL HARKINS - NO HOLDING BACK THE SUBSTITUTIONS Hailey Harkins and her dad, Neal, executive chef at Whistler Conference Centre, are no strangers to ad libbing in the kitchen. 
  • Photo: Courtesy, Neal Harkins
  • NO HOLDING BACK THE SUBSTITUTIONS Hailey Harkins and her dad, Neal, executive chef at Whistler Conference Centre, are no strangers to ad libbing in the kitchen. 

"You don't want to be held back when the substitution comes..."

Silversun Pickups' "Substitution"

We've all faced it one time or another: the dreaded substitution game.

It might not feel quite as shattering as when your hoped-for gorgeous dinner companion gets switched for the host's grandpa or the reporter subs in new last-minute questions during your first interview. But when you're halfway through whipping up something in the kitchen — be it an exotic dish for tonight's dinner party or something more offhand — and you run out of X, at the very least you don't want to be "held back" like the Pickups suggest as, with great hope, you cross your fingers and substitute. (BTW the very cool Silversun Pickups was the house band for this year's Film Independent Spirit Awards, which recognize indie filmmakers without tons of money.)

Long ago when supplies of all sorts were limited by little things like the Great Depression, a couple of World Wars, or simply living in places so remote — if you can imagine it — anything as handy as an actual store, never mind Fed Ex, didn't configure, substitutions were a way of life. No hunky blondes around? Grab a practical brunette prairie boy. No raisins for the cookies? Ad lib with last year's jam.

Now substitutions in the kitchen, like so many other things that demand ingenuity, confidence and some flair, are pretty much a forgotten art.

All this hit me the other day when I was partway through my favourite muffin recipe (see below) and I ran out of flour. That wasn't too tricky in a recipe loaded with bran and wheat germ (I added more of both), but my first impulse was to run to the store.

Then I thought, wait a minute! That's the kind of thing that blocks people from cooking. We think we have to have a perfectly stocked kitchen loaded with every ingredient for everything we might want to make. Staying organized; huge shopping lists — it all feels so intimidating and I bet it stops tons of people before they start.

My next thought was, I wonder if professional chefs substitute ingredients? Picture it: you're whipping up a "pow" entrée for 100 people and, oops, no milk for the béchamel sauce.

Out of curiosity, I dialed up one of the busiest and most relaxed chefs I know. Neal Harkins, executive chef at the Whistler Conference Centre where they can host up to a mere 1,200 people for a sit-down dinner, cut his catering teeth on a Mothers' Day brunch for 4,000.

Substitutions? "We do that all the time — we do it at work and we do it at home!" Neal says, laughing.

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